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A Beginner’s Guide To Trail Running

Written by someone who is probably still technically a beginner. Who is MOST DEFINITELY not fast. Who falls a lot. And sometimes gets lost.

I help lead a “No Runner Left Behind” trail running group on Sundays and periodically I participate in a different one on Monday nights. These two experiences have reminded me how terrifying trail running is to a beginner and how brave people are for just showing up to begin with. I still VERY vividly remember my first trail run. It just felt SO very strange to be SO focused on the ground at my feet and not looking ahead in hardly any capacity. And the constant dodging of obstacles felt like a brush with death at ever step. I remember the thrill and the fear so vividly I am torn between shock I cam back for more, and surprise I didn’t do it every day.

But several people have asked me about it – in general – and I thought I’d compile some of my thoughts/lessons into one place.

As always, thanks to Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville for the race photos.
As always, thanks to Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville for the race photos.

Before You Run

  • Find a group! If you’re lucky like we are, there are beginner trail running groups in your area. Now, ours assume you’re a road runner (they’re not “beginning running” groups), but check on that with yours. Running in a group also reduces the chances of you getting lost too because you can stick together. Even if you do split up, your group should have at least a few two-way radios (walkie-talkies) to communicate with. If your local group doesn’t then suggest to the group leader that they look at a guide to the best two way radios of 2019. Our groups often have sweepers and if they don’t they wait at trail intersections until everyone catches up. You don’t have to be fast, and you can walk hills if you need, but you do need to be able to run under normal circumstances. Find a group and join it! Ours are really fun. BUT – if you’re not lucky enough to have beginner trail running groups in your area…
  • Research. Find out if there are trail races run in your area. See if anyone you know has run them or maybe you’re lucky enough to have a Facebook Running community like we do here and you can just post a question. The most telling information you can get about the trails in your area, is to find someone about your pace on the road and see how long it took them to complete a certain distance on the trails. The most different that time is? The more technical the trails are, probably. And “not technical” does not equate to “easy”. “Technical” refers more to the surface and how runable it is. Around here tons of trails are covered with rocks and roots and are VERY technical and difficult to run fast even if it’s flat. If you find that a similar-speed road runner person has a comparable trail time? Then the trails are probably smoother and therefore easier to run at a similar pace to what you would run on the road.
  • If the trails in your area are technical, accept that “trail running” often meals “fast hiking”. Once you realize that, the trails become a lot less intimidating. The race I did this weekend? It took me 4 hours to go 15 miles. I’m 2:10 half-marathoner on a basic good day. That means it took me almost TWICE as long to do 3 more miles. That right there tells you that a lot of it was NOT runnable for someone like me.
  • If the trails in your are are NOT technical, still accept that they may not be easy. I did a 25K recently on smooth and easily runnable trails, but there was so much change in elevation that it still almost killed me. Look at the elevation data for any local trail races if you can find it, or even search for “hiking” trail data because a lot of hikers log that information too.
  • Hike first. I suggest you go out and explore the trails you’re going to run on at least once before you go, just so you have some sort of basic understanding of what to expect. You don’t have to go out for long, just long enough to see if your research had prepared you. Is the surface smooth? Are the trails wide? How many hills are there?
  • Read about trail running etiquette. You are a steward of these trails and you want to make sure you are respectful.

On The Run!

  • Don’t stress too much about trail shoes. But don’t wear shoes you don’t want to get dirty. I didn’t buy trail shoes until after logging about 15 or 20 miles on the trails. The thing that drove me to trail shoes first was the need for better traction. We have a lot of slippery rocks and mud and I learned quite early on that my road shoes were not helping me grip any surface whatsoever. Depending on how technical your trails are, you may want trail shoes sooner than later. If the surface is rough, a trail shoe will often provide more protection so you don’t feel every rock jab the bottom of your foot. But the most important factor for the trails around here is DRAINAGE. Trails shoes often have very thin uppers to allow for quick drainage when you’re running through puddles. You do NOT want water to pool up in your shoes.
  • Accept you might fall. It happens to all of us, and it sucks, but most of the time (especially if you’re not a speed demon) your fall is not at full speed so the falls are no where near as terrifying as you expect. I trip all the time. And my worst fall was actually on the easiest trail. I stopped paying attention because we were almost back at the cars and I fell HARD. I find I fall less on the really technical trails because there I’m focused.
  • You might want to get wool socks if your trails might be at all wet. Nothing will keep your feet dry in puddles, but wool socks won’t hold the water against your feet and will allow for most of it to drain. I’ve run for hours in the puddles and rain in my wool socks and trail shoes and my feet never feel more miserable than they should.
  • Bring a map and/or a phone if you’re alone. Either user a smartphone with maps saved (you don’t want to need to google them if you don’t have service) or bring printed maps somehow. This is a safety precaution but I am paranoid and get easily lost so I say: DO IT. Also? Park Ranger numbers just in case. There are plenty of ways to carry a phone while you run, there are water bottle holders and waist pouches made just for runners and mainly for phones. If you’re running with other newbies, maybe make sure one person has a phone? If you have a guide, that will depend on how much you trust them. I know a lot of the trails well, but I carry maps anyway because I am SUPER PARANOID.
  • Bring water until you get a feel of your fitness level and pace. There are some trails out here that 4 miles would take me an hour or longer to do. 4 miles on the road I could live without water, but not on the trails. So, to be safe, carry water. I love my hydration pack, and carry it anytime I’ll be out longer than an hour. But some people hate them so water bottles are good. But there are a million types of hydration packs, so don’t give up on finding one you like if you want one.
  • Take pictures! That’s another reason I take my phone. You’re in nature! In the woods! There might be PLENTY of chances to take pictures and you don’t want to be without your camera 🙂 It also helps keep things fun because that’s what this SHOULD be, right? Fun? Document trail signs and such too to help you remember where you’ve been. If you can, highlight the route you ran on your map so you can come back later.
  • Have fun. Road running is only “fun” if I’m running with fun people. Races are fun, but training on the road? Is not really “fun” unless you have fun people around you. But trail running is always fun. Or it CAN be if you let it. Mud! Trees! Downhills! Uphills! Enjoy what your experiencing because trail running has become my therapy. I can not think about anything else while I’m out there but the trails I’m on and not falling. This means that all of my stresses are left behind. I can’t think about bills or laundry or work or school…I can only think about these rocks I’m running over and how not to fall on them. Take a moment to think about how badass you are, walking or hiking or anything, and ENJOY it.

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