The Indoorsman’s Guide to Trail Running

I like air conditioning.  I like baths.  I like reading books in a cozy chair.

And I’m not afraid to admit that in our house, my wife does most of the yardwork while I do most of the cooking.

For all of these reasons, I’m an indoorsman.

And that’s why I always thought trail running was moronic.  When we have such nice, flat, uniform roads to run on—and better still, oval tracks of exactly 400 meters—what kind of hillbilly would you have to be to run on trails where you might get wet, dirty, lost, hurt, bitten, or eaten?

And putting aside the whole death thing for a minute, how the hell could you keep track of your splits when every mile is different?

And then I actually tried it.

It was primal.  It was muddy and my shoes took on an amount of water that would have ruined any previous run.   And it was completely liberating.

Since I’ve started trail running, I’ve gotten wet, dirty, and lost.  (I’ve avoided those other things, so far.)  And I’ve finally become a runner.

It took me way too long to get into trail running, mainly because I didn’t know how.  And that’s why I’ve put together…

Trail Running for the Complete Indoorsman

1. Find a trail.

Do you have a local running club?  They might have a trail-running contingent who can tell you where to run.  Maybe they’ll even run with you.  That’s how I got started.  If not, check trailrunner.com‘s listings of trails by state.  (They’re not all there, but it’ll get you started.)

If you’ve never run trails before, look for something that’s not too long or too technical (translation for indoorsman: rocky and hard to negotiate).  Most importantly, pick something that will be easy to navigate if you’re unfamiliar with the route.

2. Buddy up.

Being lost is probably a lot more fun when you’re with a pal.  So is hobbling back to the car if you get hurt.  So is fending off a bear.

Run with a friend the first time.

3. Get dressed.

Slip out of your high-thread-count robe and into your running stuff.  You might want to eschew your fanciest technical gear in favor of something that you don’t mind getting snagged or muddy.  (I promise it will.)

If you don’t have trail shoes, you can get by with road shoes.  They don’t offer the protection or the grip that trail shoes do, but they work.  If possible, I’d go with a thinner sole rather than the SuperUltraCushion 5000, for greater stability on the rocks and slopes.  And leave the Vibram Fivefingers at home the first time, until you see how rocky your chosen trail is.

4. Exit the comfort of your home and drive to the trail.

Things to bring along: a towel, a change of shoes, socks, and maybe clothes for afterward, whatever food and drink you’ll want on your run, plus more for emergencies, a cell phone, identification, your water vessel of choice (handhelds and backpacks are popular, especially if they have extra pouches to carry stuff), a headlamp if you’ll be running at dusk or night.

And beer for afterward, if you’re like me and all that primal hardcoreness brings out the wild man (or woman) in you.

5.  Forget about pace.  Run slowly and walk the hills.

Mile splits are concepts that we indoorsmen have made up to cram what used to be a freeing experience into our modern, time-obsessed world.  To get the most out of your foray into the great outdoors, forget about pace.

But for safety’s sake… Trail runner magazine tells me you’ll be 10 to 20 percent slower on trails.  That sounds about right, maybe even on the low side.  Especially while you’re new, take it easy so you have energy for any unexpected bonehead moves you pull, like missing a trail marker and running 10 miles instead of 5.

One of the joys of trail running is that you can walk hills and not feel like a slacker.  Everybody does it.  In fact, it’s often more efficient to do it this way, since you’ll encounter hills steeper than what you find on the roads.

6.  Run through the streams.

You are not to slip on a rock and sue me, however.  This entire trail running thing is done at your own peril.

But when I run with my trail group, I get made fun of for tiptoeing across rocks.  Embrace the sloshiness and run right through it.  Just don’t slip.

7.  Let loose.

Guess what?  You are officially trail running.  Now enjoy it.  Splash through the mud and water.  Think about granola and hugging trees and everything zen.

8.  Once you’re done, drink one of those beers you brought.  Ideally, while you’re still dirty.  Just don’t break any laws.

Congratulations, you’re kind of hardcore.

What questions do you still have? Ask them in the comments so you can get yourself out there!  Trust me, it’s really fun.  Don’t let stupid fears keep you from doing cool stuff.

For a more serious look at getting started on the trails, see Blaine Moore’s Trail Running 101.

This post is part of a series of posts designed to teach you how to run long and strong.  Go check out the rest!

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Comments

  1. I have gotten so spoiled with trail running that it is now hard for me to pound out even a 3 mile run on the pavement.
    .-= Chris´s last blog ..Leek and Bean Cassoulet with Biscuits =-.

  2. I LOVE trail running but sadly haven’t done much of it since my XC days ended. I’ve been living in cities since graduation and there really aren’t any trails nearby. However, thank you so much for the link to trailrunner.com’s listing of trails — I found ONE that I might be able to make a trek out to one of these weekends! 🙂
    .-= Lauren (Health on the Run)´s last blog ..Banana Oatbran Pancakes (‘Banoatcakes’) =-.

