At the end of the road: The Rocks n’ Roots Running Blog
Five tips or steps for road runners and rookies who want to “Try on Trails”
Do you know this feeling too? You are a passionate, maybe even ambitious runner...a road runner. Suddenly the moment comes when you ask yourself if the partly monotonous asphalt and track training really fulfills you? I had that moment, that emptiness after my first, quite successful road marathon. And so, I turned off, with all the consequences, on the trails and it opened, in the truest sense of the word, completely new perspectives.But despite all the euphoria for the step towards the "adventure trail run", I have made several mistakes, suffered and learned "the hard way". So perhaps after reading this you’ll make fewer mistakes than I did. In this blog post I’ll give you my essential tips for a successful start into trail running in general, on the way to a successful first finish.You will certainly not be able to conquer the UTMB at the first go. That requires a more long-term expertise and a more individual approach 😉.
Who finds its way to the trails? Where do trail runners come from?
In July 2022, the International Trail Running Association (ITRA) published the Trail Runners' Habits study, based on a survey of 9514 male (82%) and female (18%) runners from 104 countries. In this survey, more than two-thirds of the participants (63.9%) stated that their first running experience was in road running before they started trail running. Only 20% said they had chosen to start trail running directly. These figures clearly show that many trail runners have taken my path "away from the road".
The same path, the same mistakes? Not necessarily, if you follow some essential advices to get started and realize that trail running is a little bit more complex in some ways than running on the road.
…but first of all: What is Trail Running?
- Trail Running is a cyclic running sport, with a lot of acyclic movements, likes e.g., jumps. Hiking and climbing are also used as a method of getting ahead.
- Trail Running is performed on natural or near-natural trails or paths, from lowlands to high alpine areas. Less than 20% of the routes should be paved or asphalted roads.
- Trail Running uses existing paths and infrastructure, e.g., hiking tracks or high mountains hiking routes.
- Consideration and empathy for nature (flora and fauna) are part of the "Trail Running DNA".
- Experience of nature & group feeling is for a large number of athletes before rank and result goals.
Trail running exposes the body to higher mechanical stresses than road running. For example, the eccentric loads on the anterior thigh muscles and the impact load on the passive musculoskeletal system (e.g., the knee) are 7 times greater in downhill running than in road running on the flat (Schwameder, 2003). As typical trail running related injuries (ITRA, 2022) can be named: Lower limb injuries: Trauma injuries, overuse reactions (e.g. blue toes), Muscle cramps due to insufficient nutrient supply or nervous restrictions (Hypotremia), muscle injuries due to lack of warm-up (mostly during training sessions) and Skin injuries due to falls (abrasions) and sunburns. These injuries should be avoided and can be reduced by an effective and extensive training (Step #3) and the nessacarry prepartations before hitting the trails (Step #4). In the end, the positive effects of trail running for body and mind will be bigger than the risks of a serious injury. So no fear! If you read further, you’ll find some necessarry tips about getting started safe!
Step #1 – Try on Trails
Okay, you’ve heard about Trail Running and the wonderful experiences which will be achievable while performing this sport in the wild nature, forests or mountains. And yes, these experiences and adventures are possible…but they cannot be guaranteed! So my first advice for you will be to “try on trails” before maybe spending a lot of money in more or less necessary Trail Running equipment (looking forward to step #2 😉). Many of you (former) road runners will have experiences to run on Trails, because the “Trail starts where the road ends!” During our road running career, the most of us will have spent time off the paved road, e.g. in parks or forest roads. Just carefully expand these experiences a bit, while it will be possible to do it without spending extra money first! Usually you’ll have one pair of running shoes which will fit for these expanded try on Trails. Just lace up a sturdy running shoe, equipped with a good tread, under your feet. Search for an easy and short offroad track around your hometown or the place you live, which will always offer you the opportunity to stop the experience if it doesn’t fit for you. My recommendation for route planning would be to choose a hiking trail, categorized as "easy". You’ll might find these tracks for the location around you on may outdoor activity portals in the internet. It although might be an idea for a new vacation experience, asking a local guide for his support.
After this low cost test you can then make your own decision. No, I just don't like it for a variety of reasons. It's not my kind of sport. Or: Yes! It absolutely fits, I’m in! Trail Running will offer me a new opportunity to discover, explore and to push my boundaries.
Maybe step #1 will safe you a lot of money, although of course I hope you end up joining the Trail Running Community!
Step #2 – The right shoe and other necessary equipment for the start
Road Running is easy! Usualy we do not need any great equipment or a special outfit. Simple, comfortable, breathable sportswear is of course advantageous, but it’s not a must. In general, this similarly fits for Trail Running in many cases. But, the special challenges of trail running and the environment where it is usually performed, must be taken into account while composing the necessary equipment.
For me, similar to Road Running, it all starts with the pair of shoes you’ll wear outside. However, you should not try to save money when choosing your first trail running shoes. These shoes are the most important connection between the body and the natural running surface. Always remember: These shoes will although maybe have the task to protect you from injuries and accidents out there. They have to fit and function. Most injuries in Trail Running are a result of twisting an ankle or slipping (ITRA, 2022).
For starting into your first real Trail Running experiences, I strongly recommend to buy a shoe from the so called “Allrounder” segment. These kind of shoes will offer the newbie everything that is needed starting exploring the trails. They will offer a healthy balance between comfort, stability and safety. The most important detail will be the grip of the outer sole of the shoe on different and changing surfaces. It should gurantee best possible ground control in many different weather conditions and environmental tasks. Nowadys a wide range of good multitasking shoes is avalable, but none of the will completly fulfill all tasks in a perfect manner. And as a starter, you don’t have to look for a special “racer”, a “sky running monster” or an “ultra beast”, just buy the one that fits the best for you. And in this case,I strongly recommend an individual consultation of a real running / trail running shoe expert. This expert should be found in a specialized sports or running store and not in the “World Wide Web”. These professionals will have an eye for which shoe fits you and also fits with your plans. They will also offer you opportunities in case of recognized imbalances or orthopedic problems. If you want to run happy and healthy for a long time, you should follow this advice.
You can buy a lot of other more or less needful and necessarry equipment for Trail Running, but what else is really necessary and useful to get safely started? I strongly recommend to buy a Trail Running Backpack or Race Vest. It will offer you the opportunity to comfortly carry your nutrition and aditional equipment out on the trail. Once used to it and familiar with the loading aspects, it’ll be a piece you don’t wanna miss out there. You’ll find a wide range of different types from different brands. Prices may varry, but nearly similar to the choice of the shoes, it’s also important that everything fits for you. Normaly you’ll be able to use this backpack or vest for many years, so it’s a good investment. My first race vest, bought back in 2015, is still in use and looking well.
For the start, do you really need more “specific” Trail Running equipment? My general answer will be “no”, but with one exception. We could e.g. discuss about poles. But are the nessacarry for the start or in general? I don’t think so. But there is one piece of equipment, I would strongly recommend to all Trail Runners out there, regarding special conditions. Snow-Chains (Spike-Chains) may safe lives out there! They might not be necessarry when there is absolutly no snow or ice in sight. But if it is maybe necessarry, even in summer, to cross snowfields or glaciers or it might be very muddy out there, they can be more than helpful. Nowadays they are very light and you’ll find space in your backpack for them. Usage is very easy and safe. A very good and recommended investment in safety on trails.
All other equipment can be named “general running equipment” or additional “Trail Running Equipment”. So what do we finally need or recommend for a good start:
· A fitting pair of Trail Running shoes
· A Trail Running Backpack or Race Vest
· And a special recommendation: Snow-Chains (Spike-Chains)
Step #3 – Additional Training aspects
As you take a closer look to the athletic requirements profile of Trail Running, you’ll see that Trail Running is just more then a simple endurance sport. Endurance (or resistance) seems to be the all over basic requirement, but taking in account that we are running in a non standarized and ever changing environment (e.g. on forest trails, on mountain passes,…) it’s getting simply clear, that we have to use all our capacities and senses.
