Trail Running 101
You've heard about this whole trail running thing. You're curious, maybe even downright interested. And you want to give it a try. But where to start?
Well, we can quickly break that down into two simple steps:
1) Find a trail.
2) Run it.
Some of you will have stopped reading at this point and are off on the trail. And those folks will probably be fine, and probably won't be eaten by big foot. Because I'm pretty sure big foot is a vegetarian. But if you're still reading, you're probably hoping for a little more.
If you read the mainstream articles about trail running, many of them seem centered around the gear. Since the mainstream magazines are sponsored by gear companies, that makes sense. This article will touch on gear, but won't be centered around it.
Lets start with the definition of trail. I have discovered that this word means lots of things to lots of different people and the definition of what a trail looks like will have some regional twists. So, lets say a trail is a "more natural" path through a less developed area, often with a "softer" surface. This may be a poorly maintained piece of asphalt. It may be a beautifully groomed ribbon of hard pack gravel. Or it may be a piece of single track with all sorts of rocks and roots and other neat trail terrain. If you're used to roads and sidewalks, you'll know it's a trail because it should be a bit removed from where most vehicles can go.
(Photos copyright SlimSidePhotos (http://slimsidephotos.com/ or find slimsidepics on instagram) and used with permission.)
And some of you are looking at those pictures and thinking, "Whoa. I don't have anything like that where I'm at." And you might not. But some regional trails look a lot more tame. Take the following as an example.
(Pictures copyright Elizabeth Oviedo Robinson and used with permission.)
In some areas, that counts as trail. Roll with it. Enjoy what you have. Some of my most enjoyable running miles have been with good friends on a path very similar to that.
So how about some tips for getting out, and getting back safely?
1) Slow down. No, you don't have to run slow on trails (check out Kaci Lickteig, she screams through the dirt!) but until you get used to the ground not always being in the same spot it's just a good idea. Besides, when you slow down you get to appreciate nature a little more.
2) Step ALL the way over whatever that is in the trail. Make sure you get BOTH feet safely over. Trails have something that roads and sidewalks just don't - a technical factor. That is to say that some trails are more difficult to move over than others. There are things that may try to trip you, or make you slip. I should probably be ashamed at how often I fall...
3) Learn your local rules. This is the part that gets tricky. There are some basic rules that apply pretty much everywhere, like "Leave No Trace" and "Pack it in, pack it out." Then there are a slew of rules that vary by region and trail system. Know who has the right of way. Usually it's the horses, then the people walking, then the people running, then the bikes. Know what the local policies are for muddy trail conditions. If a trail is marked as closed, please respect the sign. Most importantly, if something isn't clear, feel free to contact your local land manager and ask. The folks I've spoken with in the various land managment organizations have always been very helpful and open to questions. Just be respectful.
OK. Now gear. I see all this trail running gear. What is really needed? Why? What does it do?
First thing first - shoes. Do you need trail shoes? It depends. First, if you're just going to give it a try and see what the hype is all about, you probably don't need trail shoes unless your regular road shoe resembles a racing flat. If your local trails tend to be pretty smooth and pretty well maintained, you can probably work with a road shoe. After running a few trails, if you still like it you can take a trip to the shoe store and see what they have.
The more technical trails tend to eat road shoes pretty quickly. And many trail shoes are made with a softer rubber compound in the sole and will wear out more quickly on the roads.
Believe it or not, trail shoes are pretty similar to road shoes. They consider all the same functionality and body mechanics. There are a couple differences though. The first is the tread pattern. Trail shoes tend to have a more "aggressive" tread pattern. Just like that Jeep in the parking lot with the big scary tires, trail shoes are meant to help get better traction. Another difference is what is known as a "rock plate." Not all trail shoes have this, but many do. It is simply a reinforced part of the shoe that protects the bottom of the foot from some of the rougher and sharper parts of the trail. In my mind, those are the two biggest differences between trail shoes and road shoes, and also the two biggest benefits to trail shoes for a trail environment. There are some other differences, but we'll stop there for now.
What about all that other gear?
All that other stuff? Well, as much as it pains me to say it, most of that other stuff is either a gimmick or produced to fill a specific gap. If you currently have something to carry some water and a snack, you should be OK using what you have until you really get into it. Then, the other stuff will become clear. Like the pack that will carry 100oz of fluid, a seven course meal, and a full change of clothes.
So... Those hills...
I underand that look and the questioning tone. Here's the deal. It isn't a race. It's a trail run. Sure, there might be some big hills. Go as slow as you need (up and down!) to keep it fun and safe. Even the pros will walk a hill during a race. There's no shame there. Simply walking up a really big hill can keep your heart rate right in the sweet spot and make it feel like work.
But what if I get lost?
Well, lost happens from time to time. It's always a situation we want to avoid. Sometimes turns are easy to miss. It's not uncommon for people to carry a map and compass on the trails. At a minimum, it's a great idea to try and memorize as much of the map as possible. (It will get easier with time and practice.) Know where the major roads are, and roughly how far away they might be. Find notable landmarks like mountain peaks, rivers, trail junctions, and valleys. Don't be afraid to talk to other trail users! Sure, people hit the trails for some solitude, but most of us are perfectly fine helping someone with directions.
So, are we all set to head out and do some trail running? Well, mostly. Let's pause a moment and think through some of the common sense things that should really apply to both trail and road running.
Good. Lets go for a run.