It's been a long couple of years for everyone, but longer days and warmer temperatures are around the corner. Some outdoor therapy is in order, and we've got the goods on how to ease back into outdoor running.
As the shorter, darker days of winter start to wind down, it's time to hop off the treadmill and ease back into outdoor running. This is particularly true after the last two, long winters of COVID-19 where gathering indoors wasn't always feasible. While the pandemic is still around, running outdoors — and in particular on trails — provides a perfect way to reconnect with friends and nature at the same time.
Plenty of research supports the value of getting out into nature. While training for a spring marathon or half-marathon on roads might be your normal routine, now is a great time to try running on dirt. It not only helps your physical health but your mental health, as well.
When we go deeper into a natural environment, surrounded by trees, rocks, water, and all types of nature, we reconnect with the elements that help us de-stress and relax. Our immune systems benefit, our endocrine (hormonal) systems send us feel-good signals, and we leave the experience better prepared to handle life and all that goes with it. Movement in nature is what humans are wired to do, and trail running delivers that perfect combination.
If we've sold you on trail running, great! But if it makes you nervous to ease back into outdoor running on dirt, we're here to help.
Moving from pavement to dirt
I remember my first trail run many years ago. I was excited but nervous, yet rather than preparing myself for the day, I just waltzed onto the dirt like I was stepping onto smooth, debris-free pavement. We took off at a steady clip, racing downhill. It was fun! And freeing! And as I watched the person in front of me, rather than the ground ahead, I tripped, fell down, and sprained an ankle. That one act of naiveté set me back several weeks in my triathlon training that summer.
I've since returned to trails. In fact, I now run on dirt far more than pavement and probably take a spill about once a year. That's a pretty good track record, and it's thanks to better trail habits. I've learned a few things since that first foray into the woods. If you're new to trails, take them to heart so you don't end up on the sidelines like I did.
The first thing you should know is that when running on trails, you need your eyes on the ground. You're going to encounter tree roots, rocks, streams, and muddy sections that can all trip you up if you don't see them coming. If you're running with friends, this means giving a bit of a cushion between you. Run too close to the person in front of you and you won't get a chance to see the terrain well — and you might just take them out, too, if you happen to fall.
Speaking of falling, it helps to have the right shoes on your feet when hitting the trails. Road shoes are generally lacking many of the important features of trail shoes that help keep you upright and enjoying the ride. If you look at the sole of a trail running shoe, you'll notice the obvious difference from your road shoes: big, sturdy lugs. They are there to provide you with a good grip on all the different terrain you'll encounter and serve that purpose well. This applies not just to obstacles in your path but to muddy, sloppy trails, too.
Most trail shoes also feature a "rock plate" on the sole and over the front of the shoe. This gives your feet an added layer of protection for those times when you're covering rocky terrain. If you live somewhere that has a lot of rain, or a good share of stream crossings, look for waterproof trail shoes or those with drainage holes to keep your feet from getting too wet or weighed down. Trail shoes also come in varieties to suit your local terrain, so if you typically run in western mountains versus muddy east coast trails, pay attention to what you're buying.
Other important differences
Beyond the type of terrain you'll be running, or the shoes you need, you're going to find many other differences between road and trail running. For starters, running X number of miles on the road generally doesn't translate to X number of miles on trails. Running on trails is generally a much slower pursuit, thanks to the rolling hills, slower footing, and obstacles you'll encounter. If you're someone who likes to track your mileage, go into the run expecting a slower pace and know that's OK.
If it really bothers you to see slower paces on your watch, try running for time instead of miles — your body doesn't know the difference. I once ran a 30K in the mountains and when I finished, I realized the time I was out there was equivalent to my road marathon (42K) personal record. My body felt just as tired and put through the wringer at 18 miles on dirt as it did running 26.2 miles on the road. It was an amazing experience, I was no less fit for having covered less ground in the same amount of time, and it was more scenic than my road marathon!
When it comes to hills, you might find it more efficient to walk them. Climbs on trails tend to be long and sometimes steep. The effort it takes to run up them can take its toll on your energy, so consider walking them, especially if you've moved on to racing trails. That's how I got through that 30K, especially after I noticed many of the hill walkers around me were able to bomb the downhills that followed. Even the elites conserve energy this way.
Because it can sometimes be easy to get lost on trails, you might also want to download some helpful apps. All Trails is a good one, as is Gaia GPS. Both allow you access to thousands of local trails for free, so you have a sense of where you'll be making turns and how easy or difficult a certain route might be. Pay for the subscription and both provide you with real-time location tools, helping you find your way out if you've made a wrong turn.
Want to go lower tech? Learn how to read trail markings or "flags" as you go. If you started on a "red" trail, for instance, keep an eye out for red squares painted on trees as you go, especially at intersections where you have options on which path to take.
Another tip for running trails is to bring some hydration and/or fuel along. Once again, in case you get lost or the route you chose takes longer to complete than expected, it will be important to have some water or a sports drink, and potentially a snack, to keep you going.
Finally, running trails solo is generally fine, if that's your preference, but there are good reasons to bring a friend. If you fall and get injured, a friend could help you get out of the forest or down a mountain. If you get lost, they could back you up on finding your way out — two sets of eyes on a map are better than one. And if you run where there's wildlife, having a buddy affords some protection if you meet the wrong type of animal out there.
Ready to race?
Once you've got the hang of running trails, you might be looking to challenge yourself to trail racing. I can't blame you, nothing is more fun than a trail race. The vibe is decidedly low-key, people are friendly, and there's usually a good spread of food and beer at the finish line.
A few things to know about trail races: Leave the headphones at home. It's important to hear your fellow competitors, some of whom might be asking to pass with a friendly "on your left." Also, as with trail running, your trail race times will not equate to your road race times. Be OK with that, and just enjoy the ride. Pay attention to whether or not the race will provide hydration and food tables — some do, but increasingly, trail races are all about protecting the environment and ask that you bring your own water.
How do you train for trail racing? Spending time on trails once or twice a week is a great place to start, so you can get accustomed to the differences. Make sure to incorporate some hill repeats into your training to prep you for the many ascents and descents you'll encounter. Keep one long run in the mix each week to help you practice the time on feet that comes into play with trail racing, too.
Strength training, while important in combatting injuries from road running, takes on increased importance with trail racing. You'll be using new and different muscles, and you'll need some power for climbing the hills and jumping over roots and rocks.
Start with shorter distances — there are many 5K and 10K trail races out there — and move on to longer distances as you improve. Before you know it, you'll become a convert to dirt. I know that for me, there's nothing better than time out in nature to deliver some much-needed stress relief, not to mention joy.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.
I've been a runner for more than two decades and a journalist for just as long. I'm also a certified running coach and nothing makes me happier than marrying up writing and running. Find me on the trails with two- and four-legged friends.