Trail Transitions: Become a Trail Runner

[Editor’s Note: We are pleased to welcome David Laney to our team. Dave takes over Trail Running 101, a how-to column for new arrivals to the sport of trail running. Welcome, Dave!]

If you haven’t noticed, trail ultrarunning is growing, like the porta-potty line in the last minutes before a race start. Somehow this sport has become cool, regardless of the fact that most of us just look like we’re walking around in the woods wearing a running vest with an iPhone in one hand and two ‘walking sticks’ in the other. Let’s get real. There are downsides to trail running. Our conversations about mitochondria, adrenal fatigue, buckle sizes, Suunto-sync issues, and preferred brand of basically indigestible nut butter can get a little repetitive. The fact that most of us take more selfies than your average middle schooler is also slightly unsettling, but often a mountain is featured too, so that makes up for it? I guess the only possible explanation for this sport’s rise in popularity is we that we have M&Ms and Mountain Dew at aid stations.

In 2012, I left the straight-and-narrow road-running life and started running switchbacks uphill on dirt. My opinion of this decision has pinball-ed back and forth between blinding regret and inspiration-filled ecstasy, much as you will likely experience halfway through your first trail race. The question I am most frequently asked is, “How does one get into trail running or make the transition from roads to trails?” Having been asked a very broad question, I usually give a far-too-specific answer. I say that step one is to go eat a grilled-cheese sandwich, wash it down with a liter of Coke, and then run uphill for an hour.* So far no one has come back for step two, which makes me wonder if it is bad advice.

In all seriousness, trail running provides the opportunity to experience beauty and to better oneself, so I’ve come up with some clear, concise advice on how to get into the trail world.

Where to Start

All you need is to find a group of friends, a hill, and a trail race. Sounds simple, right? It is.

Your road-running friends may become annoyed with your constant jibber jabber about wanting to try trail running–and the fact that you always insist on doing that giant hill at the end of every long run–so try convincing them to join you. Chances are, at least one of your road-running friends probably also has a hidden desire for the trails, too. Check Facebook for trail running groups in your area. If that doesn’t work, stop by the local running shop and ask about a group trail run or ask a local trail runner or race director. Remember, trail runners want to help get you on trail!

Finding hilly trails is ideal for at least a weekly long run. Though trails and hills are not vital, they can help you develop strength and confidence. Want to find some of this terrain? Check the Strava Explore feature, as this tool will show you where people run on trails in your area. Most cities love to display their public spaces and trails on the internet, so check there for trails in your area. Do an internet search for trail races in your area and explore the trails the race utilizes. If all else fails, take out that weird thing called a paper map of your region and look for a state park or natural area where there will surely be singletrack.

Finally, sign up for a trail race. Doing this is the best way to rip off the BAND-AID, I mean, get the confidence to dive into the sport. Don’t be nervous about getting your bell rung, in fact, that’s kind of the point. That being said, don’t bite off more than you can chew. This is supposed to be fun–challenging, sure–but mostly fun! To avoid getting in over your head, start with a short trail race, preferably on trails near your home that you may be familiar with, and ideally where you know some other runners or where your family or friends can also come out. The more support, the better. You can and probably will grow into bigger races, but start small. 

Pace

Adjust your pace and distance expectations. You may be used to clipping off seven- or eight-minute road miles all day long. A trail mile could take 25 to 30 minutes, and often you will barely go three miles in an hour. If you are skeptical, go check Tim Tollefson’s Strava account. We all know he is fast–his Strava is littered with road miles at five-minute pace–but I also spy some 15- t0 25- minute uphill trail miles in there (which are still deserving of kudos, of course!) Trying to keep up your usual mileage on trail will leave you running way more hours per week than normal. When running trails, tracking your training by hours rather than miles can be a more reliable unit of measure.

Ask Questions

Running on a trail, trying a trail race, daring to do an ultra, or even dreaming about 100 miles are not instinctual. I repeat, not instinctual. You might forget those words until you find yourself on a stupid-technical trail section that slows you to a walk or you’re at the finish of your first 50k, but it’s true. Don’t be afraid to ask clear and specific questions of people who have done what you want to do. Most people running on trails have been where you were once and want to be helpful.

Be Prepared

On the trails, you can’t just call an Uber to pick you up if things go wrong. Know where you are going and have clothes, food, and a navigation tool like Gaia GPS on your phone (which can be downloaded to work without cell service) or a paper map of the area. It is always safer and more fun to go with someone, but at least make sure someone knows where you’re going, when you’re supposed to return, and who to call if you don’t. Safety third, er, first!

