From the August 2012 issue of Runner’s World
Debunking five common fears that keep runners off the trails
By Dimity McDowell
Let’s be honest: You can always come up with a reason not to lace up the shoes and go for run – it’s too cold; I have no time; I tweaked my knee. And it seems that, for many people, finding an excuse not to take up trail running is even easier. But don’t give in to the obstacles. By sticking to man-made surfaces, you’re denying yourself the chance to try, as accomplished trail runner Timothy Olson says, running in three dimensions. “Trails offer peace, quiet, and amazing adventure. They make running unbelievably fun,” says Olson. “And they make you feel extremely alive.” If you’re still unsure about sampling some dirt, don’t worry: With the help of top coaches and elite trail runners, we debunk the most common excuses for avoiding the trail – and provide some beginner-friendly tips along the way.
EXCUSE ONE: I’LL GET HURT
Although you could easily argue that cars are a far greater hazard than tree roots, trail running can seem intimidating simply because of the great unknown. Here are some ways to avoid bodily harm.
Take quick, small steps
A brisk cadence – around 90 steps a minute – means your feet will land under your centre of gravity, providing a stable landing. “You don’t want to overstride on the trail,” says Joe Azze, a personal trainer who coaches in trail running, cycling, MTB, and multi-sport activities. “That’s how you get off balance and lose control.” In addition, make a conscious effort to pick up your feet – something you don’t really have to do on the road – so that you will step over any small debris on the trail that could trip you up.
Realise that road kilometres don't translate to trail kilometres
The rocky, rooty, up-and-down terrain of trails is a far cry from the smooth footpath of a road. As such, your first outings should be measured in time, not kilometres. If you typically cover eight kilometres in 45 minutes on the road, go for no more than 45 minutes on the trail, preferably via an out-and-back route, so you don’t unexpectedly tack on time.
Don't run to the point of fatigue
When you don’t heed the go-by-time rule and stay out longer than your body can handle, you’re more prone to falling or twisting an ankle. (This is the same reason most accidents on a ski hill happen at the end of the day.) As you get tired, your upper body collapses, your legs lose their snap, and you don’t pick up your feet. The result? Rocks and roots are more menacing.
EXCUSE TWO: I’LL GET LOST
Certainly there’s a better chance of getting lost on the trails than on the road, but there are plenty of precautionary measures you can take to make sure you get back to the trailhead when you expect to.
Do an out-and-back route, which offers a smaller chance for getting mixed up than a loop does.
Look for landmarks near the trailhead. Is there a huge pine that sticks out? A stream nearby? If you get disoriented, use those features to get reoriented.
Regularly turn around and take in the view. “Remember what the terrain looks like, so you know you’re going the right way on the return,” says Azze.
Tell somebody which trail you’ll be on and when you expect to be back. An extra step: Text or call them when you head out and when you return.
EXCUSE THREE: TRAILS ARE TOO TECHNICAL
“Many trails are much flatter and more runnable than people think,” says Olson. Still, certain skills can help you run off-road more confidently. “And once you get used to more challenging terrain, it adds a really fun dimension to running.” Try these form tips to stay as upright as possible.
Negotiating rocky, root-filled terrain
Keep your gaze ahead of you, not at what’s underneath you.
Stay light on your feet. “Pretend like you’re running through an agility ladder at the gym,” says Azze. “That’s how small and quick your steps should be.”
Opt to land on dirt over rocks, and flatter rocks over more oddly shaped ones.
If necessary, walk through the stretch first to get a feel for it. Then go over it again, with a slightly faster pace. “Practise it like you would any other skill,” says Azze. “You’ll build your technical skills, as well as your confidence.”
EXCUSE FOUR: IT’LL DISRUPT MY TRAINING OR RACE SCHEDULE
On the contrary, mixing in wilderness workouts with your regular road or race training can make you stronger, more well-rounded, and even healthier. Plus, you’ll never get bored.
While you need to train primarily on your race surface, heading for the trails occasionally will give both your body and mind a break. The softer terrain is like a holiday for your joints. “Roads can be very unforgiving,” says Rob Shoaf, founder of Epic Running. “At the end of the day, you can run longer and have fewer aches and pains on the softer terrain of trails.” What’s more, even though trail running is easier on your body, it will actually strengthen neglected parts and work a wider range of muscles.
Your mind will reap equal benefits. “You have to pay attention to nearly every step in trail running, which sounds difficult, but it can actually put you in a very meditative state,” says Shoaf. “You focus on the present, not on your splits or your to-do list.” If you’re on a tight or demanding road racing schedule, try an easy trail run for a recovery run.
EXCUSE FIVE: I DON’T HAVE THE RIGHT GEAR
Yeah, right. You have shoes, don’t you? And a pair of shorts? Beyond that, you don’t need much – though certainly there are plenty of products out there that can help make your runs easier and more pleasant.
For your first few outings on the trail, you don’t need much beyond what you’d wear on the road: sweat-wicking clothes and running shoes. “Road shoes are fine for a short run to see if you like it,” says Smith-Batchen. “If you end up wanting to spend more time on the trail, it’s worth investing in trail shoes.”
If you’re wearing short sleeves and headed to higher elevations, be sure to also take a light jacket. “At higher altitudes, the weather can change in a matter of moments,” says Shoaf.
Bring at least one gel, a fully charged phone, your ID, a map, and a headlamp if you’ll be running at or near dark.
Smith-Batchen recommends the ratio of one water bottle per hour of running; carry more in warmer temps.
High-cut socks cover your ankles and keep debris out.
Find a trail to kick-start your off-road running here:
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