You’ve mastered your local track and you’re ready to take your running game up a notch. No, we’re not talking about signing up for a half marathon (although we can help you with that!), we’re talking about a total change of scenery. Trail running can be a great option for runners looking for a new challenge, some quality time with nature, and a new fitness goal.
But before you hit the trails, there are some key factors every first timer needs to consider. We talked with Aaptiv trainer Jennifer Giamo to get the ultimate do’s and don’t’s of trail running. Read on to keep your first trail experience a safe, challenging, and fun one.
How to prepare for a trail run
Do: Know your body
You have step one down: You’re a runner! But, even seasoned runners need to take a little more caution when it comes to trail running. “Be aware that the body is using different muscles to adapt to the changing terrain,” explains Giamo. When it comes to mastering the twists and turns of an uneven surface, your core muscles and stabilizers are key, she says.
Becoming more aware of all aspects of your body during a run will help you learn to stabilize your core and engage your abdominals properly, thus avoiding injury. “Holding tension in the transverse abdominals will prevent excess movement in the pelvis and low back while running on trails,” explains Giamo.
Don’t: Skip the gym
Runners often get caught up in, well, running! But when it comes to tackling trails, the real training comes in the gym. Strength training is a crucial aspect of any training program—running or otherwise—and using Aaptiv’s strength training app can help you build muscle, reduce injury, and yes, even speed up!
“With weight training and increased joint stability, you can minimize repetitive stress injuries,” adds Giamo. This is because strength training makes the body more efficient at converting metabolic waste into energy and increasing the body’s ability to use oxygen aka allowing it to recover faster, she says. So as tempting as it sounds to just hit the treadmill, stop over at the weights for a little lifting. You’ll thank yourself later!
Do: Know your trail
Before you even step foot on your trail, make sure you know the lay of the land. Familiarize yourself with the course as best you can. Going to a park? Be sure to look up local park rules (make sure trail running is allowed!), double check hours of operation, and know when the sun sets in your area. This will help you feel confident and safe in any outdoor setting. During your run, Giamo says it’s always a good idea to scan your running surface for debris or uneven ground. (No tripping, please!)
And if possible, bring a friend! Not only will this make the experience a bit more enjoyable, but it will help keep you safe should any accidents happen. But, if you can’t bring a running buddy, Giamo advises giving a map of your trail route to someone ahead of time, just in case.
Don’t: Run like you would on the street
The great outdoors is nothing like your treadmill or your local track. (And trust us, that’s a good thing.) When it comes to something as simple as mileage, a trail can be quite different from your typical street run. “It will take you up to twice as long to cover the same distance on a trail as you would on a road,” says Giamo. Start out with shorter runs when you’re new to trail running to gauge your fitness level and speed.
When you’re running on a track or the street, it’s pretty easy to find your way back home. (Thank you, street signs!) But when you’re only mile markers are trees, it’s easier than you think to get confused. That’s why it’s super important to make sure you are aware of your surroundings. “Glance behind you on occasion so you know what the trail looks like when coming from the other direction,” suggests Giamo. “It doesn’t always look the same and can be confusing on switchbacks!” she adds.
Do: Train for hills
Good news about trail running, there are hills. Bad news about trail running, there are hills. But a little up and down is nothing as long as you properly train for it. Giamo suggests properly mastering your running technique, first off. A mid-foot strike is ideal to maximize balance and minimize injury, she says. Always remember to keep your body over your center of gravity.
When it comes to the actual hill, shorten your stride to make it easier on the cardiovascular system and avoid strain on the glutes, hamstrings, and calves she says. You can practice the feel of running on a steep course on a treadmill with an incline. (Aaptiv has some plans specifically geared towards hill training!) Of course, the best training is to get out there and do it.
Don’t: Forget about the downhill
With every hill, comes a downhill. And although you might think a little downhill action is sweet relief, it’s equally important to train your body to run down as it’s actually a lot easier to hurt yourself this way than you might think. When it comes to technique, Giamo says to flare your elbows out to the sides to improve control. Ultimately, control is key to mastering a downhill. As your body takes a natural tendency to lean forward, make sure to do so with your hips and not your shoulders, so you don’t end up going too fast and falling.
Do: Dress the part
Outfitting yourself with the proper gear is crucial for an enjoyable trail run. Choose your fabrics wisely! “Wear sweat-wicking fabrics like Dri-Fit to regulate your body temperature,” says Giamo. And when it comes to socks, those no-shows gotta go. Giamo recommends picking out socks that cover your ankles to protect against any debris you might encounter on the trail.
Other useful gear to stock up on prior to hitting the trail, includes insect repellent and sunscreen. (Bonus points if you can find a combo!) And lastly, if you’re headed out on a longer trail, Giamo suggests packing water and energy bars to refuel. Remember: there are no water fountains in nature!
Don’t: Wear your street shoes
As much as you love your kicks, they might not cut it when it comes to the great outdoors. Trail shoes are specifically designed to help you master outside terrain safely, so it’s best to bite the bullet and invest in some solid sneaks.
“Trail shoes offer more protection than regular running shoes and it’s advisable to wear these,” says Giamo. They usually have more padding at the bottom to help cushion you from rocks, roots, etc., she adds. And, often times they’re water resistant and offer a bit more stability. Lastly, as important as it is to purchase trail shoes, it’s equally important to find proper fitting ones. You can visit your local running shop to get properly outfitted!