Running is a fairly accessible sport. Provided you have the wherewithal and interest in running and perhaps a pair of shoes for your feet – and that’s a maybe for some runners – and that you launch yourself in a generally forward direction, you can certifiably call yourself a runner. Many people start running as exclusive road racers, meaning they run only on pavement, because they assert that they dislike hills – usually a hallmark of trail running – or that they don’t like the uncertainty that trails can bring – like the beautiful rivers or technical, rocky terrain. In the midwest, while we don’t necessarily have the huge mountain ranges or killer hills that folks elsewhere in the country have, we still have our fair share of excellent trail running opportunities. My job: convince you to take the plunge and try out trail running!
Literally running ourselves through Nature’s playground – trails, forest preserves, woods, whatever you want to call it – lets us disconnect from the hub-bub of the world while also reconnecting with ourselves. Trail running works muscle groups that don’t see as much action from flat pavement running, which will surely give you that satisfying feeling of muscle burning in your legs and legs, but it’s also seriously just so good for the soul, as hippy-dippy as that sounds. I feel like when I run trails, by the time I’m done, I have a renewed sense of purpose and an increased enthusiasm to take on the day’s challenges (or my training challenges). It’s an activity that is equally as challenging as it is relaxing. Trail running, because it lets me run through nature and away from the cacophony of everyday life, helps to center me, too. Plus, at least anecdotally, I feel like the more I run on trails, the faster I get on flat pavement roads. It’s a win-win-win situation.
Take it from me. If you haven’t yet hit the trails, consider doing so, especially if you feel like you’re about to plateau in your running or if you are hanging on the edge of physically or mentally burning-out. Go lose yourself in the woods, and I bet that by the time you’re done running trails – even if you just go out a few times – you’ll find some inner peace that you were probably lacking before.
Here are some of my suggestions about how to jump into trail running:
Do some research. You can be so excited to hit the trails, but failing to prepare is akin to preparing to fail. Before you decide that you want to bang out some mileage in the woods somewhere, view a map. See what’s in your immediate surroundings and what’s a little further afield. If you don’t know how to easily find some parks on a map, here’s a hint: look for big green patches or bodies of water; oftentimes, trail systems run alongside them. Who knows? There might be some great trails very near your home, which would be a real treat for you!
Find some local pros who know the ropes. Confer with the internet to see if there are any local running groups near you that have an emphasis on trail running. If they meet somewhat regularly, consider jumping into a group run with them. Folks who have been running trails for a long time will be worth their weight in gold to you because they’ll help teach you the ins and outs of trail running and as is most likely the case, help you avoid getting lost on your first few forays. 🙂 Then, once you become well-familiarized with your local trails, you’ll be able to pay your knowledge and expertise forward to some other novice trail runners, too. Again, everyone wins.
Invest in trail running gear if you think it’s worth it. It’s possible that you’ll find that your roads running gear works just fine for trails, but runners often like to accumulate stuff, and you may feel like you want to have different gear – shoes and socks, in particular – for running trails versus running roads. That’s ok. In addition to different shoes and socks, you may find that you want to invest in some different hydration packs that are better suited for running in the woods, but it all depends on the type of trails you run and your mileage therein. To be safe, and to save yourself some money, you might want to wait before purchasing any gear until you know for sure, one way or another, if your current gear will be able to meet your needs. Plus: you can apply the money you save from not buying new gear to registering for your very first trail races! (See, again: everyone wins!).
Race trails for a change of scenery. Just like with road races, you can race trails at varying race distances, from the 5k all the way up to 100-mile+. This is where hooking up with your local trail running community can be especially helpful because chances are high that someone in the group will have raced a few trail runs in the area and can give you training and racing recommendations. Another fun aspect of trail racing is that if you’re transitioning to trails from roads, you can rightfully claim a new set of PRs since trail racing will likely yield very different results than roads racing.
Trail running and racing can be a lot of fun and an easy way to invigorate your running repertoire. It’s really easy to habitually run the same routes and races all the time, but trail running can let you step outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself as an athlete and as a runner in different ways. You may find that you become stronger and more agile an athlete from running trails – which makes sense, as you’ll likely need to move in different planes of motion to accommodate undulating and technical trail terrain – and you may also find that running trails brings you some “moments of zen” that are hard to come by otherwise.
The woods are calling; will you answer?
Author: Dan Chabert
Writing from Copenhagen, Denmark, Dan is an entrepreneur, husband and ultramarathon distance runner. He spends most of his time on runnerclick.com and he has been featured on running blogs all over the world.