Once you try trail running, there’s no going back!
Ultramarathon runner Dan Chabert talks us through what it takes to get into trail running, from choosing your first trail to running your first race.
I’ve been a runner for most of my life, and it wasn’t until I had been running for nearly a decade-plus that I finally discovered trail running and realised what a huge game-changer it was for me and my fitness.
The winter sports season is just around the corner, and if you’re keen to get fit for skiing or snowboarding, trail running can be just the ticket. Running over uneven ground strengthens joints and ligaments and gets those little balance muscles working. As your body gets stronger you’ll find it easier to run over downed trees and through mud and sand, reaching a level of fitness that will pay dividends when you hit the slopes.
Find a trail near your home
The handier your local trail is, the more likely you are to find a loop you’ll want to do regularly. Bear in mind that every trail is different and presents its own challenge. Wider, more established paths provide a good introduction to trail running, whilst uneven singletrack with hills, tree roots and off-camber sections will be more tiring and require focus so you don’t trip.
Run with people who know the sport
When you’re beginning to run trails for the first time, consider hooking-up with a local trail running group. They’ll be able to show you the best trails and advise on running technique and gear.
Wait a while until you splash out on expensive trail running gear
Wait to buy stuff because your existing gear might be good enough. Fortunately, running is a sport that doesn’t require a lot of gear, but runners are known for having a penchant for the latest running gear. If you’ve already been running for a while, it’s likely that you’ll have acquired a decent amount of running gear – such as shoes, socks, breathable layers and a watch. You’ll be able to use all of this when you transition to trail running. If I were you, I’d wait before buying new gear and see if your existing gear is good enough.
If there is one bit of kit that’s worth investing in, it’s a good pair of trail running shoes. Compared to your regular runners they’ll have better traction and more stability, and if the trail’s wet they won’t hold water.
Sign up for a race
Nothing focuses the mind like a race date in your calendar! Trail and mountain running is hugely popular, and you’ll have no shortage of races to choose from. You can literally run every distance in a trail race somewhere – from a 5k all the way up to a 100-miler (and beyond), over the course of one day or over a multi-stage adventure – so it’s really about finding a distance that suits you and is one that you can adequately train for. Tap into the wisdom of your new-found trail running buddies, who have likely done a race or two, to get their recommendations and insight. Compare your performance on the road to the equivalent distance on the trail and you’ll get an insight into how much more challenging trail running is.
A lot more than just running
Even though trail running is essentially the same sport as track or road running, you can still regard it as an entirely different type of running because of the effect of the uneven ground. If nothing else, trail running provides you with some fun elements of uncertainty that you usually don’t get from road running. Trail running allows you to access ever-changing, undulating, challenging, and technical terrain. Running in the mountains can also be hugely exhilarating. While it is wonderful to see the top of a mountain from the road, it’s an absolute rush to stand on the summit, looking down at the town knowing that you got there under your own steam.
A full body workout
Trail running will make you physically and mentally stronger in ways that you couldn’t have imagined. Compared to running on roads, trail running will make you work different muscles, including many of the ‘little stabilizer muscles’ that you don’t use in regular road running. Trail running, in effect, is more of a total-body exercise than road running because of the dynamic movements you need to make to overcome obstacles and balance on uneven ground. Throughout your run your pace will change depending on the terrain. You’ll be flying on the downhills, power-hiking the uphills, or carefully negotiating technical singletrack.
Trekking poles are becoming increasingly popular among ultrarunners. They offer increased stability, help you power up the hills and take some of the pressure off the joints in your lower legs, sharing the effort with your upper body. Poles have been embraced more heartily by mid to back-of-the-pack runners and athletes competing in more extreme mountain races. But, running with poles is no cop out, you bring your upper body into play and therefore you get a real full body workout.
The bottom line is that getting into trail running is straightforward. All you need is a trail, a pair of trail shoes and a decent dose of enthusiasm. The sport’s ease of access is what in my opinion makes trail running so liberating.
As much as there are physical benefits, for me the mental rewards are even greater. Trail running often leaves me feeling more grounded and centered, like I’m at one with nature and leaves me with a fantastic feeling of freedom.
So, whether you want to get in shape for the winter season or you’re thinking about entering an increasingly popular mountain running race like the UTMB®, taking up trail running is going to get you where you want to be. You might even find that you don’t need an ulterior motive to take up trail running and it becomes your sport of choice. Whatever your motivations are, there’s a global trail running community, myself included, that will gladly welcome you.