Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Becoming a Beginner Again: Tips for Safe and Fun Trail Running

Running through Iroquois Park last week, I noticed that the tree-covered view wasn’t as green as it had been the week before. Yellow leaves sprinkle the trees and even the ground, which signals the approach of cooler temperatures. This pleases me greatly. I love Autumn and all that it has to offer. The Autumn sun shines down upon us with a smile, it seems. And it shines right through the crisp, fresh Autumn air. Beyond the special smell of the air, one’s nose might be fortunate enough to pick up the scent of burning wood from a fireplace in the area. And fleece, what a wonderful fabric. Of course there’s hot cocoa, which my Husband loves. But one of my very favorite things to do during the Fall Season is to run trails. There is no better time to take to trails than right now!

Trail running is a great sport at any time of the year but during the Fall, it can be a much more enjoyable experience. In our area, there is generally less rainfall than Spring, the temperatures are much more comfortable than in Summer, and there’s no concern for ice and snow, as in Winter. Plus, there are fewer bugs (ticks are my main reason for avoiding certain trails in the Summer in our area) and it is a beautiful time to enjoy a solid workout in a great environment.

Running and hiking have been passions of mine for a very long time, and trail running is the perfect marriage of the two. If you are a runner who enjoys hiking, the transition into trail running will be easier than if you’ve never hiked. Hikers understand the differences in terrain and navigation and in some cases, weather fluctuations. If you are a road runner and that is all you know, you may find that the following tips will have you better prepared for your first steps off of the concrete and onto the dirt, mud, gravel, bark or grass.


Since this is your first trail run, look for short, non-technical (smooth, flat) trails. Avoid big elevation changes and extremely rocky or rooted trails for now—your lungs and legs might not be ready for such a challenge. If possible, find an easy trail that is 1-2 miles in length (or even a grassy area) and become one with that trail. Notice how different the surface feels. Pay attention to your surroundings and really enjoy the environment. Starting on a short trail will help you make an informed decision about whether or not you ever run trails again.


Make the same apparel choices that you would make for a typical run. Wearing weather-appropriate, breathable clothing that does not restrict movement is the smart choice. As you become more comfortable with trails in general or trails in a specific area, you may find that you will have to make adjustments to your clothing choices. But for now, stick with what you know.

Perhaps most importantly, you will need a good pair of shoes. If this is your first attempt at running trails, it is not necessary to purchase a new pair of trail runners. I think it is important, however, that you wear a sturdy pair of running shoes (that can get dirty!) with good tread. When and if you decide that trail running suits you and that it is something you plan to continue, trail shoes are a wise investment—if not a necessity. In general, trail running shoes are different from road running shoes in that they are made to provide more protection for your foot and better grip for the non-smooth surfaces. If you decide to invest in a pair, look for shoes that are similar to your road running shoes (support shoes if you are a pronator, for example). Also, consider what terrain you will be running. If you expect to run trails that are extremely rocky, you will need a shoe that has tread with more lugs, or less open space.


Remember when you first started running and everyone kept telling you to “start slow?” You are going to have to do that again. Forget any time and performance expectations for now—running trails will almost certainly add seconds—even minutes—to your pace per mile. Because of the surface and possible elevation changes, covering a single mile will not only take longer, but it will probably feel MUCH more difficult. Go slow and take it easy. After all, trail running, even though it seems hardcore, is naturally more laid back.


It is very important to be aware and observant while running roads—after all, there are speeding cars, cyclists late for work, kids running after kick balls, and unleashed, rabid dogs. However, it’s even more important to be aware of your surroundings while running trails. While the obstacles won’t be as big as the ones out in the city (unless you intend to go head to head with a Grizzly), there are far more of them in a smaller area. A single rock can put an end to your trail run in an instant. So pay attention to where you are stepping. Try to scan the area several feet in front of you as you run, while still appreciating the beautiful scenery that surrounds you. And use the environment to your advantage. For example, use embedded tree roots upon a steep hill as a natural staircase to keep you from sliding on slick dirt.

Also, while it’s VERY tempting to hurdle yourself over tree trunks or streams, do NOT do this. Your legs might be more tired than you realize and you could easily take a hard fall by not clearing the obstacle. My advice to beginners is to WALK when you reach these types of obstacles. Once you are more familiar with the trail and more comfortable with your performance, you may be able to blaze through and really have fun speeding over tree trunks—but for now, play it smart.

Pay attention to your running form, as well. Fatigue will set in much earlier on trails but you still need the clarity of mind to focus on pumping your elbows and lifting your legs. If you do not, you will almost certainly trip if you are lucky and fall if you are not.


I advise anyone--especially while running-- to be aware of their surroundings and to be prepared for anything, but in some ways, the primal nature (and mystery, to some) of trail running makes this advice even more important to heed. Sure, watch out for unsavory people, but be cautious about wildlife, getting lost, dehydration and/or getting injured. Your first move should be to let someone know where you will be and the duration of your run. Tell a friend or family member, or the ranger at the visitor center.

Some runners prefer to carry absolutely nothing and for those folks, I suggest that you at least carry your cell phone. Just be aware that you might not have a signal in some areas. For the runners that carry everything, just bring a few essentials. If you are the type of person that gets lost easily (or even if you do not) bring a map of the trail. Depending on the weather, the length of your run and your hydration/energy needs, you may consider bringing water and a small snack. You never know when your 30 minute trail run will turn into a 2 hour adventure! And if you’re injury-prone, you might want to bring a small first aid kit for your car.

Watch out for poison ivy or other plants that could cause skin irritation. Try to avoid overgrown trails if possible. Also, insect repellent is a must, especially in the summer.


It is totally acceptable to pretend that you are an early human running through the wilderness after your family’s dinner, a wild boar. You could also pretend that you are living right inside of a Bob Ross painting. Or perhaps you would rather imagine you are the focal point of one of the “Rave Run” photographs from Runners World. Just have fun.

No comments: