How to Survive Your First Trail Run in 7 Simple Steps
We’ve all seen the image:
The runner in the woods, deftly maneuvering over roots, rocks, sand, ice, river, whatever stands in their way. Usually with their faithful dog running alongside them. Seemingly without a care in the world. So confident, so light, fearless. Nothing can stop them from reaching their goal. The top of the hill/peak where they will stand with hands on hips, basking in the glory of their “Oneness with Nature”. Cousin to the graceful yet powerful deer,gazelle, rabbit, falcon.
And you think to yourself, “Wow, that’s how I want to feel. I’m going trail running!!”
Ah, the Glory!
So you gear up and find the nearest trail. There just so happens to a be a perfect trail just miles/minutes from your house. It’s a single-track Mountain Bike/Hiking Trail with gorgeous trees, rivers and plenty of opportunity for the “Oneness with Nature” you so desperately seek.
“This is going to be great!” you think to yourself, “Just what I need after a day/week of sitting at the office, or driving around the busy town.” “A chance to truly unwind and get back to my animal roots.”
You park your car and step out into the dusty/earthy parking lot. You see a few other cars there with bike racks and you think, “Oh good, there are bikers out here in case I get lost or need company!”
As you set off to the trail head you are already envisioning the incredible, yet humble, stories you’ll regale to your other running buddies at your next road run. Tales of how you went rogue and decided to try that “DRT” running thing. Tales of the wildlife you saw and perhaps that moment when you made eye-contact with that deer and some how you saw into the soul of that creature and it infused you with its calm and graceful strength.
Hopefully that isn't Poison Ivy...
“I don’t know man, but when I was out there, I became a part of it all ya know what I mean. And not just these woods, but all of the woods on this planet!”
Your running buddies will look at you with a new-found respect.
You are no longer predictable, you are “Wild”.
As that last thought leaves your head, you take your first steps onto the trail. It’s a bit of a drop down with some rocks and a bit of sand, but nothing you weren’t expecting. You are feeling good. Wait, not good, GREAT! Free! Inspired!
So you pick up the pace. You’re trucking right along so you decide you check your watch and “WTF?! I’m going 3 minutes slower per mile than when I’m on the road!” And then, BAM!, you’re on your hands and knees with the taste of sand gritting between your teeth.
You think it won't happen to you?
“What the hell just happened?!” You look back up the trail, and see a tiny little demon root sticking out of the center of the sand. It was just short enough to miss your awareness when you looked down to check your time and just evil enough to grab the toe of your shoe and send you careening hard into the ground.
You stand up to take further assessment. Perhaps you broke skin and are now watching some of your life-force trickle down from a tiny but wide open gash in your knee. Or maybe the joints on which you landed are now feeling like they are being crushed in a vice. Or both.
Whatever the case, it is safe to say in that one fell swoop, all grandeur and hope were knocked out of you and you realized that nature was not necessarily going to welcome you with open arms. Nature is going to make you sure you respect the trail.
You continue down the trail and experience an array of new things that you never expected.
Spider-webs to the face, a constant grit in your mouth, the inability to wipe the sweat from your eyes because everything is covered in “DRT”.
Snakes, a squirrel you swore sounded like a wolf coming to eat you, hills that make your previous “hill-workouts” look like speed bumps. That terrible moment when you realized you had no clue where you were. And “OMG! Where the hell did all of these roots/sand pits/ rocks come from?”
But you’ll also experience glimmers of all you hoped. Those moments when the trail broke through the trees and you were standing in a wide-open field alight with all sorts of winged creature. Butterflies, dragonflies. The sound of birds, cicadas, crickets. Or the even more beautiful, the sound of nothing whatsoever.
It’s those moments when you realize, you weren’t wrong in your first hopes of trail running, you were actually spot on! But because Nature is truly the “Wild” one, you needed to learn a few lessons first.
And then you think, perhaps I would have been better prepared if I had read up on trail running just a little before I ventured out.
Well, Trail Running Hopefuls, here is your crash course in 7 simple steps:
1. Know your Trail-
Study it. Know how many loops there are and how many miles.
Find out if there are any water stops or, like most trails, there won’t be any water stops and you’ll have to hoof in your own supplies.
Know if there are any close by roads, in case something were to happen and you needed to find help (not all falls are a simple scrape/sprain).
2. Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail-
And that goes doubly so with nutrition/hydration on a trail run. As stated previously, unlike road runs, where you can plan your route with water stops, trails are usually wild. No fountains. And you usually don’t want to sip on the water sources along the trail unless they are known for their purity.