Now a tip from a runner, based on his own, partly painful experiences! The so-called "conditional abilities" are divided into 4 sub-areas (strength, flexibility, endurance and coordination), of which we endurance runners are all too happy to ignore two or three of them. However, in addition to the simple running or speed-hiking training to increase endurance performance, the other areas should not be neglected. Stretching and mobilization (flexibility) should be part of every running session (pre- and post-workout). If you then manage to do a few targeted strengthening exercises 1 - 2 times a week as a preventive measure, you will create a very good basis for injury-free running pleasure. Coordination exercises can be performed in isolation or integrated into a running session. This works wonderfully and without additional equipment during trail running, for example! The changing terrain always provides new coordinative stimuli. Important: Always perform real challenging coordination exercises when you are fresh and recovered! Speedwork is needed as another oppurtunity to increase the maximum oxygen intake, called VO2max and to use and recrute the fast twitch fibres of your muscles. In addition, this will help you to run or perform more economic. Also ultra trail runners should keep in mind that speedwork is necessarry, even though that it seems that velocity or speed is not the most important key factor of finishing or maybe winning a long distance trail race. If you want to run ultras in the summer, your speedwork to increase the VO2max should be performed during the off-season months in winter. For these workouts, like fast intervalls, treadmills are fine 😉.
Regarding my own training or the training concept I’m used to, I prefer and perform (more or less) the polarized training model (compare Seiler, 2010), with round about 80% of low intensity training and 20% of high intensity sessions. In addition to this training intensity distribution, I like the kiss-motto: Keep it simple and stupid! But don’t forget about recovery and enjoying what you are doing while trail running.
Step #4 – Hit the Trail
Hitting the trails to me it’s always an adventure. Sometimes only a small one (e.g. training on my well known home-trails), sometimes a bigger one, e.g. while discovering new routes. The possibility to do trail running in our beautiful and unique nature should always be seen as a gift to us. Yes, sometimes it’s all about racing and challenging ourselves or our opponents. But aside this special racing situation, which should also be safe, it’s all about safety and having as much fun as possible out there. Forget about pace per kilometer and a lot of other parameters well known from your old road running life. These parameters will not count on the trails, because routes are not compareable out there! 10 K here will not be 10 K there. When you start trail running, let it happen. Let your body and mind feel the efforts during a hard incline in an uphill section and also feel the flow on a nice downhill single-trail. If you find a nice spot with a great view, stop for a while, breath in and simply enjoy. Trail running is so much more then a sport, it’s a way of live. I guess, when you this, you’ll regocgnize that I’ve fallen in love with it. But beside this, enjoyable trail running is about planing, preparation and assessing one's own capabilities in a realistic manner!
My following shortlist of tips should be considered before embarking on any trail running training or adventure. The list will not be exhaustive. It has no claim to completeness, does not represent comprehensive advice and does not release you from individual, comprehensive preparation. Just some brainstorming of what directly comes to my mind, planing my trail running activities!
- Start with lower distances than you may be used to run in road racing. Up- and Downhill-Running will initially challenge your muscles in a completely different way than they were used to.
- Always plan an unknown route very carefully. Use gps-routing tools (e.g. gps-watch) or maps. Remember: Cellphones will not always work properly in rural environment. Inform yourself about any difficulties that could occur, e.g. climbing passages or more dangerous ridges! Also check out, if there are any resting spots (e.g. alps or mountain restaurants on your route and if they are opened. Always have the opportunity for an alternative route or an emergency descent in mind and available. Timetables may change when you have bigger ascents and descents on your way or other issues may slow you down. It’s not always the velocity of trail running, often it’s a faster kind of hiking.
- Tell someone that you are on the way, preferably with concrete information about the planned route. In addition you may use tracking or location apps.
- The weather may change very quickly. Before going out, check out available weather forecasts. In unknown locations, in addition ask the locals for more information. It may help avoiding problems.
- Always adapt your equipment to the requirements of the planed route (detailed planning) and also to any problems that may arise. This is especially important regarding warm and protective clothing! Carrying a first aid kid is mandatory.
- The next alp, shop or restaurant may not always be available or reachable when thirst and hunger occurs. Always take enough nutrition with you. Special sports nutrition (e.g. carbohydrate-gels or energy bars) may be easier to carry.
- If you are not sure, ask a local guide for help or a guided tour to get started safely! It might also be a good opportunity to join a local trail running community.