It’s Addictive

Finally, a word of warning. Once you get on the trail-ultra train, you rarely truly go back to the roads. Sure, a few people do both pretty darn well, but it does take some sacrifice on one side or the other.

I’ve always appreciated the words of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” Inspiration and motivation are fleeting at best. There are days you will want to run for hours, and there will be days you can’t imagine slogging out a single minute. If you figure out the ‘why’ of running on trails, the ‘how’ of actually doing it will be miles of beautiful, smooth singletrack.

*I have never actually given anyone this terrible-grilled-cheese, Coke, run-uphill advice. Who would do such a thing… Oh, wait.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Trail runners, what were some of the funny things you learned or observed about trail running when you first started? Or your most hilarious lesson learned?
  • If you could give one piece of tangible, actually helpful advice to new trail runners, what would it be? Think about potential trail runners as transitioning road runners, people starting to run for the very first time, or athletes of another non-running sport.
  • And, what’s the worst combination of food and drink you’ve consumed while trail running?

Who wouldn’t want to run on buttery singletrack through a grassy meadow? All photos: David Laney

Trail running can take you here (and a lot of places just as nice as this)!

There are 12 comments

  1. MoonMarsh

    Grilled cheese and coke were both successful components of my nutrition during my first 100-miler, although I guess I never had a liter at a time and I walked the uphills ;). I always tell people new to trail running that walking the uphills really is “allowed” and even encouraged.

  2. Mel

    Never combine some delicious warm broth when grazing an aid station at night and then follow up with a ginger ale in the way out because you are feeling a bit nauseated. It will make you throw up. I did that in two different races before I learned my lesson.

  3. Garrett

    One piece of advice that helps me: be prepared to take smaller steps especially when the trail gets technical, steep, rocky/rooty, etc. Not sure if you should take two or three steps before that log? Take 5!

  4. Aaron Kennedy

    Try some sandals! I know, I know… the natural inclination when moving from road to trail is to have MORE foot protection, not less! Roots, rocks, unstable surfaces – the sleek, graceful road shoe quickly becomes a tank of a shoe that’s aggressive enough to tackle those untamed trails!!

    But fear of toes busting open on rocks is way overrated! What will happen to your feet on uneven surfaces over miles of trail is that they will move around a lot inside your shoe. That movement will often cause blisters and/or lost toenails – Facebook forums on ultrarunning are full of horrible pictures of destroyed feet! Yikes!

    So that’s my tangible, actually helpful (perhaps counter-intuitive?) advice – sandals!

  5. Greg Veltkamp

    Sometimes, when we pace our friends or acquaintances in a long trail ultra, we forget to take care of ourselves right? As we tend to our runner – their nutrition, their inspiration, their fatigue – our own needs are left unattended. In one particular moment of scrambling to wolf down some calories of my own, I found, as I ran out of the aid station to catch my runner, that I had inadvertently shoved a mouthful of gummy worms and several butternut squash ravioli into my mouth!

  6. Stephen Patterson

    I did my first “official” trail event back in Early October which was 20 miles. It was very technical with several 3/4 mile 40% grade inclines and several rooty, twisty up and down sections the same length..I had a great time, even in my road shoes….no big deal at all really, and foot adaptation to roots, rocks and unexpected terrain, was easy (I grew up running, hiking and bushwhacking through the forest as a kid). Im mostly a road warrior, and enjoy exploring the different neighbourhoods in the city where I live, but the trails are pretty enjoyable!

  7. Kirsten

    What is hilarious now but wasn’t when I first was transitioning from road to trail is that I thought my pace would be slower, but only slightly so. Haha! My advice: Walk the uphills, run the flats, have fun on the downhills! Don’t drink sodas EXCEPT when you are in a trail race or long training run! And my worst food/drink was so unfortunate to be tailwind. Of course you always learn something like that the hard way.

  8. Desert Runner

    My advice: Get plenty of rest the day or two before a trail race, even if it means taking a day or half-day off from work. Skip the race if you’re tired from work, family commitments, training, or anything else. Trail running uses more energy and effort compared to road races, and being tired going into a trail race is a more important consideration compared to road races. So, be willing to skip the race and save it for another day. That’s better and safer than falling and getting injured.

  9. Tawnya

    Worst food and drink combo ever was about a mile out from the aid station in a 100 miler. Mt dew and 1/2 a burrito doing the jump around in my stomach and everything came up in my mouth. I was about to spit out that mess but remembered I didn’t have anymore food for the next 9 miles and I desperately needed those calories. Swallowed everything and kept moving.

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