Leaving the Pavement – Quick Tips to get into Trail Running

Creek under bridge

By Brett Busacker

There are a myriad of reasons people wind up trail curious. Whether it’s the same running routine leading to a plateau, sore knees, or friends with tales of adventure, there are plenty of reasons to hit the trail. In the end, it can be a great way to reawaken your passion for running or supplement any training plan. My passion was lit from a longing to travel more quickly in the backcountry and marathon burnout. With any new sport, there are always obstacles or new things to learn. Below is a distilled list to make your first foray into trail running a success, whatever the distance.

1) Use Your Community: Trail running doesn’t have to mean long drives to hit the trailhead. Utilize local running shops, friends, training groups, state parks, and the internet to find local trails to explore. For running shops, not all are created equal when it comes to trail passion. A quick search of local trail events and the shop sponsoring said events will likely lead you to the land of trail knowledge.

2) Slow Down, Don’t Stress: Don’t get hung up on time or speed. Be ready to use plenty of gears and even hike when the hills get steep. Unlike road running, your cadence and speed will change innumerable times, dictated by the terrain or obstacles encountered. Remember to swing your arms and vary your stride to be a more powerful trail runner. This is part of the fun!

3) No Trail is Alike: Trail running doesn’t have to get technical, but it certainly can. The beauty is choosing your own destiny. Crushed limestone, grassy XC ski trails, that little offshoot of single track near a paved path, or the most technical line on a mountain trail all count. Once you get into it, it is fun to substitute easy and difficult outings.

4) Hydration & Nutrition: Because trail running can be much slower than its road counterpart based on the terrain, it’s a good idea to bring hydration and a bit of food with. There have been times where covering five miles takes over an hour. Don’t get stuck underestimating and error on the safe side. Everyone is different, but I’ve found between 200-300 calories and 20-26oz of hydration best when on the trail.

5) New Shoes aren’t a Necessity: Again, it depends on the terrain, but sometimes regular road shoes will work plenty fine for limestone, grass and dirt trails. If you find yourself wishing for more grip, mud shedding ability, or protection from roots and rocks, visit that new found trail running shop for advice on shoes. The great thing about trail running’s popularity explosion is that the shoe industry has really stepped up the game when it comes to trail shoes. No longer are the days of 14oz super bulky and stiff trail shoes – unless that’s your desire.

6) Safety: Depending on your level of adventure, it’s best to use standard use some standard wilderness best practices. If the area is remote and you are going solo, tell someone about your plans and prepare according to the terrain. Online trail and summit reviews, others in your community, and topographic maps can be great tools to utilize to get a grasp of terrain prior to hitting the trailhead.

7) Strength: It isn’t a necessity, but core, balance, and lifting 2X a week can really help on the trail. Exercises such as squats, single leg deadlifts, planks, and balance ball drills can all be honed to help develop you as a trail runner. It’s super easy to create your own routine with resources such as Trail Runner, Competitor, or Runner’s World magazines. This isn’t an exhaustive list. In the end, have fun, stop to enjoy the scenery, and get excited to learn new things along each adventure. Build your own stories of adventure, triumph and even failures as you hit the trail. That by far has been one of the most enriching benefits from getting off the pavement.