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Hot On The Trail: Top Tips For Off-Road Running

Keep these key points in mind when taking your running to the trails.

Keep these key points in mind when taking your running to the trails.

Most trail running articles are aimed at turning people into better trail runners. They’re predicated on the valid idea that trail running and racing is a niche in itself, and they include lots of advice on how to get better at running on trails. This is honorable, but it skirts the fact that doing a lot of training on trails is a fine way to become a stronger runner across the board and a more capable competitor even if you never have designs on running an off-road race.

I’ve never run a trail race and have run a very limited number of none-asphalt events since college, but during my peak years as a long-distance road racer I usually did more than half of my 100-plus weekly miles on trails. There’s no question that I couldn’t have put in as much work as I did without getting hurt or badly beaten up had I not done so much of it on soft surfaces, and it’s impossible to overstate the physical and mental benefits of avoiding roads built for motor vehicles and the attendant annoyances introduced by such unforgiving gray strips. So I look at trail running the same way I look at running in the right kind of shoes or doing speed work on a treadmill rather than outdoors on icy surfaces or during driving rainstorms: It’s safer, it’s easier and in the end, my body and spirit are better for the experience.

If you are planning to ramp up your mileage in anticipation of a marathon, find your current training routine stagnant for some reason or simply have a yen for exploring, here are some ideas about trail running to consider.

RELATED: Drills For Trail Running

Defining A Trail

When you read the first couple of sentences of this article or maybe even just the headline, you almost certainly imagined someone climbing or descending a single-track, winding trail or motoring along an expanse of pine-needle-covered land, with either mountains or deep forests in the background. That’s ideal and idyllic, but for purposes of training, a “trail” can be just about anything. When I was sentenced to highly populous and topgraphically homogenous South Florida for a few years, my “trail” runs typically consisted of running along the mowed grass lining the lengthy drainage canals connecting the Everglades to the Atlantic Ocean. Other than the unusual array of large wading birds, there wasn’t a lot in the way of scenery on these urban “trails,” which typically included lots of road crossings in unrbanized areas. But it beat running on pavement and challenging objects that outweighed me by a couple of tons and emitted worse and more toxic smells than I did.

Other ways to achieve the same effect: Run loops around local parks and athletic fields, stick to the soft shoulder or roads rather than running on the pavement, or run on the grass alongside sidewalks. It does take discipline to run on soft surfaces when a paved one is right next to it—that’s just force of habit and it’s nice to feel quick, even at the expense of your muscles, which are always in some stage of recovery when you’re training seriously. And it’s boring to run loops around soccer fields and the like. But when you can zone out altogether without worrying about either flying off a moving belt or being clipped by a big chunk of metal on wheels and hasten recovery in the bargain, it’s an option worth giving weight even if the variety is absent and it may look kind of funny.

RELATED: Why Trail Running Is Sublime

Watch Your Footing

Yes, trail running in general offers more forgiving surfaces than does road running, but there’s also a huge range in both safety and surface type. Some trails, as noted, are essentially long, narrow lawns, while others are so choked with roots and rocks that running on them is almost a different biomechanical endeavor altogether—you may be moving at 60 percent of your usual speed while watching your heart rate edge toward lactate-threshold territory.

Probably the most important thing to be aware of is the potential for serious falls. It’s not easy to take a spill on level pavement, but some trails present golden opportunities for tripping, banging a knee, or twisting an ankle or worse with almost every step (I once knocked myself out for a few seconds after hooking my toe on a frozen outcropping of mud and whacking my noggin, and woke up to the sight of a yellow Lab patiently waiting for me to get a move on). This raises an important consideration …

Buddy Up

While running may offer the habitual solitude most of us crave in a too-connected world, it’s not a good idea to be roving around in the woods alone and far from medical or other help. If you’re not in the habit of running with others regularly or at all, consider changing this when you head onto the trails. Also, anathema though it may be, it’s not a bad idea to bring a cell phone with you in case something does happen when you’re far from the observing public.

RELATED: Proper Trail Running Etiquette

Get Sloshed

In very warm weather, you need fluid every 30 minutes or so. When running through populated areas, it’s normally easy to find water fountains or carry some cash to pick up a drink at a convenience store (a clerk’s response to being handed a sopping-wet dollar bill is a matter for another article altogether). Running on trails requires more forethought and might mean the need to carry your own fluid supply with you, so know your surroundings and how far you’re apt to be from a source of hydration at any time.