Take Your Run to the Trails
To get hooked on running all over again, go off-road. These need-to-know tips from pro trail runners will smooth the path.
The season is shifting, your motivation is drifting, and you’re looking for a way to shake things up. For runners, all signs point to the trails.
“If you feel like you’re in a rut or have lost your running mojo, trail running can be a mental reset and an opportunity to try something new physically,” says Nike Run Club coach Jessica Woods, an ultrarunner who also coaches the Brooklyn Track Club’s ultra and trail team.
First, there’s the environment. “With trails, you’re not stopping at traffic signals, breathing exhaust, or hearing honking horns,” says Sally McRae, a Nike Trail elite ultramarathoner and trail running coach out of Bend, Oregon. “You get to run through trees, dirt and flowers; inhale fresh air; hear the wind — it’s stress-relieving and rejuvenating.” That’s not just McRae’s experience. A study published in “PNAS” found that brief physical activity in a green space can actually improve your psychological well-being compared to an urban setting, perhaps because these spaces are often open and quiet and feel like an escape.
Scenery aside, unlike your average road run, “literally every mile of a trail is different,” says Woods. “You might have one mile with a steep uphill, then the next mile is completely flat and you’re cruising.” Woods and McRae agree that this new and often varying terrain can engage your muscles and mind in unique ways; neither ever know what’s coming next. And if that includes running up mini mountains, take comfort in this: Conquering tough routes can not only boost your physical strength and endurance, according to a 2019 study published in the “Journal of Physical Education and Sport,” it can also build your resilience, helping you face everyday challenges with gusto.
“If you feel like you’re in a rut or have lost your running mojo, trail running can be a mental reset and an opportunity to try something new physically.”
Ultrarunner, Nike Run Club Coach
Plus, Woods adds, there’s a sneaky benefit to being hyperfocused on a path and its views: “At the end of the day, you may find yourself saying, ‘Oh! I just accidentally ran 6 miles.’”
Sold? Here’s what you’ll need to do to tackle your first trail.
1. Scout your location.
Live in a city? The lowlands? Local routes are easy to find. You can search on a trail app, ask a running shop, or steal a stretch of a nearby trail race. But don’t just pick one and go.
Always, but especially as a beginner, know exactly what you’re getting into, says McRae. Check out the starting elevation (research shows that anything over 2,000 feet can affect endurance performance) and the elevation gain (a general rule, according to McRae: Climbing 100 or fewer feet within one mile is considered easy, 101 to 300 feet is moderate, and anything more is difficult). You also want to look up the terrain type (packed dirt is typically more beginner-friendly than paths with loose gravel are, and anything labeled “technical” is for experienced trail runners) and current trail conditions, including recent weather and closed-off areas. You can usually find all of this info on the local government website where trails are listed.
2. Throw pace out the window.
You may clock 8-minute miles on the road, but sadly, that speed does not apply to trail running. Think of it as an entirely different sport. Depending on the surface, covering a mile on a trail could take you 50 percent more time than running a mile on pavement does, says Woods. “Even the same trail on a different day can be wildly different,” she says. “A muddy trail can take you twice as long as it would have in beautiful, dry weather.” For this reason, Woods recommends you base your trail run on duration (as in, decide to run for 60 minutes) instead of focusing on an exact mileage or pace.
3. Chip away at hills.
As you make your way up a steep incline, think about how hard you feel like your body is working. In science speak, this is called the rate of perceived exertion, or RPE, and is typically measured on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being extremely hard. To ensure you don’t flame out on challenging terrain, your goal is to maintain the same RPE on hills as you do on flat ground, even if that means you’re basically walking. “You might be clocking a 20-minute mile up a killer hill, but it’s the same effort as cruising at an 8-minute mile down the hill,” explains Woods. “The No. 1 mistake you see when people transition from road to trails is that they think they have to run everything. But everybody walks!”
4. Be flexible with your form.
On the road, ideal running form means swinging your elbows straight back to maximize speed and efficiency. Not the case on trails. “You’ll see people flailing their arms running downhill or while traversing technical terrain. They’re doing that for balance,” says Woods. In addition, you can throw your elbows out to your sides to careen around corners or hopscotch between boulders if you feel confident doing so instead of slowing to walk. “It’s also totally OK to grab trees and rock walls for balance and leverage,” adds Woods.
Other must-know cues: Take short, choppy steps on steep downhills and over rockier routes, both of which can wreck your quads and cause an ankle roll if you bound over them too quickly. “You want to be poppy and light on your feet,” says Woods, “like you’re dancing down the trail or over the rocks.” If you start dragging your feet, that’s likely a sign you’re getting tired. Take a moment to slow down, reset and start up again, if you’re feeling it.
5. Stay alert.
It might be tempting to stare at your feet as you run, especially when you’re starting out. But McRae says it’s best to keep your eyes focused 8 to 12 feet ahead of you and scan the trail side to side. “By the time your brain registers what’s ahead, you’re there and can quickly respond,” she says. You also want to ditch your earbuds (sorry), as zoning out to a playlist could distract you from noticing the details in your path, adds Woods. Good thing nature provides its own soundtrack (and backdrop too).
6. Prime your body for the terrain.
To crush gnarly hills and paths filled with obstacles (a fallen tree, for example), be strategic about your strength training. “You use a lot more balance, lateral movement and single-leg mobility on the trails, so I swear by unilateral exercises,” says Woods. She recommends adding lateral lunges, curtsy squats and single-leg toe touches to your regular strength routine. Do them barefoot on grass or turf to engage more of the small, stabilizing muscles in your feet and ankles, which Woods says can help you avoid trips and falls once your sneaks are back on.
The cool thing is, the more you train on trails, the easier those exercises and most fitness endeavors become. And it feels pretty badass to look back at a winding, grinding trail and think, “I ran that.”
Words: Marissa Stephenson
Illustration: Ryan Johnson