Trail running is attracting more and more runners. The feeling is indeed very different between road running and trail running. The feeling of freedom and the possibility to enjoy the nature are much bigger. Whether you are a multiple marathon runner or you just run 10km once in a while, it is possible to start trail running. All distances and difficulties exist to please as many people as possible, and above all to bring pride in surpassing oneself in magnificent places. However, there are some subtleties compared to road running. Here are 10 tips to help you start trail running and enjoy it instantly.
1. Buy trail shoes
The very first thing to do when you want to start running on trails is to buy the right shoes. Indeed, trail shoes offer a better grip. They also protect the foot better from small shocks and other rocks. Of course, they are less light than running shoes. But since speed is often secondary, this is not a problem. Also, a first pair of trail shoes should be comfortable, have a good grip and not be performance oriented.
2. Invest in adapted equipment as you go along
Trail running often requires you to run semi-autonomously in the mountains. Thus, in addition to specific shoes, a whole bunch of equipment is necessary. However, it is not useful to invest in all the equipment from the beginning. In fact, it is better to go step by step as you need it. Thus, the first equipment to buy will undoubtedly be a small trail bag, often called a camel bak. This one will be essential to carry a water reserve, some supplies and the rest of the equipment you want to take with you.
Then, it will be good to have a headlamp, a windbreaker, clothes adapted to all types of conditions, poles… to know more about the equipment in trail, I wrote two articles that you can consult on this blog: Basic gear, from the first trail to the first ultra and Specific gear for 100 mile mountain trails. The most important advice to remember is to know your gear perfectly and to test it well before a race.
3. Train on the right terrain
If you want to start trail running, it means you want to run off-road. Without necessarily going all the time to run in the mountains or on hilly terrain, it is important to find a training circuit on trails.
The main difference with road running is the attention you need to pay to your footing. You have to get used to running on an irregular path where there may be holes and stones. The pace of the race will be much less homogeneous with changes in terrain and slope. But this is what makes the charm of the trail!
4. Learn to refuel properly
Most of the time, trails are semi-autonomous races. This means that there are not as many refreshments as in road races. So, you must have something to eat and drink. Food management is essential. The first piece of advice you can give to someone who is just starting out is to set a time interval after which you should always eat and drink a little.
Poor hydration and nutrition is one of the first causes of the downturns that can occur during a race. This is also true on a training run which is often longer than a simple jog. This also allows you to test the products you take with you.
5. Don’t be afraid of the positive altitude difference
The trail is very often associated with positive elevation changes. And this is also why we like trail running. So, when you are a beginner, you should not be afraid of long climbs. Depending on the race or the training you want to do, the difference in altitude can be swallowed by running or by walking. Indeed, when the percentage is too important or the distance too long, it will be more efficient to start walking than to continue running. It is then necessary to train for it. If you don’t have the opportunity to do long runs, it can be interesting to do at least some hill splits.
6. Practice running on technical downhills
When you run uphill, you run downhill. And if during the climbs, the rhythm cannot be important and walking can be judicious at times, the descent is an opportunity to run at a good pace. But if the descent on the road already requires a particular technique to lengthen the stride without getting in the red, the trail has other specificities. Indeed, a descent on a trail can be technical. You have to know how to run in a flexible way by anticipating the supports and analyzing the relief. However, it is important to save energy while avoiding the traps of the trail. This can be particularly hard on the joints. There is only one solution: training.
7. Choose the right distance for your first race
A mistake that can be made when you start trail running is to start at too great a distance. Trail running is quite specific compared to road running. So, it is better to start with a distance that you know and that you master.
A marathon runner can start with a 30km trail while someone for whom running a half marathon is already a big challenge can find a 16 to 20 km event. If even a half-marathon seems difficult to you today, you can still try trail running. Smaller distances exist and the main thing to remember is that trail running is much more fun than running. Therefore, even a beginner runner can have fun on the trails. Only after having tested a reasonable distance, you will be able to lengthen the distances, and maybe even to start the ultra and discover all its specificities.
8. Know how to walk at the right time
Unlike road running, walking does not mean being exhausted. There are times during the race when it may be wise to stop running. This is especially true on hills. Depending on the distance you are running and your level, you will need to know when to start walking. This often corresponds to the moment when the percentage of slope becomes too important. Running is then no longer the most efficient way to move. It is important to know that on most of the trails, even the first ones make some passages by walking. But, once you walk, you have to know how to get back on the trail and start running again. This transition must be well negotiated, and your body must be used to it so as not to lose too much energy.
9. Forget your watch and your pace
The time reference points in trail running and road running are not at all the same. Paces are very different and above all very irregular throughout a race. So, my main advice is to forget your watch and the pace you are at. It is quite normal to be, over an equivalent distance, much slower in trail running than in road running. So, the best way to forget about the time and the kilometers is to not have any reference points and not to focus on your watch. Instead, rely on your sensations.
10. Enjoy the view and the surrounding nature
We often like trail running because we like to run in nature. This sport allows you to discover beautiful places. Better than hiking, trail running allows you to cover more distance and to dare longer routes. But don’t forget to enjoy it. It is not because you are running and you want to perform well that you should close yourself off from your environment. Moreover, for me, taking advantage of what surrounds me and of the landscapes has always been the best engine in my moments of doubt or of not doing so well in a race. A sunrise on the snowy peaks of the Mont-Blanc massif is an incredible source of energy!
Whether you are a beginner or an experienced runner, everyone can start trail running. Here are the advices I could give you to start. But everyone can adapt them according to his experience and skills. In any case, if you haven’t discovered trail running yet, go for it. You are more likely to get hooked than to be disappointed!