Trail Running – A Tutorial

As you know, I love the trail running. The Cheetah introduced me to it when we used to work together and had easy lunchtime access to the trails, and I never really looked back. I do other runs now since I can’t run at lunch anymore, and it’s a bit impractical to do all my runs on the trail, but I try to fit in a trail run every weekend. My favorite distances are between six-ten miles, but any distance is a good workout! Trail running can seem harder than road running at first – it definitely takes more energy to go slower over fewer miles, but it’s so worth it.

Twice I received Every day, I get emails asking about trail running, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and thought I’d post my thoughts and suggestions if it’s something you’re interested in pursing. Feel free to ask any questions – remember, there are no stupid questions, only stupid people (but probably not you, so it’s okay).

The Prep Work (Safety First!)

  1. If you don’t have a friend familiar with the trails, get a map. Study the map. Plan a route in advance. Consider taking the map with you.  It is so easy to get lost on the trails – maybe you meant to take Maple, but ended up on Beech, and all the trails are named after trees, and dammit! Why can’t I find my way back??
  2. If you are going to take directions with you, I recommend keeping those directions, in whatever form, in a ziplock or similar bag for carrying & readability. Things that I do not recommend (I tested these all out for you, because I am a giver): writing the directions on your arm, writing the directions on a post-it, taking a computer-printout & carrying it in your (very sweaty) pocket.
  3. Leave a flight plan with someone along with an anticipated return time. If something happens, you want someone to be looking for you. It’s not likely that something will happen, but better safe than sorry, right?
  4. The gear – pretty much the same as any other run. I have special trail shoes, but they are certainly not necessary. They’re a bit lighter than road shoes, and don’t have as much cushioning, although they do have a less flexible sole to protect your feet from roots & rocks.
  5. Take pepper spray (or something similar) if you’re going to be alone. You probably won’t need it, but better to carry a few extra ounces than be a statistic.

The First Trail Run

  1. Get rid of your expectations. It is not likely that you will be able to go as far or as fast as you’re used to.  Do not plan an epic run your first time out – even if you’re running 10-20 miles at a time on the roads, running trails is different. You’re also not always going to be able to track your mileage, so just pick a time goal.  Trail running is hard, because you are constantly making balance adjustments. Also, there are hills.  And mud. And obstacles.
  2. Speaking of obstacles, go much slower than you think you need to on the first few runs. Get used to watching the path for those obstacles. Most commonly, you will encounter roots & rocks, but there are other weird things – chicken wire, tires, tree trunks, bridges with missing slats. Do not run so fast that you cannot stop suddenly if necessary.
  3. Just keep running – don’t stop because it’s hard (although we will get to a reason to walk in a minute). Even if the hill is super, duper steep, and you can’t see the top of it, keep running. Even if you’re pretty sure you could actually walk faster than you’re running, keep running. Pick a landmark ahead on concentrate on getting to that landmark. Pick a number in your head & count to that number, telling yourself if you’re not to the top of the hill by the time you reach the number, you can walk (just don’t pick #5 – I usually pick between 100-500, and count my steps). If you absolutely have to walk, walk the downhills.  I’m not just saying that because I’m a sadist, but it’s safer to walk the downhills than the up. People tend to reach the top of a hill, get all excited, and the cruise down – and that’s when your feet get moving too quickly, or you don’t see that root, and then you trip & have all that downhill momentum working with gravity to pull you down. It’s much harder to have a spectacular fall if you shuffling uphill at a 15 minute mile.
  4. And now – that actual reason to walk. If you worked super hard during your run, and you’re feeling fatigued, and your toes are catching every root, even the ones that are invisible, slow down & walk. No sense in getting injured because you’re too tired to lift your feet properly. There are too many obstacles on a trail to risk tripping because you’re shuffling.
  5. It may take awhile to adjust the way you look at the trail & watch for obstacles. When I run, I usually sweep the ground immediately in front of my feet, watching for roots, rocks, etc., and then every few steps, I look up & ahead to see what the trail is doing, what’s coming up, and if there’s anything above ankle height (like a low-hanging branch) that I need to be aware of.

