Trail-running tips

Ten miles into West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest last weekend,

with everything I needed for the week strapped to my back, it occurred to me: This is me at my most essential, both materially and spiritually.

Materially, it’s liberating to know how little it takes to survive, and to consider luxury the use of a single square of toilet paper rather than an oak leaf.  Spiritually, it’s liberating and terrifying to consider yourself aside from all the trappings of your daily life. In the woods, your house and your job and your resume and all your stuff doesn’t matter. You are one big ball of human traits, and you rely on those traits when solving problems and considering joy.

This is all a long preamble to saying that, once this pesky flood warning for the Washington area is gone, I’m going to give trail running another shot, despite being spooked from a bad ankle sprain running through Rock Creek Park this past December. Hitting the trails again while still being treated for tendinitis and swelling associated with a trail-running sprain might be unwise. But my backpacking trip this past weekend was REALLY fun, and reminded me that I spent years running on trails — many in Colorado — without incident.

Here are some trail-running tips for klutzes like me:


Choose trails wisely: Run on trails that are appropriate for fitness level. Flat trails are recommended if you’re a beginner, while more experienced runners can choose hilly, challenging trails.

Slow it down: Trail running is usually harder on the body than road running, so plan to run fewer miles at a slower pace on trails than you do on the roads.

Pay attention: Keep your head up and your eyes on the trail ahead. Try not to look down at your feet, so you can watch ahead for obstacles such as rocks, roots, logs and branches.

Careful on the downhills: Don’t get out of control on steep downhills. Control your speed and keep your head up, so you can avoid obstacles.

From Runner’s World:

Think time, not distance: Tough terrain and hills can double the time you need to cover a mile. So consider how long you want to be out. “Experienced trail runners cover about six miles an hour,” says Scott Jurek, seven-time winner of the Western States Endurance Run. “Less-fit runners should target four.”

Fuel up: Bring food with you, even on short runs, in case you’re in the woods longer than expected. “Energy bars and gels are good because they’re easy to carry and digest,” says Monique Ryan, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. The carbohydrates will help you run and concentrate. Also, stay hydrated with small, frequent sips from a water bottle or hydration pack.

Watch the weather: Especially at higher elevations, temperatures can change and storms can roll in quickly, so plan accordingly. Even in the summer, Jurek brings a winter hat and a Brooks L.S.D. jacket ($85,, which is water-resistant and weighs only 3.1 ounces. Use sunscreen, but be careful not to apply too much; it can clog pores and cause you to overheat.

Train your feet: Get used to running on easy paths, then move on to more gnarly trails. “Take short, quick steps so you can react,” Jurek says, adding that your stride rate should be about 90 per minute. Road shoes work, but trail shoes have more traction and protect your feet from rocks and roots.

Of course, bring a buddy, tell someone where you’re going, and carry a GPS unit or map if possible.

Check this site for a compilation of Runner’s World trail-running resources, including a story about trail racing and tips for strengthening your ankles pre-run.

EX2 Adventures offers a series of trail races in nearby Prince William County. Local trail enthusiasts also rave about the Northern Central Trail Marathon through Baltimore County in November.

Not ready to race yet? Washington Running Report offers maps and other resources for local trails.

Any other tips for beginners? Or know of any really great trail races? Let me know by posting a comment.


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4 responses to “Trail-running tips

  1. Those are some good tips for trail running! Can’t wait to hit the trails again 🙂

  2. Great tips! If you want to find some cool trails to run check out which has over 700 cool trail running trails all over the United States!

  3. I’m lucky to have a state park only a few miles from my house, and the Ice Age Trail here in Southern Wisconsin. I love the trails. They are challenging, but easier on my fragile knees than the pavement.

  4. polynesian69

    Love the way trail running strips us down to our essential selves. You are so right about that and your description of it is a treasure.

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