  3. It IS really liberating. Plus no cars to dodge, stop lights to wait for, and the woods give a nice cool shade on a hot day. Another way to find trails is to look for mountain biking trails. They often double as running trails and the harder ones can provide some cool features like logs and small cliffs. I like this type of running b/c it makes it more fun and interesting. Great post Matt.
    .-= Billy Broas´s last blog ..How to Make a Black Velvet =-.

    • Billy, I’ve never thought of that. I always figured trails were trails. Perhaps there might be more comprehensive listings of mountain bike trails though, since it’s a more popular sport (I assume). Great idea.

  4. Trail running is way more fun than running on the roads, and much better at keeping you injury free, at least from overuse injuries. Highly recommend adding trails to your regular training schedule!

    Nice round up of tips!
    .-= Blaine Moore´s last blog ..The Inaugural Exeter Marathon (2010) =-.

  5. I go trail running all the time by my house, and I don’t have to worry about a partner because I’m in Germany. I’m completely scared to hit the trails in Spokane in 2 months (we are moving back the states then) because the crime is different there! I’m totally thinking about bear spray when we get back. Isn’t that better than regular pepper spray because you can aim it better?

    Thanks for being my vegetarian inspiration! I’m going vegan for a month starting today, and I’m looking forward to getting my Veganomicon book in the mail!
    .-= Nicole @ Geek Turned Athlete´s last blog ..Sunny Motivational Bike Ride =-.

    • Nicole, Spokane is a big crime town? It sounds so woodsy and hippie and peaceful!

      Good luck with your vegan challenge! That’s the way to do it, so that it doesn’t feel like you’re giving up something forever.

  6. trail running is SO FUN. i’m lucky to live in colorado where there are a ton of trails to run on and great beer to drink when i’m done 🙂

    and i think that the use of the word “hillbilly” couldn’t have been more perfect 🙂

    • Heather, I’ve heard about Colorado trails. Billy, who commented earlier on this post, is going to be there soon and has told me about them. Promise to myself: Before I die I will make a beer/ski/trail trip there.

  7. Haha this totally makes me want to go trail running!! Next time I’m at my parents house (I live in Manhattan, therfore I have a lack of trails..) I am so going trail running!!
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Heal the world (and my legs!) =-.

  8. I love trail running but ran with a partner who is a proper trail runner for the first time this weekend. We hit our first hill and she started walking and I thought “What this hell is this?” But I love this strategy. Usually, I pound up the first couple and then only make it half way up the next few and feel like a loser. Thanks so much for the tips.

  9. Must find trail!
    .-= AndrewENZ´s last blog ..Weigh-in #17 2010: Maintenance is cool =-.

  10. Great Post! I really like trail running, because it’s never monotonous, and the change of scenery is always uplifting. it is sort of primal, isn’t it?

  11. Matt – have you noticed if your trail running has made you any faster/slower on pavement?

    • I’ve just started trail running, but I swear it makes road running seem so much easier. I don’t know if it’s psychological or physiological, but my road times are going down.
      .-= Amy´s last blog ..Mongolian Madness =-.

    • Dena, great question. I wouldn’t say it has made me faster on pavement, but I definitely believe that is had made me more injury-resistant. In addition to strengthening small stabilizer muscles, I think my strides have gotten shorter and quicker, resulting in less impact. Plus you can log lots of miles on trails without putting as much wear on your legs.

      So not directly faster or slower, but I believe that indirectly it has made me a better runner and will continue to do so. Do you run trails?

  12. I have a trail right in my own backyard but rarely run on it. I get so tired of tripping! I love being out in the woods and the focus you have to have while running, but no matter how hard I try I cannot get my darn feet over the roots and rocks! I guess I will have to keep practicing.
    .-= Laura´s last blog ..Delicious day! =-.

  13. Trail running is the only way! Although hills are one of my strengths so there’s normally no walking action happening there. Actually, I’m the same with biking…couldn’t even imagine biking on the road. I’ll choose mountain biking through the wilderness any day.
    .-= Vaala´s last blog ..Muddy favourites =-.

  14. I’ve been reading your blog for a while and occassionally leave comments, but this is by far my favorite post of yours. I used to run trails when we lived in England, but for the first year and a half that we lived on Okinawa I thought my trail running days were over. Then I discovered the newly formed WOOT (Women on Okinawa Trails) and have fallen in love with trail running all over again. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed running this much in years. Five of us WOOT women are headed to Mongolia in July for a trail run – some of us are doing the marathon and 2 are doing the 100K. It’s going to be amazing! Thanks for the great posts. Amy

    • P.S. If you don’t mind, I’d like to repost your blog on our WOOT FB group page.
      .-= Amy´s last blog ..Mongolian Madness =-.

      • Amy, I’ve heard that trail running has its roots in England, from the hash thing where people would chase something, or now someone leaves a trail of flour and gets a head start, and everyone else tries to catch him/her. Ever done that type of thing?