Trail Etiquette

  1. Always announce your presence when you’re coming up behind someone. It is definitely (usually) appreciated when a walker or slower runner hears, “Runner on your left” behind them. No one likes to be startled, or pushed past. Also, if you announce “runner on your left” for the love of all that’s holy, pass on the left. If you don’t know right from left, just announce “runner behind you” and pass on the more open side.  This is especially important if the person you’re passing has a dog – they may need a minute to reel them in. You don’t want an excitable dog (whether friendly or unfriendly) jumping on you when you’re not expecting it.
  2. If you’re on a single track trail, and are meeting someone, with not enough room for you both to pass, be prepared to be the one who stops & steps off the trail. Technically, bikers should yield to the runner and everyone yields to horses. However, that doesn’t always happen. Also, if it’s a walker, or a family, they may not yield to you. Common courtesy dictates that the downhill people yield to the uphill people, but sometimes it’s flat, or it’s just easier because there’s a great spot for you to step off. Just be prepared.
  3. If you’re running with a friend, and you’re running two abreast on the trail, if you are approaching someone or being passed, get into single file. Don’t make the other person step off the trail if there’s room for them to pass.
  4. If you are running with a dog, unless you’re 125% sure that your dog will not approach anyone else and will stay with you the entire time, keep them leashed. Some people are allergic. Some people are afraid. And I don’t care if your dog is the nicest, most gentle dog that would never hurt anyone ever – if someone has an allergy or phobia, a big dog running up to them and being “friendly” is scary. Also, your dog could get hurt if it runs in front of a biker or a horse. Or someone who’s scared & has an itchy trigger finger on their pepper spray.
  5. If you’re running with me, you should always run in front of me, so as to protect me from the spiderwebs that often cross the path in the morning.

Random Thoughts

  1. I don’t usually run trails with my iPod because I need to hear people on the trails, and I feel that I’m more alert & less of a target if I’m not plugged in. Also, I love the sounds of the forest – the streams, the birds, etc.
  2. Trail running can be a great solo sport, but do be mindful of your safety. I seldom run trails with anyone else, because I do my runs on Fridays & most people are at work. But also because it’s a great meditative time for me – I work through problems, compose blog posts, and just have some Amy time.
  3. That noise you just heard? In the bushes off the trail? It sounded like something REALLY big, like a bear or a rapist? It’s probably just a tiny bird. Those things make more noise than you’d think they could. Crazy ass bear rapist birds!
  4. Keep your eyes open – you never know when you’ll see something cool – like a waterfall, or a deer, or a cool tree.
  5. Have fun. Enjoy yourself. It’s a beautiful way to get a great workout – both aerobically and anaerobically.

Let me know if you have any questions or anything to add! Also, if you want some suggestions for some great trail runs in the Portland area, I can definitely hook you up!

Recent Comments

  • Carolina John
    August 12, 2009 - 8:05 am ·

    Fantastic advice Gazzelle! Very cool. I’ve got to find a trail and get on it now. Actually, there is a trail I run sometimes at Furman, but it’s just a loop off of a paved walking path. It’s a fun extra 2 miles, but I always wondered why it seemed so much slower than the rest of the path.

    again, thanks for all the great trail tips. Incredibly useful post!

  • Alisa
    August 12, 2009 - 8:13 am ·

    This is awesome! It makes trail running seem a little less scary. I really am willing to try it as long as we go somewhere that’s NOT like that run to Pittock mansion =) or whatever crazy one that Jen said was hard too, hehe.

    Your pictures are lovely!

  • Susan
    August 12, 2009 - 9:51 am ·

    Love it! I’m mainly scared to do any trail runner because I’m convinced I’ll be attacked (by a bird…or a man…or a flower. You never know). I always think I should be able to cruise along at my normal pace and get freaked out when it’s much slower but doesn’t feel like it because I’m constantly alert and jumping over roots.

    Great overview for us newbies!

    • gazelle
      August 12, 2009 - 5:02 pm ·

      the worst damage I’ve ever gotten on a trail was being attacked by a plant – stinging nettles to be precise. Yuck & ow! 🙂

      I do love it though – so pretty & peaceful!

  • kristen
    August 12, 2009 - 11:07 am ·

    Very nice tutorial except for one thing:

    Bikers should yeild to runners? Isn’t that kind of like expecting cars on the freeway going 60+ mph yeilding to cars coming onto the onramp still getting up to speed?

    I would never expect a biker to yeild to me. Where did you get that?

    • gazelle
      August 12, 2009 - 11:19 am ·

      Most park systems suggest that bikers yield to pedestrians & horses, and pedestrians yield to horses. (basically bikers yield to EVERYONE, horses yield to NO ONE.)

      It doesn’t always happen (which is why I most often run on ped-only trails & bike on wider trails so that I can go around the peds, although I love single-track, but generally do that in less pedestrian heavy areas).

      This sign is on almost every trail I’ve ever been on: http://www.trailsandopenspaces.org/trails/etiquette.htm

      Other sources: http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/biketrail.htm
      http://www.portlandonline.com/parks/finder/index.cfm?action=ViewFile&PolPdfsID=81&/ForestPark_mountainbike_map.pdf
      http://www.nps.gov/biso/planyourvisit/biketrailetiquette.htm

      It is not often realistic to expect bikers to yield to runners – but they are supposed to (and can be ticketed for not, if there is someone around with the power to ticket for such things).

      That’s why I suggest that one just “be prepared” to be the one who yields, no matter who is ‘supposed’ to be yielding.

