Somewhere between hiking and running there’s an unexplored, in-between world waiting for you — one that offers the peace and nature-immersion of hiking with the health and mileage of running. Lace up your shoes and fill up that water bottle. We’re taking your first steps into trail running!
Why Trail Running?
First, let’s put off the dire warnings of non-runners who are likely to tell you, “You’ll blow your knees out.” Increasing research shows that consistent use of joints is the best way to keep them healthy. The living room couch and the office chair threaten your well-being more than running shoes. Shall we press on?
Having been an avid backpacker, hunter, and marathoner for years, it wasn’t until I began training for an ultramarathon that I discovered the magic of trail running. Instead of pounding out grueling miles on the pavement, my feet were navigating diverse single-track trails comprised of packed dirt, chunky limestone, mud, gravel, downed trees, standing water, and a host of other surprises that made each bend a guessing game of what was coming next. Trail running is an adventure.
The mental game of intentionally choosing placement for each footfall was a new and more stimulating way to engage my brain as the miles slipped by. Turns out, trail running is fun. And since your body is constantly adapting to the changing terrain, you’re less likely to suffer repetitive stress injuries.
Trail running also does more to engage the fitness of your whole body, especially your core as you work to stabilize yourself over changing terrain. Creek crossings, tree trunks on the trail, ice, gnarly rocks, you’ve got to learn to almost “flow” over them all. They’re part of your course and require different contortions of your body.
At this point, you might be wondering, What about walking? Is that allowed in trail running?
Absolutely. Whether it’s part of your interval training, the trickiness of the trail, just to recuperate, or working out some cramps, walking can be as much a part of your trail running as you like.
But the best part of trail running is the unique insight into the natural world it provides. I’ve run into groups of late-winter deer browsing in the timber, their white tails bounding off ahead of me as if I were running with the herd. I’ve stopped for a breather to admire the bright-yellow hash marks on a box turtle in no hurry crossing the trail. I’ve seen lush, green life pump itself back into the forest as I weekly ran the same trail from winter into late spring. I felt connected to that ecosystem in a way I had with few others. Trail running created a unique familiarity with the forests and wildlife, like that of an old friend.
Empty your vehicle of any valuables before leaving for the trailhead. If you can’t do that, stow them out of sight in your vehicle so they don’t attract a potential parking lot break-in. Take your keys with you and don’t hide them on your parked vehicle.
Get the Gear
Ready to get going? Let’s go over some of the gear considerations to help you have the best experience possible.
Shoes are the connection between you and the trail, making them top priority in your trail-running equation. A great shoe is going to be heavier and more rugged than a typical running shoe, yet lighter and more flexible than a hiking boot. In a world built for online shopping, this is where stopping in at your local running store outweighs the convenience of ordering over the internet.
A trained salesperson can diagnose your gait and make suggestions based on the type of trails you’ll be on. Will it be rocky? Muddy? Sandy? Wet? Snowy? Those answers will inform the kind of shoe you purchase. Should you get shoes with a waterproof membrane? A stiff shank in the sole to protect against sharp rocks? Shoes are always a good investment, and you typically get what you pay for. Consider tossing in a couple pairs of wool or synthetic socks, too.
Clothing can be simple. Just dress comfortably for the weather and conditions with apparel made of sweat-wicking material. Since you never know what the trail may throw at you, keeping a change of clothes at your vehicle will keep your car seats clean. After a few sweaty or muddy miles, a set of clean clothes to change into will feel like a decadence.
If your runs are under two or three miles, a simple water bottle may be sufficient for on-the-trail hydration, especially if there are no drinking fountains available. Longer miles and longer durations on the trail may require a hydration belt capable of holding water and some high-energy snacks.
If you really plan on going the distance, an endurance vest is a great tool. Spacious enough for water, snacks, energy gels, cell phone, electrolyte drinks, rain jacket, salt tabs, and other goodies, these vests are designed to cinch down against your body to minimize the bouncing and jostling of your gear.
While we’re on the topic of gear, let’s stop at a scenic overlook for a minute and discuss technology. Trail running can be done as simply as you like. No phone, no GPS watch, no heart rate monitor, no earbuds, just you and the trail. Or you can add in devices to augment your performance and data collection. Just maintain awareness of the trail and others around you, and there is no wrong answer here.
My longest trail runs training for the ultra were over 25 miles, so, technology-wise, I’d take my fully charged phone, earbuds for music (but only using one ear at a time so I could hear others on the trail), and my GPS watch. Call me old fashioned, but despite having digital GPS maps, I still like to grab a hardcopy conservation area brochure at the trailhead, just in case. These brochures also point out features you may want to incorporate into your route, like springs, scenic overlooks, or on the practical side, restrooms.
Play It Safe
You may have all the right gear, but your brain is still the best tool to keep you safe and having a great time as you pound the path. While trail running is less likely to induce repetitive stress injuries, given the changing and uneven nature of most trails, there is a chance of a misstep, resulting in a twisted ankle, bumps, bruises, or even a fall. Use your judgment and go at a pace that allows you to choose where you’ll place your feet and a pace that allows you to stop if need be. Overrunning your legs changes your center of gravity, making you more likely to stumble if you put down a bad step. Shorter strides with your feet directly under you will give you the best chance at recovering from a misstep.
Boost the safety factor by running with a buddy. Not only is it more fun, but you’ll have someone to snap a few pics of you, and they can help in case something happens. If you run alone, like I do, be sure you’ve let someone know where you’ll be, where you’ll park, and about what time you’ll be out. You can also enable your phone and certain apps to report your location to a friend or family member if you’re in an area with cell coverage.
You’ll also want to be realistic about your ability. Trail running can turn from adventure to misadventure if you overestimate the ground you think you can cover. Or maybe the mileage is fine, but the elevation gain is greater than what you’ve done before. Perhaps you’ve only ever run on pavement. Five miles on a trail is probably going to be more challenging than five miles on the road. Extreme heat and cold can also affect your performance and ability.
Which is where nutrition comes in. As a trail runner, managing hydration is crucial. The quick rule is to never let yourself get thirsty. Thirst is a lagging indicator of hydration and by the time your mouth is dry, you’ve already become dehydrated, so be sure to stay ahead of it.
For longer efforts, and runs that really bring on a sweat, maintaining electrolytes will keep you performing at a higher level and stave off cramping. On greater distances, especially in our Missouri summers, I like to load my endurance vest with one bottle of straight water and the other with a high-concentration electrolyte drink. With both bottles onboard, I can play mixologist on the trail and sip to suit my needs.
Tracking Tech for the Trail
There are lots of options for GPS mapping apps to choose from. Here are some of the best:
- Map My Run
- Run Keeper
- Nike Run Club
Kit for Going the Long Haul
- Medical tape
- Energy gel
- Area map
- GPS watch
- Water bottles
Also In This Issue
Timber stand improvement and habitat management benefits turkeys and other species.
This Issue's Staff
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Larry Archer
Photography Editor - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Staff Writer – Dianne Van Dien
Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Circulation - Laura Scheuler