        Wow, trail running on Okinawa and in Mongolia. Sounds amazing. I’d love to run trails around the world one day.

        You’re welcome to post it on your FB page. Just credit my site and link back to it, if you don’t mind. Glad you liked the post!

        • The hashers are definitely going strong in England. I went on one hash run in Cambridge that involved a lot of pub stops, but didn’t involve trails. 🙂

  15. I love the sounds of this – combine two of my loves, running and hiking. I know I will try it soon.
    .-= Nicki´s last blog ..Boston Marathon =-.

  16. It doesn’t get much more hardcore than finishing with a beer 😉

    I would choose outdoor trail running ANY day. I’m not SUPER outdoorsy, but I really love exercising outdoors. It’s more exhilarating and I find that I push myself harder if I’m in nature.
    .-= Sagan´s last blog ..How to figure out your own personal style =-.

  17. Thanks for the great guide. I enjoy trail running but never really get around to it cause I like the know how far I run. Lately i’ve just been running for fun and it’s be awesome.

  18. I don’t know of any trails that are hardcore like that around here but I’ll definitely be looking into it now because this is inspiring!

    I’ll probably have to wait til the baby comes before hitting trails though. I’m sticking to the easy stuff for now. ha

    • Diana, yeah, Erin was pregnant from the time I discovered trail running until now. I can’t wait until she’s completely recovered so I can take her out on the trails.

  19. how often do you run with a trail running group? sounds fun, I might have to look into it! do you like group runs or are you more of a solo runner?
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Why I decided to become a vegetarian =-.

    • Amanda, I usually run with my group once per week, sometimes twice if anybody is doing similar long run distance on the weekend. I used to always think I liked running by myself, but once I started running with friends, I loved it. Now I do about half and half and enjoy both.

  20. Trail running is so much fun! I strongly suggest tall socks/long pants/gaiters. Great list!!

  21. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve been lurking, I’ll admit it 🙂 , but this article caught my attention. I’ve been wanting to transition into trail running to break up the monotony of road running. This is a great article on how to get started. Thanks for sharing! I love your blog, btw.

  22. Don’t forget the bug spray. And wear Gaiters to keep the trail out of your shoes! 🙂

  23. I actually run BETTER on a trail. Not that I am a hardcore runner or anything like a lot of you are! I tried long distance in highschool, but have since switched to mountain biking. I was always the last person to finish our runs during training by several minutes…unless we ran in the woods! Then I was one of the first to be done. (The trail was fairly flat though)

    I find that when I’m in the woods I can just let loose and run, instead of worrying about how fast I’m going, or how much farther it is to the end. I like only being able to see until the next bend rather than seeing how big the track is and thinking “oh my god I still have to go around this thing 5 more times.” It’s a daunting sight.

  24. I am a trail builder and hiker and now I am planing on testing the water of running a bit. I am planing a Long Distance hike,( AT) Appalachian Trail. I date I hiked 324 miles since January the 8th. I thinking now of putting some running into this hike and do more mileage. Would Pinole food be good to give me the energy I will need for this. When I am out building trail in the Woods I am in a world of its own. See the web site http://www.vfom.org. I understand how you feel when you talk about your running.

  25. Love the article, and it’s true — trail running is so liberating and primal. It’s even better if you switch off the technology altogether (Runkeeper will still be waiting there for you on your next road run), and leave it in the car. Remove all the layers (except your clothing and shoes) that distance you mentally from the land on which you’re running.
    One other tip I’ve found — watch your feet! I was running on tabletop mountain a few months ago over a very rocky patch, and made the mistake of looking up to admire the spectacular view while I was running. I caught a rock with my left foot, tripped and broke my right hand catching the fall. Made the rest of the run SUCK!! If the scenery is beautiful, and it often will be, then stop to admire it. Drink it in for a minute or ten. Then keep running.

  26. I just moved to the pacific northwest last year and like to hike tho i am a novice. I don’t like to run but feel like i might be able to get into trail ‘jogging’ because of the idea of being in the wilderness. Do I need to start out running on pavement before attempting trails?

    • I’ve recently really gotten into hiking and found myself breaking into little jogs a bit too often in my boots. I’ve just bought some Brooks trail running shoes and tried them out for the first time today and they seem to be the missing link. So I’d say that as long as you’ve got the right footwear, map, hydration, etc. and listen to your body, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t hit a trail right now.

  27. I’ve recently started trail running and it is so wonderful for me. I actually started it before discovering this website, and have since incorporated many of the diet advice – though I have yet to brave the full on vegetarian road. Trail running for me is so liberating, it honestly does not feel like exercise!

  28. Christine says:

    I enjoy the trail running and I want to improve. I understand the short gait and the posture for trails, but I’ve recently been corrected about how to place me feet, or maybe I was given some incorrect information. I was told that I should be running on the balls of my feet and not my heels. In trying to change my gait, I’ve injuried my achilles tendon or my calf muscle (not sure which.) Can you tell me the correct footing for running up and down hill on the trails? Thank you

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