Are you a road runner who is tired of beating the hard pavement day after day? Change up your workout and hit the trails! Trail running during all four seasons puts you face-to-face with different challenges. Prepare yourself for a change, and head out into the woods.
What to look for in a trail
Running on a small bit of road before you hit the trails is perfectly okay. Just be sure that your trail miles outnumber your road miles, since typical trail running shoes do not provide enough cushioning for road running. Also, the tread on trail running shoes wears more quickly on asphalt.
I like to find a trail that loops, rather than an out-and-back course, because a loop gives me a constant variety of scenery. Keep in mind that you can run anyplace that you can hike. Don't let the trail scare you; you can always fast-walk the rough, steep spots. Look for trail maps at your local outdoor outfitter or bookstore.
For the most part, trail running is set at a much slower pace than road running. Although running on trails is slower, the entire core workout is of a better quality and you will see a noticeable increase in your speed if you decide to run on the road again. Trail running is quite a technical form of running, so much so that it sometimes seems that scrambling up and down hills may warrant a crash helmet. Be sure to keep your eyes open and stay alert at all times.
Trail running shoes
Trail running shoes are a necessity. The shoe should fit well and provide stability, support, and an aggressive tread. For example, I wear a waterproof/breathable shoe during the fall, winter, and spring. During the summer months, wet conditions are less of an issue and I can get away with a trail running shoe that is lightweight and breathable but not waterproof. Just remember that trails are usually much wetter than roads; crossing a stream or two is almost inevitable.
Wool socks are your feet's best friend
As many trail runners know, wool is your foot's best friend. Wool not only wicks away moisture from your feet in warmer temperatures but it also keeps your feet nice and toasty on cold days. Wool socks range from heavyweight for those really cold days to ultralight for the days when you barely walk outside and begin to sweat. Wool socks can be worn year-round. Wool/synthetic-blend socks are also a good choice - the wool absorbs moisture and the synthetic component helps the moisture evaporate. Don't use your cotton socks for trail running, because they hold moisture against your feet, which leads to discomfort.
Prepare for the running seasons
Even though trail running doesn't require extensive gear when compared to some other sports, you'll find that certain accessories become useful, if not necessary.
Ankle gaiters not only keep water and mud out of your shoes but also protect you from brush and snow. Quick and easy to put on or take off, gaiters attach easily to your shoes, and you can wear them right over a pair of running tights.
As the snow melts and refreezes, trail conditions can become very dicey. Try stretching Microspikes or some other lightweight traction device over the tread. These devices are also excellent for running across a snow-bare lake or pond, and they are light enough to remove and stash in a pocket.
Snowshoes designed specifically for running are an alternative during the winter and best used on well-packed trails or snowmobile trails.
Run with a friend
You can enjoy running alone or with others. If the idea of being alone in the woods makes you uncomfortable, convince a road-running buddy to try trail running.
When I head to the woods for a run, I enjoy the company of my three dogs. This is a peaceful way to enjoy the outdoors and a great way to start my day. If you want to bring along your faithful canine friend, be sure to check if local laws require that you keep your dog on a leash. One added benefit: My vet always tells me how fit my dogs are!
Understand trail safety
When running early in the morning or in the evening, carry along an LED headlamp. The woods are usually darker than the roads, and sometimes it is hard to know what the lighting will be like. You might underestimate the time it takes to run a course, which could leave you out in the twilight. Running in poor light not only increases your chance for injury but also causes your friends and family to worry about you.
If you run in the woods where hunters frequent, be aware of hunting seasons and regulations in your area. Trail runners can easily be mistaken for animals scurrying through the trees. Make sure you can be seen and heard. It's a good idea to wear brightly colored clothing. If you have your dog with you, attach a bell to his collar.
When you run alone, let someone know where you will be running, as well as how long you expect to be out. I would also recommend bringing along a cell phone, even if you are running with your dog. Don't rely on Lassie to save the day.
Listen to your body
Know your limits and plan ahead; it will make for a much safer running experience. After a long and exhausting road run, you can still manage to pick up your feet and shuffle back home, but on trails it is a different story. As you become tired on the trail, your feet begin to lose clearance over the smallest of obstacles. When your body is this fatigued, you are at a higher risk for injury. If you notice increasing missteps, your body is most likely telling you that you should turn your run into a brisk hike home to avoid injury.
Fuel your body
The two main sources of fuel that I use when I run are water and energy gels. As a water source for longer runs, I highly recommend wearing a hydration pack. For shorter runs, a fanny pack with an angled water-bottle holder works well (I recommend angled because a vertical water bottle can rub on your lower back.) You need to be the judge of how much water you will need according to the weather, your body, and your route.
Trail running clothing
Layering is the way to go. This way, you can shed a windbreaker or mid layer and tie it around your body (or stuff it into your hydration pack). The woods block more wind than the open road. Keep this in mind when layering clothes during different seasons of the year. Unless you are trying to impress your running partner, comfort is what counts the most.