How to Start Trail Running

There was a time when I was scared to start running on trails.  I was worried that my pace would suffer, that I would trip and fall, and that I would get lost in the woods. I felt like trail running was reserved for adventurers, for people with more experience and better gear, runners who were strong enough to navigate winding switchbacks at a blistering speed.  These were qualifications I knew I didn’t have.

Photo by Laurine Bailly on Unsplash

Photo by Laurine Bailly on Unsplash

Then a friend convinced me to run a race with him up a mountain. Literally.  Up a mountain. This particular race climbed over 2,000 feet in elevation in just over 3 miles and finished with a jaw-dropping view and chair-lift ride back down to the base. What an experience!  Used to pounding my feet on pavement, I found the trail terrain to be easier on my joints. I also enjoyed the silence of the race, since headphones were not permitted. Left with nothing but the forest around me and the sound of my own breath, I found a sense of inner quiet that had, until this race, eluded me. What’s more, this untethered freedom helped me to forget about pace entirely and instead focus on the primitive joy of just running in nature, all the while embracing a ‘because it’s there’ challenge!  And what a run it was! This wasn’t a mindless loop of flat urban terrain. This was the wilds where every footfall was a technical achievement that brought me one step closer to the summit!

After that race in 2011, I was hooked. I sought out friends who knew the local trails and got them to show me different routes. I invested in trail shoes and signed up for more off-road races, beginning with 5Ks and then challenging myself to Ultras. I realized that trail running wasn’t some intimidating pastime reserved for the toughest or most outdoorsy. It was just as accessible as road running but had the added bonuses of a) no motor vehicles, and b) oneness with nature and c) easier wear on my joints.

Want to give it a try?  Excellent!

Here are some ways to get started if you are interested in taking your runs to the woods.

Find out what your community has to offer

I was astounded when I realized the number of blazed trails in my community. There were loops and out-and-backs to satisfy any distance need or skill-level. Many town and state parks offer trail maps and even urban areas frequently have sections of trail available. I spent a year getting my trail fix mostly in Central Park’s Ramble.

Buddy up

Find a friend who has either spent some time exploring the trails, or who feels like adventuring with you. It’s a lot less intimidating to explore with a friend (or two!) than it is solo. Plus, losing your bearings with a friend becomes a funny story, while getting lost alone is just plain scary

Be safety-conscious

Make sure your phone is fully charged before heading out and take any precautions necessary to you or your region (i.e. bear spray, EpiPen, mace, etc..)

Wear the right shoes

There isn’t any need to invest in trail shoes right off-the-bat, especially if you don’t know if trail running is for you. You should not, however, attempt to navigate rough terrain in shoes that do not have a good tread. Shoes designed for the track or that really worn down pair of old kicks are just going to leave you susceptible to slips and injury. Instead opt for a road shoe with a moderate tread, or better yet, a shoe specifically designed with trails in mind. I personally favor the Salomon XA Elevate for moderate trails and the Salomon Speedcross 4 for technical trails and wet, slippery terrain.

Don’t stress the speed

When running on trails, your body moves differently; dodging fallen limbs and tree roots and avoiding rocks, puddles, and hornets nests. Your speed will most likely not be the same as it would be for a comparable distance on the road. This is normal. This is ok. I find that different parts of my body are sore after a trail run than after a road run. The stabilizer muscles in my ankles for instance, and my core deep behind my belly button.

Leave the headphones at home

Trails are often shared with hikers, bikers, horseback riders and, in some areas, ATVs. It is good to know what is going on around you at all times so that you can move to the side if necessary. Plus, trails are usually beautiful. It’s a joy to be tuned in to what surrounds you and to be present to appreciate the fully glory of God’s earth.

Pack extra socks

This mostly applies to longer runs, but it never hurts to have an extra pair of socks just in case you step in a puddle, or wind up hip-deep in some mud.

Are you already a trail runner? Are you eager to try it out? Connect with me on Instagram and share your story!

Elissa is wife, mother, and distance runner. A Vermont native, she grew up exploring the dirt roads and trails of her hometown. Friends joke that this small town, which hosts the yearly Vermont 100 and Vermont 50 ultra races, breeds a particular kind of crazy: socializing frequently takes the form of a 10-20 mile group run. Elissa has completed three 50Ks and is enjoying her return to running after the birth of her daughter last spring. Balancing parenting, a full-time career that takes her outside the home, and postpartum fitness is an ongoing adventure. When not working or running, Elissa can be found curled up with tea and a good book in front of the wood stove. She is passionate about NFP, Theology of the Body, and regularly evangelizes on the benefits of eating whole foods while training and racing. You can connect with her on Instagram.