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)!