From the moment my worn-down Asics hit the dirt trails in DC’s Rock Creek Park, I knew my running would be forever changed.
Like most people, I started out running on the roads. I trained for a road marathon, and established neighborhood loops from my house. It was good. I was happy.
But that day more than six years ago — on that trail — I realized how much more the simple shift from running on trail, not pavement, could provide.
But it hasn’t always been peaks and vistas.
The transition from pavement to dirt had plenty of bumps — or mistakes — along the way. These mistakes are common for new trail runners because of the key differences and expectations between running on different surfaces.
Fortunately, they’re easily minimized when you come in with a little bit of knowledge.
Rules to Live By When Transitioning from Road Running to Trail Running
Below I dive into what I believe are the six rules everyone should know before hitting the trail.
Rules that if followed will help make trail running more approachable, easier to incorporate, and a lot more fun.
But the first is often the hardest to accept:
1) Slow Down
As rough as it may be on the ego, don’t expect to maintain the same pace on the trail as you do on the road — especially as a beginner. You can blame that on a few things:
- There’s more in the way. Rocks, roots, trees, leaves, they all cause changes in your stride that effect your pace.
- Even with a good pair of trail shoes, traction is often an issue.
Often times your typical running intensity will produce a slower pace and can vary significantly depending on the trail.
So what should you do? Start to measure your runs based on intensity, not pace.
And because a run will most likely take longer on the trail, as a beginner I recommend running for time instead of distance. For example, if a six mile run takes around 60 minutes on the road, go on a 60 minute trail run instead of a six mile trail run. You may only make it five miles, but the workout will be similar.
2) Mind the Hills (And Don’t Be Afraid to Walk)
Road hills can be treacherous, but let’s face it, they’re nothing compared to what the trail can throw your way.
Trail builders aren’t restricted to road building regulations, so they follow a more natural flow. Up a mountain or over a giant bolder, the flow is often more direct and much steeper on trail, creating interesting climbs and descents.
As a new trail runner, I believed “going for a run” meant only running, but it didn’t take long to realize why everyone else around me slowed to a power hike instead of a run on the steepest hills.
This doesn’t mean you’re weak or slow, and it’s often a more efficient way of making your way up the trail.
3) Lift Your Feet
Someone once told me that Americans are some of the clumsiest people in the world because we’re accustomed to smooth sidewalks and roads (just watch people as they walk up an uneven staircase).
When it comes to trails we have the same problem. Once you pick up pace and open your stride, the bumpy singletrack can quickly send you tumbling into the dirt. And you know what? That’s all part of the game.
Just last week I went on a 14 mile run with three very seasoned trail runners. The trail was littered with leaves and before we made it back to our cars all of us had fallen at least once. It happens … especially when you’re a beginner.
But as you teach yourself how to lift your feet, scan the ground for obstetrical, and run with a stride that adjusts to the terrain, falling becomes much less of a concern. When it does happen, just brush yourself off and keep moving.
4) Don’t be a Jackass
Every sport, discipline, and hobby has it’s own etiquette. Trail running is no different.
Learn how to share the trail, pack out what you take in, and be mindful of other trail users.
When racing, it’s all about the community. Thank the volunteers, help out your fellow racers, and remember that you’re all in this together.
5) Get New Gear (But Only as You Need It)
Running should be simple, right? Especially trail running. So do you need new gear to run on the trails?
Here, this video may help you decide:
The simple answer is no, you don’t need new gear. But — and this is a big one — if you plan to run on trails frequently, some gear is a good idea.
Running through the woods will probably mean that you’re left with fewer resources, so you may need to carry water, food, or extra layers with you. You’ll find many of the basic items I recommend in the Trail Store.
Then there’s the question about shoes. I like to say that if you’re running at least a third of your miles on trails, or if you’re frequently running on difficult terrain, you should invest in a pair of trail specific shoes. Trail shoes are typically made from tougher materials than road shoes, and are built to withstand the extra wear and tear. Sometimes they have a rock-plate in the sole to help protect the feet against bruising, and they’ll always have larger lugs — or grip — on the sole to grasp the trail.
That said, road shoes can be used on the trail and trail shoes on the road, so it’s up to you if you think you need to make the investment.
6) Take Safety Precautions
Safety is always a concern for new trail runners. The fear of getting lost, experiencing treacherous weather, or encountering bad animals (or humans) will keep some people from ever going out on their own.
The chances of something bad happening are very slim, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I recommend you take appropriate safety precautions before hitting the trail:
- Tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return.
- Take a phone with you if you’re going to be gone for a long period of time.
- Know the route or carry a map.
- Don’t run with headphones (or leave at least one ear out) so you can hear what’s going on around you.
- Carry a backup layer or jacket if warmth will be an issue.
- Take a little more food and water than you think you will need.
- Know the wildlife risks, and how to handle a situation if it were to arise.
And whenever possible, run with someone else.
Chances are nothing will happen, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Now, Go Outside and Play
Trail running has breathed new life into my running, and I hope that it can do the same for you.
Don’t get discouraged if it seems harder than expected, or if you feel timid by the new challenges. Embrace them. Push yourself.
And if all else fails these six tips should take much of the guessing game out of your transition, and provide a bit more confidence when you hit the dirt.