Photo: Galen Anderson
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I had no clue what trail running entailed for the first 15ish years of my running career. I had a vague notion of “crazy people” slowly slogging around with backpacks. I didn’t understand the appeal. A snobby (oops, sorry, I mean naive) track athlete, I didn’t consider frolicking around in the mountains “real” running.
Now that I’ve come to my senses and realized that trail running is the Cinderella of running - the deceptively glorious, gorgeous, generous sister of the sport - I don’t give a sh*t what people think. Trail running affords so many gifts: meditative time with your thoughts and the trail, exploration of your body, mind, and the world around you, breathtaking views, challenge when that’s what you seek, recovery when that’s what you need. It’s much more about personal growth, fulfillment, and adventure than self-justification and comparison.
I could write a book about why to trail run. But this article is supposed to be about how. So moving right along, here’s how to step foot into the sport (pun tolerated :P ):
1. Don't give an eff.
Practice the shameless art of not giving an eff. Let go of your (potentially) OCD need to run a certain pace or distance. Rocks and roots, twists and turns, and ups and downs render both of these metrics irrelevant. Shift your mindset from striving to reach these arbitrary goals to aiming for tangible ones, like accomplishing a certain loop or scaling a specific mountain.
2. Gear doesn't matter.
As a sponsored trail runner who also works in the outdoor industry, I could get in a lot of trouble for saying this. Too bad. For the most part, you do not need any special gear or equipment to hit the trails. In fact, many trail runners prefer to train and race in road shoes. If you’re already a runner and/or own a pair of running shoes, you’re all set. If you don’t, find a pair of running shoes that fit and are comfy.
3. Drink and eat!
Tip #2 goes out the window to some degree when you’re going on longer (multiple hour) adventures. Now is the time for a handheld water bottle, a belt, or one of those dorky hydration vests. (You, too, will learn to love them, I promise.) Long trail runs are really just an eating/drinking game. If you stay hydrated and fueled, you will be happy. My go-tos are (obviously) Skratch Sport Hydration Drink Mix (Strawberries, mmmm), Skratch Sport Energy Chews and Anytime Energy Bars (ginger & miso, please!), snickers, and peanut butter filled pretzels. If, like me, you live somewhere where river water is not potable, please invest in a water filter. Katadyn is far and away the best -- no pumping required.
4. Embrace the power hike.
Again, if you have a road running background you probably look upon walking with disdain and shame. This might be counterintuitive, but I promise it’s true: walking will make you faster. Hear me out:. when you are going up an especially steep, technical climb, power hiking is almost as fast-- if not faster-- than running. Plus, it will tire you out a lot less than attempting to breathlessly “run,” freeing you to fly once the steep section is over.
5. Follow the leader.
Like in life, a little humility goes a long way in trail running. When I started this sport, I was atrocious at running down technical trails. Hell, I’m still atrocious at it. However, I think I’m growing slightly less atrocious by following my nimble friends. Sure, I can’t keep up with them going downhill. But when they’re feeling generous, they will slow down so I can follow their lines from rock to rock, over roots, and around turns. Like swimming, riding a bike, skiing, etc, running downhill is a skill that you can (and should) hone.
6. Find friends!
The logical extension of #5. While the romantic ideal of adventuring solo into the mountains to “find yourself” etc, etc is great, sometimes running with friends is fun and motivating, too. (In fact, the Boulder trail running community, both on the trails and in the pub, was one of the primary reasons I entered the sport.) Check out local running stores, Facebook groups, and gyms to find trail running groups in your area.
7. Don’t crush yourself every day.
One of the (innumerable) beauties of trail running is that it’s far more forgiving on the body than smashing your joints on cement. Yes, random little muscles you never knew you possessed will be sore at first. But your body rapidly adapts, and soon you will feel like you are running on a cloud instead of an unforgiving slab of compressed rock. That said, the lack of physiological biomarkers that you worked hard can be deceptive. Last spring I made the egregious mistake of running up my favorite trail to the top of a mountain every day for a week. By Friday, I was totally fried, out of breath from the very start. This spiral into exhaustion prompted me to throw out my blaze bravado and get a coach, who immediately pointed out my idiocy. “Running up that mountain every day is like doing intervals every day,” he explained to me in track terms, the only framework I understood. Just as you can’t (effectively) do intervals every day on a track, you can’t run hard every day up a mountain. Vary your hilly trail runs with flat easy days on the road, bike path, or trail. While I consider myself a “trail” runner, I still run on dirt roads, bike paths, or cement for about half of my mileage.
8. Pay attention.
I know, I know this seems obvious. But as someone who broke her wrist in a race because she wasn’t focused on her surroundings, I implore you to look where you are going. This is especially important on the most innocuous sections. I almost never fall on a technical trail; it’s usually on a smooth section, when I’m least expecting it. La de da everything is going great until, splat! You hit a stray rock or root and fall flat on your face, or in my case on my wrist.
9. Trail etiquette!
Be cool. Abide by trail etiquette: if you’re running downhill, yield to uphill bike traffic. It really sucks to have to get going again on a bike when you’re climbing a steep AF hill. Stay on trail, be nice to animals, and leave no trace.
10. Bring your phone.
In case of emergencies, emergency selfies…(#views :P)
11. Layer up.
Keep in mind that the conditions at the top of a mountain may be drastically different at the top. If you’re scaling a mountain, I recommend bringing a super light shell.
12. Find trails.
Kind of obvious that this is a prerequisite, but I figured some guidance would be useful. The only rule in trail running is that there are no rules, so everything from rail trails to mountain bike trails to hiking trails are fair game. Some of my other favorite places to sleuth new trails are Trail Run Project, All Trails, and STRAVA.
13. Find a race!
Definitely not required, but recommended (in my totally unbiased opinion :P). Training for a race will help provide motivation, structure your training, and bring you to new trails! Trail running is so chill; most races are just an excuse for a giant party. You can start dreaming and drooling here.
About Abby Levene
Abby Levene is a pro trail runner for adidas and a Skratch Labs Athlete. When she's not busy sweating, you can find her working for Verde Brand Communications, writing, and hydrating. She ran cross country and track and field for Princeton University in undergrad and CU Boulder in grad school before dipping into triathlon, where she won four national championships. Now you can find her tripping over rocks in Boulder, CO. Follow her on Instagram @aplevene.