- Finally, it’s all about making this special experiences out there, enjoying and feeling the strength of mother nature and learn a lot about yourself and about the spirit of the trail running family!
Step #5 – Racing, Competitions and Events
First of all: No, for calling yourself a trail runner it’s not necessary to take part in any races or competitions or visit any community events. You may also enjoy and feel trail running doing it alone and for yourself. Not everyone of us is a racer or competetitor, not everyone need this challenge. Maybe we can call it an “add on feature”. For me it’s very inspiring to meet the trail running community at events or races. Okay, I’m a competitior, I like to challenge myself and sometimes my opponents. If you’re not sure if you should compete in a trail race, I recommend to visit a trail running event or race as a visitor, fan or supporter first. You’ll recognize one thing very fast: Trail Racing is mainly not about competing against other runners, it’s more about racing with each other and having a good time out there. I’ve taken part in many competitions and often the last finishers earned as much cheers than the winners. So, it will be no big problem for the community if you are much slower than the winners. You’ll also be a part of the community, no doubt about this. But if you want to compete and you are looking for your first trail running race, you should have some things in mind before you register for a race or event:
- Make a conscious selection. Be honest with yourself and adjust the distance and requirements to your realistic ability. I might be a good idea to take the first steps at a smaller local event than at a big named one.
- Don’t start your trail racing experiences directly on an ultra distance, even if you are or were an experienced road runner. I recommend to expand distances and difficultiy level slowly.
- Make sure that you are prepared. Get your training done. If there were some issues during your preparation phase, you may switch to a shorter distance or another race later.
- Deal with the necessary, prescribed equipment and additionally think about what you might need in addition. Don’t hasitate to contact the Organizer for more informations. Most of them will answer fore sure.
- Make yourself familiar with the race specification and details. Check the route profile. Recognize the location of the refreshment points. Think about your additional nutrition.
- Ask your family or friends for additional support and motivation at race day.
- Be confident in what you are doing and try to have fun! You might suffer but be sure, other will do so! If you feel to walk or hike, it’s okay. If you need a break, take it! Breath in deeply and become one with the sorrounding nature.
Again, I can only recommend to join events or races. I’m sure you’ll make a lot of new experiences which may be different to the ones that you may have made at usual road running events.
Summary and final recommendations
If you feel kind a stocked in your road running career, trail running might be the turnoff you should follow. Nature near running will lead you to new experiences. Forget about pace and pressure and try to enjoy what you’re doing out there. Trail running may lead your body and mind to new borders. To avoid injuries, expand your training with trail running related contents. Best training is being out on the trails! Trail running adventures should always be planed well and careful preparation is the necessary way to keep safe. Keeping all this in mind, it’s not as dangerous as it might seem after this recommendations. Trail running really has a great community. Go out and explore, even if you don’t feel for racing or competing. To gather more information, search the net and e.g. check out the ITRA website. If you’re not sure about “trying on trails”, maybe ask a local guide to support your first steps.
Now! Get up! Lace your (trail-) running shoes and explore! Hope to see and meet you on the trails soon!
About the author: I’m a licensed running instructor and trail running guide. Founder of Rocks n’ Roots Running & Fitness – Lechtal, a trail running and running school, located in the tyrolean Lechtal region.
List of sources:
- Austrian Sykrunning und Trail Running Association. (2019). Ausbildung zum Trail-Running Guide (Seminarunterlagen). Haag am Hausberg. Publikation & Herausgeber ASTA.
- International Trail Running Association. (2022). Trail Runners’ Habits. Zugriff am 07.07.2022 unter https://itra.run/content/news/EN_ITRA%20TRAIL%20RUNNERS%20HABITS.pdf
- International Trail Running Association. Zugriff am 29.09.2022 unter https://itra.run/About/
- Seiler, S. K. (2010). What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes? International journal of sports physiology and performance, 5 (3), 276-291.
- Schwameder, H. (2003). Biomechanische Analyse und Steuerung der Belastung in den Gelenken der unteren Extremitäten beim Gehen und Berggehen.
- Fotocredit: : Lechtal Tourismus / Fotograf Medienagentur Ratko