So you’re a runner. A motivated, pavement pounding, mileage tracking, road warrior, addicted to the euphoric response that follows pushing your body and mind to their limits.
But, I’m here to let you in on a secret. There is a magical world close by, where your running experience can be elevated, your focus shifted, and your perspective renewed. It is the root and rock covered, blood, sweat, and dust crusted, vista littered world of trail running.
If you are seeking to spice up your fitness routine, connect with nature, and discover a community of inspiring, supportive humans, then it’s time to start swapping your tired road routes for the wonder of the open trail.
But, as you begin your transition from pavement to switchbacks and singletrack, there are a few things you need to know.
First things first. Leave your watch at home, even if only metaphorically.
When you’re hopping over protruding roots, dodging hanging tree branches, breaking for snacks and snapshots and quite literally climbing mountains, your pace is going to fluctuate more than first-graders on a fun run.
One of the best parts about running trails is that there is no perfect, constant pace. Nobody asks if you negative split your fourteenth switchback, because mile times are irrelevant. When you leave the concrete behind, your standard of judging the success of your workout by the pace displayed on your watch goes with it.
Instead, trail runners either select an amount of time they want to run and accept the distance achieved within it, or determine a desired distance and accept the varied amount of time it may take to complete.
Next, walking is expected. It’s even encouraged.
As a runner, the concept of not running can be difficult to stomach, but even those seasoned to the trail are prone to regular power hiking. Trails expose some of the most extreme and beautiful terrains in the world, which make steep, gnarly climbs a regular addition to your workout. But the amount of energy expended by running uphill often isn’t worth the minimally increased speed achieved by foregoing the powerhike.
So, when your beautifully winding singletrack suddenly ascends into the clouds, breathe easy, slow your pace, and prepare for a surely incredible view at the top. Because your watch is the last thing on your mind, remember?
Then, there is no such thing as being too prepared.
When confined to the comfort of running in circles within city limits, carrying clothing, food, and water isn’t as essential. But when you’ve spent hours putting gas stations, convenience stores, and cellphone reception in your rearview, getting caught in a rainstorm or depleting your fuel sources is a much bigger deal.
Many trail runners, especially on longer runs, wear hydration packs or belts to store their extra gear and nutrition. The packs carry varied layers for the inevitably changing conditions, like a lightweight, water resistant jacket, an extra long sleeve, or gloves, in addition to element conquering essentials like sunscreen, chafing glide or powder (because, come on, it happens to all of us), and bandaids or medical tape.
Also along for the ride is each runner’s preferred nutrition. Eating on your run is another crucial, yet fantastic element of pounding trails. For roughly every thirty to forty-five minutes of activity, some form of fuel is consumed. The type of fuel varies by the runner and the length of their workout, but often includes an electrolyte and sodium replenishing beverage, and readily consumable foods like gels, honey wafers, oranges, potatoes, dates, or bananas.
Next, your road shoes will do … for now.
If you’re feeling held back by the notion that entirely new gear needs purchasing before testing out the trails, fear not. Your road shoes, if you’re not afraid to get them dirty, will suffice at first. Trails are often comprised of spongy dirt, mulch, or some other impact-friendly form of earth, and therefore lend well to just about any shoe you’re wearing.
Because of the friendliness of the trail surface on your body, as well as the dispersion of effort across the various muscles used for climbing, stability, running, and balance, wearing a less than ideal shoe isn’t as dangerous as it can be on the road. Then, after your infatuation blossoms and you grow more ingrained in the sport, you can tackle more technical routes and shop for a shoe with more grip and flexibility. But, especially in the beginning, don’t let what you’re wearing on your feet keep you trapped within the city walls.
Then, anything is toilet paper if you’re creative enough.
Remember that bit about putting gas stations and convenience stores in your rearview? Along with those stores are the available public bathrooms inside of them. As a runner, you’re more than familiar with the fact that sometimes running, well, helps move things along. It’s often like shaking a box of Raisin Bran. The more you shake the box, the greater the likelihood the raisins all fall to the bottom. Get it?
This expedited effect is fine and well when bathrooms are littered along your city routes, but when you’re in the woods, sometimes you just have to make do. The first time you grab a smooth rock, a pinecone, or a carefully inspected, non-poisonous leaf (seriously, double check), you can officially consider yourself a trail runner.
Finally, prepare to join a truly inspiring, dynamic, and supportive community of runners.
The first time I participated in a trail race, I was astonished by the amount of “Good jobs,” that were grunted between strained breaths upon my passing someone. And when my eagerness and energy began wearing, I was met with, “Come on,” “You can do this,” and even “Try some of my Coca Cola.”
The amount of encouragement and readiness to bring out the best performance of fellow athletes is the very best part of trail running. Competing is important, but the camaraderie of collectively engaging in the sport is even more so.
Trail running is about connecting to and being humbled by nature, about pushing your body and mind in ways you never thought possible, about getting dirty, and about encouraging the people around you to do the same.
So, what are you waiting for? Grab a friend, lace up, and let your muddy journey begin!
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