Trail Runners have a few options for planning Hydration/Nutrition:
They can drop off supplies and plan on making loops back to that same spot. Usually a 1-3 mile loops depending on trail and ability.
They can carry in. Camelbak makes some great back packs that are pretty comfortable to run in. Or there are water bottles specifically created to be held.
Food can usually be carried in via the Camelbak or if you use gels/blocks/bars most running shorts have a pocket you can store them in. There are an array of ways to store food, but plan ahead so you can carry what you need.
*Please remember that you are going into nature and what you bring in, you must also bring out. Don’t start that whole littering thing, it’s disrespectful and annoying to everyone. Respect the trail!
3. Don’t worry about pace-
Trail running is a balance between strength, agility and speed. When you are first beginning, all of the extra maneuvering will take some of your energy away from speed and place it in agility and strength. This is very necessary. Most running injuries occur from weakness in laterally moving muscles/tendons (IT Band, Hips, Ankles). Trail running evens everything out and makes you an overall stronger running. Running trails will make you faster and healthier on the roads. So pick up yours knees, get up that hill, and stay focused on what lies ahead.
4. Bring a phone or a running buddy-
See those cars with bike racks? You may never see that person.
The nature of the trail is often seclusion. Those Mountain Bikers are probably way ahead of you and will be out of the trails before you hit halfway. They’ll be home drinking a beer before you are back to your car. If you need help, they may not be there to provide that. A phone is great in case you get lost. Most phones have GPS and a lot of trails are on those maps. Or at least you’ll be able to locate north!
Much like open water swimming, trail running, at least in the beginning, should not be done alone. Who knows what you are going to need. It’s wild out there, respect the trail.
*Side Note: If you are running/hiking a trail and you see a Mountain Biker coming up, please step to the side (watch out for snakes/poison ivy though!). They are going to need to pass you and it is much easier for you to step aside than it is for them to stop and walk around you. If you are listening to music, keep it low so you can hear approaching bikers, or keep one bud out. Don’t make them tap you with their front tire. It’s scary, you’ll scream.
5. Nature Calls- I’ll be brief with this. It happens. Don’t do it on the trail. Step far into the woods. Dig a hole if necessary. The end.
6. Headband- It’s not just for hippies! It’ll help you wipe the sweat from your brow or it can be used as a bandage/booty wiper/tourniquet. Please don’t use it for all three.
*Bandaids are not a great choice unless you are able to clean and dry the wound. The salt/dirt/sweat on your skin will disintegrate the adhesive.
7. Don’t cut/reroute/alter the trail-
Don’t cut across switchbacks. It erodes the trail and you never know where the hole/snake is that’s covered by leaves. Don’t reroute/alter. Most trails were designed for a purpose. Most trails have stewards. If you experience an issue, bring it to them. Do not take it upon yourself to cut roots, rearrange rocks, move obstacles, etc. The only thing I ever do is tuck back a vine or face-grabber (small limbs) to save my eyes from getting attacked.
A few other things to think about:
Wear what is comfortable. I run in minimalist Innov-8. Other runners wear trail specific shoes. Most just wear what they run road in. Don’t think you have to have a different shoe for each type of running. You just need to be confident in your footwear.
Like road running, dress for weather that is 10 degrees warmer. You will heat up quickly!
Even if you are bringing a cell phone or a buddy, let someone on the outside know where you are going and when you expect to be done. Especially if the trail you are venturing is far secluded from civilization.
Not if, when. You will fall. And most of the time you will be ok. Take a moment, regroup, cry if you need to, bandage up any wounds, dust of the dirt and carry on. Unless you can’t walk, and then you’ve got your buddy or a phone to rely on!
* I fall on 95% of the runs I go on. It’s usually towards the end when I get tired and forget to pick my feet up. And they are usually slow motion with lots of bruising of the ego. Don’t feel bad about falling on the trail. It’s part of the fun!
Enjoy the adventure!
Lastly-Have Fun!I know there were a lot of warnings in this article, however, they are placed here so that you can forgo much heartache and get to the good stuff. The connection with nature! The charging up a hill to be rewarded by a glorious "Buena Vista"! The moment you actually do make eye-contact with that deer and it’s like you hear the voice of Mother Nature welcoming you to your true home!
In my humble opinion: Trail running is The Sh**!!!
Hands down my favorite form of running.
Give it a try and welcome yourself into a whole new group and culture of runners!
And don't worry, the road will always be there too. You don't have to give up one in order to have the other.
At iTRI365 we host a couple of trail runs a week. Usually 1 for beginners (30-60min) and 1 for intermediate-advanced (1+hours). They are open to the public! So if you are ever in our neck of the woods, give us a shout and jump onto one of our awesome DRT Runs!