      • kristen
        August 12, 2009 - 11:29 am ·

        Interesting. Still, that’s one of the stupidest rules/laws I’ve ever heard. I can understand yeilding to horses, but c’mon, a mtb comes around a corner or down a hill barrelling — if that runner doesn’t get the fuck out of the way frankly, he deserves to get run over survival of the fittest style. If I (a biker) stops suddenly to yeild I will more than likely go flying over the handlebars. If a runner does…

        I assume I’m riding the right trails because I rarely come into contact with pedestrians (and If I do *they* step to the side) and have never seen any of these notices (although I admit I don’t think I’ve ever actually stopped to read them unless they say something like “Bear Sighting”).

        It’s so counter-intuitive.

        • gazelle
          August 12, 2009 - 11:48 am ·

          In my opinion, if a mt. biker is barreling around a corner so fast that they might hit someone who has no idea that they’re coming, then that the biker is at fault for over-riding conditions (the condition being the pedestrian population of the trail). Just as cars have to yield to peds no matter where they are and how dumb the person is, bikers should also be prepared to yield (or at least shout out a warning to the unsuspecting ped).

          That being said, although as a biker, I try to never run over anyone, even in the name of Darwinism, I do find that most peds yield to me. AND, as a runner/walker/hiker I bow to the superior laws of physics & get the hell out of the way if I have time/warning. 🙂

  • x-country2
    August 12, 2009 - 11:16 am ·

    What a GREAT post. I always want to trail run, but it all seems so scary. You make it sound easy and fun! Maybe I’ll try it some time.

    • gazelle
      August 12, 2009 - 5:03 pm ·

      It is so much fun – I really have a much better time on the trails AND it’s easier on the joints than pavement or concrete.

  • auntie
    August 12, 2009 - 11:19 am ·

    ha! i loved #5 under “Trail Etiquette”. if i was a runner, i would also need someone to run in front of me for this very reason.

  • Sarah
    August 12, 2009 - 11:49 am ·

    Hey remember that one time we ran trails together and I almost broke my ankle. I should have read this guide first!

  • Michael
    August 12, 2009 - 12:00 pm ·

    I wear headphones for the opposite reason. I don’t want to know what is hiding in the bushes and want to be completely surprised.

        • gazelle
          August 13, 2009 - 3:30 pm ·

          please be sure to alert me to all your planned runs so that I can make sure we never meet on the trail. I might accidentally spray you with my pepper spray!

  • Jessica Deline
    August 12, 2009 - 4:41 pm ·

    This is great. Good job! I would have to disagree about the walking part though. I think unless you are a really strong trail runner that you should walk the hills (especially if you don’t see the top). That also depends on how long the run is. The ultra runners creed is “if you can’t see the top – walk”. Even the fastest of runners do this at time. As an alternative if you are really pushing you pace you can run up the hill and gently coast down. Walking down can be good if your knees are sore and you are trying to build them up. I definitely wouldn’t recommend first time trail runners to bomb down the hills. That could be trouble!

    Oh – and always bring more food and water than you think you need. You probably WILL get lost eventually if you run enough trails.

    And if you are running the gorge or on Mt. Hood you need to take some extra precautions since the trails are much more remote and rough. The US Forest Web site for Mt. Hood talks about carrying the “10 Essentials” with you when you hike/run there. Those are probably good to have on just about any long trail run 🙂

    Great into to getting people on the trails! And yes Mountain Bikers ARE supposed to yield to runners and hikers. That’s pretty much international trail etiquette but it’s not always easy for Mtn Bikers to do that. Technically if a mountain biker comes barreling around a corner and a runner doesn’t get out of the way it’s the bikers fault. You have to be careful on shared trails 🙂

    • gazelle
      August 12, 2009 - 5:00 pm ·

      Thank you so much for your input! I know you have a LOT more experience than I do in this area.

      I love running hills, so I might be a bit prejudiced about not walking up – but then, I don’t often do more than 10-12 miles on trails & have no need to conserve energy for a long race. That is a very good pointer though – something to think about depending on your purpose on the trail. (The only real organized trail run I’ve done is the Forest Park 20K last May, and for full disclosure, I did walk up a couple of the hills.)

      I totally forgot the water tip – that one was in my head but must have slipped out.

      As for the yielding, it’s true that it would be the fault of the Mt. Biker if they hit me, the runner, but in the end, it might not matter who’s fault it is. I do tend to get out of the way of anything bigger than me!

  • Christine
    August 13, 2009 - 6:12 am ·

    The only trail I regularly run is the 1/2 mile loop off of our back field. I tripped on a vine last week and did a total face and right side plant. I was also extremely sweaty so I was dripping mud and decomposed stuff when I came into the house.

    Oddly enough, my housemates were not impressed. Ewwww was the most common comment! 😉

  • aron
    August 20, 2009 - 4:31 pm ·

    what an AWESOME post!! thank you for this 🙂 I really want to give trail running a try!! one of these days soon 🙂

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