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!