3 Things Every New Trail Runner Needs to Know

These tips will ensure you stay happy (and upright) as you navigate tough terrain. – By Jenny Hadfield

Casey Crafford

Casey Crafford

Trail running provides a myriad of benefits for road runners – including improved strength, balance, and stamina – but my favourite reason to hit the trails is that they require 100 percent of your attention. Before you head off the beaten path, keep these three tips in mind:

Forget about pace.

Adjust your expectations and run by perceived effort. Not only will your running pace be slower on the trails, you will fatigue a lot more quickly as well, especially if you’re just starting out. Running a given distance off-road can take you up to twice as long as your normal road runs. Focus on finding your new rhythm on the trails, run by your effort level, and let your pace simply be the outcome of your performance.

Get into the flow of trail and run by the terrain, using walking to keep your effort level steady even up steep inclines. Many ultrarunners walk the uphills and run the flat bits and downhills. This technique will allow you to run stronger and adapt to the new demands of running on the trails. In a matter of weeks, you’ll be running up hills you used to walk, and you’ll develop a sense of being one with the terrain.

Run by minutes rather than kilometres, and within your means.

Because your pace will be slower, it is wise to run by minutes rather than distance until you gain a sense of trail pace. A great way to get started and develop trail confidence is to run a simple out-and-back course – this reduces the chance of getting lost and assures you will run the approximate length of time you intend to run. From there, you can design routes to fit your fitness, experience, and goals.

Like any new sport, it is wise to build your trail time slowly, starting with 30 minutes and building to longer runs as your trail fitness evolves. Although the impact forces are lessened on soft trails, the energy expended will be greater and may affect your recovery times. Weave trail running in once or twice per week, and let your body recover with a few days in between.

Just like interval workouts improve your speed on the roads, running on technical singletrack over roots, rocks, and other obstacles will help build new neuro-pathways and boost your trail running skills, power, and agility. When starting, it is best to train within your means, and walk when encountering obstacles in your path. As you develop trail fitness, you’ll have the strength and stamina to run more technical trail safely. One way to build your techy trail fitness is to weave in trail repeats. For instance, run for 10 minutes to warm up on the roads or groomed trail, then run repeats on a short technical stretch of trail for 30 to 90 seconds, building over time to repeats that last several minutes. You’ll develop a familiarity with the trail obstacles, boost your strength, and gain a ton of confidence.

Run mindfully.

Create a line of focus ahead of you on the trail and look where you want to run. This will also allow you to maintain good head position, looking forward rather than down, and to stay balanced over your shoulders. This is called a line of sight, and it allows you to create a path where you are going to step for the next few strides.

You will begin to instinctively know where that line is as you become more comfortable running on the trails. It can be tempting to look around at all the sights, but doing so can quickly lead to tripping and falling. If you want to take for a selfie or enjoy the view, do yourself a favor and stop—multitasking on the trail isn’t safe.

Use your arms for balance and stability by keeping them out to your sides as you navigate downhills and more technical terrain. Use shorter, quicker steps for stability and efficiency, making sure your feet are landing under your body rather than out in front of you.

If you find yourself in love with trail running, consider purchasing a pair of trail-specific running shoes – they will provide better traction and a lower profile to help avoid ankle sprains. Most importantly, enjoy the adventure. Trail running can provide spice to your runs and a boost to your fitness!

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