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The Mountains are Calling: 10 Tips for Hitting the Trails

When trudging along your regular running route no longer inspires you to lace up, it might be time to give trail running a try. Numerous studies attribute heightened states of happiness and well-being to those who spend time in nature, and once you trade concrete for dirt you won’t need a study to tell you that. Worried about making the switch? If you can run on roads you can run on trails, you’ll just have to change a few things.

We consulted trail running experts Nancy Hobbs (founder of the All-American Trail Running Association) and Ellen Miller (coach of the U.S. Women’s Mountain Running Team) for their expertise on making the transition. Here are their top ten tips:

1. Time over distance: The number one thing to keep in mind is that distances won’t be covered in the same amount of time on trails as they are on roads. “Don’t worry about mileage, but the amount of time you want to be out,” says Hobbs. While miles may be the primary measure for road running, trail racing and training are often structured around time on your feet rather than distance covered.

2. Invest in the proper shoes: Special shoes aren’t required, but you’ll likely want them (and be happier with them). Trail shoes are quite different than road shoes, and typically have more traction, stability, and features like drainage systems and toe bumpers. If you intend to spend a lot of time on trails, both Hobbs and Miller recommend investing in trail shoes. If not, look for a hybrid that you can use on both roads and trails. Other gear that’s worth considering? Hobbs always runs with gloves and Miller is a proponent of gaiters to keep rocks out of your shoes.

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3. Ditch the headphones: But not the iPhone. Wearing headphones on the trail is a two-pronged safety issue. Not being able to hear someone coming toward you on a trail could result in a collision or another unwanted interaction. I also find that unless you need a power song to get up a sustained climb, that listening to music makes it harder to focus on the trail’s obstacles. You will, however, want a phone (or a map) to keep route information handy and to be able to call for help if needed. It’s also a good idea to let someone know where you’re going, or better yet, bring a friend along.

4. Be okay with running slower: Unless your town is particularly hilly, trails will have more elevation gain and loss than your usual running path. So while you may be able to crank out an eight-minute-mile around a neighborhood park, you’ll likely be running slower on trails.

5. Prepare to feel better: Running long on roads can thrash muscles and joints, but dirt trails are often more forgiving. Cruising singletrack necessitates frequent changes in motion, so instead of the repetitiveness you get with roads, the trail’s natural obstacles lead to different types of movement where no foot strike is the same. This varied movement helps runners increase both core strength and the tiny muscles in the feet and lower legs that must react to tree roots and rocks.

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6. Tweak your form: While Hobbs pursues the topic of form at length in her book The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running, there are a few adjustments you can make that will help get you started. When running up steep hills, slow down, switch to baby steps, and plant your whole foot to avoid torching your calf muscles. When running downhill, be loose and try not to put the brakes on (you’ll thrash your thigh muscles), let your arms come up light and wide (kind of like wings) for balance, and stay on the balls of your feet for greater control. And it always helps to keep lungs open by running tall.

7. Expect to walk more: While taking walk breaks may be looked down upon among road runners, walking has proven benefits on trails (and even on roads). Walking is a strategy in trail races to avoid wasting energy on extremely steep terrain or when navigating loose rock and scree. The rule of thumb is to walk when running becomes inefficient. Another thing walking is good for? Taking it all in. “Part of being in the woods or on the mountains is to enjoy where you are,” says Hobbs. “And if you’re at a road race going full out, you don’t get that experience because you don’t want to stop.”

8. Focus on the trail: While running through trees has meditative qualities, be careful not to lose focus. “Roots may reach up and grab you, and rocks may slip underneath your feet,” says Hobbs. Focusing on the trail’s natural obstacles will keep you standing (and your ankles intact). The time also seems to go faster when you’re focused and concentrated on each step. Basically, keep your eyes on the trail and stop if you want to admire the views.

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9. Stay Hydrated: If you’re going to go out for over an hour, think about the conditions (and potential conditions) and the duration of your run. It’s a good idea to always have a gel or electrolytes on hand, especially if you’re going out on a trail you’re not familiar with.

10. Enjoy!: Miller appreciates the opportunity to connect more deeply with nature when out on the trails near her home in Vail. “There’s a more pure connection when your feet are on dirt and you’re running near trees,” she says. You can consult the writings of explorers like Muir and Abbey if you’re after deeper inspiration, but chances are you’ll find your own church in the wild. So what are you waiting for?

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