The Basics: Trail Running

A primer for taking your running beyond where the pavement ends

I got into trail running trying to date a girl. We were both runners, so I suggested we take a jog down a dirt road outside Jackson. “That’s boring,” she said, “Let’s go on this trail I know about.” Of course, let’s do that.

That was 17 years ago, and although I don’t see that woman anymore, I’ve been running trails ever since. It’s what I do more than anything else to stay in shape, to enjoy myself, to burn off frustration, to experience the outdoors. More than road running ever could, spending time on singletrack offers me rewards in the form of scenery, trail dynamics, hills, switchbacks, solitude and adventure. If road running is a river, then trail running is the ocean. Why would I want the river when I can have the ocean? I believe I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

I first started road running when I was 18 years old, as a freshman in college. I pounded pavement for years, and I loved it. I’d run eight miles a day, six days a week. I felt great, but something was missing. And it wasn’t until that first date, running on singletrack, that I found out what I had been missing all along. The scenery changed at every passing moment, and as the trail changed, my pace changed. This had a profound effect on my mental stamina, not to mention my attention span. I was hooked. I’ve since spent the better part of 20 years running in the Teton and Gros Ventre mountains around my home in Jackson. Even when I run back-to-back days on the same trail, it’s never the same experience, and it’s never boring.

Getting into trail running doesn’t have to be an ordeal. For me, it was a date. If you’re already a road runner, the transition is easy. There are a few start-up considerations to make, as well as small tweaks to your technique, expectations and gear. Below are some basic bullet-point ideas to keep in mind as you're getting started. Soon enough, you’ll be bounding along some precipitous ridgeline or quietly slithering through a hushed forest, far away from the sight of asphalt or sounds of cars.

Where to go
First time trail runners should familiarize themselves with the closest hiking paths, fire roads and trailheads. Look online for local running trails in your area, or stop by your neighborhood running store to get an idea what sort of off-road terrain is in your vicinity. Then go explore it.

Shoe considerations
What shoe to use depends on what kind of trails you plan to run. A quality road shoe is fine for buffed-out singletrack and fire roads without a lot of loose rock. Uneven, technical terrain might require stiffer shoes with more aggressive tread and midsoles to protect your feet from washout, rolled ankles and stepping on rocks.

Shorten your stride
Sticks, stumps, roots and stones are a part of technical trail running. Bobbing, weaving, moving in short bursts up hills, bouncing side to side, and leaping over tree roots requires changes in momentum and pressure. Shortening your stride allows you to better navigate technical terrain with greater efficiency and finesse.

B.Y.O. H2O
If you’re a couple miles from the nearest road or trailhead, it’s a good thing to have the means to stay hydrated. There are plenty of trail-running-specific hydration packs to choose from, and some trail runners prefer hand canteens. Just remember, you're not likely to come across a water fountain out on the trail, and you probably don't want to take your chances with stream water.

Go with a partner
Accidents can happen, and it’s never a bad idea to have someone there to help you or seek out assistance in the event of a twisted ankle or knee.

Think about time, not distance
Because trails are often circuitous, we tend to run them slower, and covering a few miles takes much longer, even though we’re still burning similar amounts of energy. What might take you 40 minutes to run on the road could take double on the trail. That said, running three to five miles in the hills feels a lot different than pounding three to five miles of pavement.

It’s more about the experience than it is about negative splits. Relax and enjoy yourself.