I've learned a lot about trail running from reading books and browsing the internet, but mostly, through first hand experience. I only started seriously trail running about a year ago, so I won't sit here and pretend to know everything about running trails. However, I would like to share a few of the many things I've learned while transitioning from the road to trails. Similar to the style of a post I wrote a few months ago, "10 Things I Wish I Knew as a Brand New Runner", I've listed some helpful tips below for runners making the road to trail transition.
1) Invest in Trail Shoes
One of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of falling and improve your confidence on the trail is to purchase a good pair of trail shoes. Most running brands carry at least one pair of trail-specific shoes these days, so go to your local running store and get fitted for a proper trail shoe. Keep in mind your trail shoe size may not be the same as your road shoe size. You may need to wear a half or a full size larger shoe to protect your toes on downhill running and to account for swelling. This is especially true if you plan to run ultras, during which your feet will often get wet and can swell up to half a size larger from hours of running.
I wear Brooks Cascadias trail shoes (above) which are remarkably similar in fit to the Brooks Ghosts that I wear on the road. It may seem like a big purchase if you are like me and can only run on trails during weekends and races, but these shoes are worth the money. The soles usually have thick rubber treads that grip onto rocks and roots, preventing falls. Sometimes they have rock plates, which are hard pieces of plastic or metal that prevent sharp rocks from digging into the arch of your foot.
Having said all that, you do not HAVE to wear trail running shoes on trails. Plenty of runners wear road shoes on trails. If you live in an area with smooth, soft trails, you probably don't need to buy trail shoes. However, if your trails are of the rocky, rooty, technical variety like the ones I run on, you probably should consider investing in a pair of trail shoes.
2) Get the Right Socks
Proper socks are one of the most simple, yet crucial items any trail runner should own. I tried out at least 4 types of socks before finding the ones that work best for me on long trail runs.
The only way to find the right trail running socks is to try them out on the trail. I recommend browsing the web for deals on Injinji, Smartwool, or DryMax socks, a few of the popular brands in the trail and ultra community. You will need to experiment with different materials and thicknesses to get a feel of what works for your feet and prevents blisters.
My feet have gotten wet during nearly every trail race I have run. Many trail race course are designed with stream crossings, and while you could be lucky enough to be able to jump across them or step on rocks to avoid wet feet, sometimes you have to jump right in.
Wet feet are not an issue until they lead to a blister. Blisters can be race-ending problems. Test out different socks during training runs by getting your feet wet on purpose. Sounds counter-intuitive, but you will quickly learn which socks dry fast, and which ones might lead to a blister.
My go-to trail socks are Injinji Run 2.0 Midweight Mini-crew. Since my weird, crooked toes tend to rub together during long trail runs and cause major blisters when wearing normal socks, the unique Injinji toe socks have been lifesavers for me. The midweight is perfect for me and the mini-crew is long enough to keep dirt and rocks out of my feet, but short enough to still be stylish.
3) Accept the fact that you will run slower on trails
At first, this might be difficult to accept. Sometimes I still forget how much slower I am on trails, especially hilly ones. For example, if I run a 9:30 marathon pace on the road, it will be around a 12 minute pace on trails due to the terrain. Most of the time, slowing down is unavoidable thanks to the fact that you are thinking about where to step instead of coasting along on pavement. However, keep in mind that EVERYONE runs slower on trails than the road, no matter if they are an elite or a beginner.
4) Stay Safe
Carry whatever you need to feel safe on the trail. When I go out for a long trail run, this is usually water, food, cash, my rescue inhaler, my RoadID, and my cell phone. I also pack a headlamp if I'm going out close to sunset. You never know when you might be stuck out on the trail with a twisted ankle or worse, so it's important to be prepared.
5) Keep your eyes on the ground
If you don't, you will probably catch your toe on a rock and faceplant in the dirt. Not a joke. This seems like a very obvious tip, but it's important to remember. Once you have gotten used to uneven footing and have built up your ankle strength, it becomes easier to look up more frequently. I have one major exception to this rule (see #6).
6) Stop and absorb your surroundings.
My favorite part of trail running is admiring the natural beauty of the trail. As stated above, it's often difficult to look up and see trees, leaves, and sunsets without tripping, so make sure to stop every so often to "smell the roses." This is by far one of my favorite parts about trail running, even though I may be standing still at the moment.
I hope these tips shed some light on the basics of trail running. If you have any questions, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!