Trail running tips from trail runners
Runners new and old from near and far share their wisdom
Think about all the tips you’ve received over the years. We hear all kinds of them in our lives, and there are ones that just stick out in our memory from the others. They come to us over and over when we need them, always proving helpful.
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I reached out to all of you for your best trail running tips, and you responded en masse. Thank you! It means a lot to me that you spend the time to help me out with these sorts of things, and I can think of no better post as the first post under the new “Community Trail Running” banner.
31 runners from 7 different countries (Canada, USA, Australia, England, Scotland, France and Mexico) chimed in, and I loved reading every single response. It’s so cool to see what tips trend (hello downhill running), and how people around the world can trail run so similarly. We are our own community!
Chatting on a long run about tips and tricks is a great time. It’s interesting to hear if you have anything in common and if they are doing anything you would like to try. There is often so much great conversation that you need a reminder on a follow-up run because you have forgotten about it by the end!
This word cloud is fantastic. This is built from responses to the question “Do you remember how you felt after you signed up for your first trail race? What race was it?”
But you’re here for the tips, and so, here they are. Enjoy.
0 - 2 Trail Running Years
The wonderful thing about being new to something is everything about it can seem so important and so interesting. “The 10 essentials are a thing, wow!”
Because all of these lessons are fresh, it’s great to chat with people in these shoes to hear about what they are finding important at the moment. It’s always a great conversation and the information can be new or a great refresher.
Here is what our awesome “rookie” runners had to say:
Trail running can be overwhelming but it is what you make of it.
You don't have to run ultras or even run races. - Imaculate (Washington, USA)
Eyes down, or you go down. - Lea Arista (Dallas, TX)
Be aware that you share the trails with animals! I was running around a blind corner and I surprised a bear (actually we surprised each other). I backed away from it, chatting with it in a reassuring voice, and found a detour on a nearby logging road. It reminded me to pay attention when I’m out running. It’s easy to get in a zone where I’m focused on breathing and putting my feet in the right places! - Matt Cavers (Gibsons, BC)
Run against effort and heart rate rather than speed and pace. Trying to maintain the pace you're used to on flat tarmac is not always the right decision. Learn to adjust your running so you can run consistently at the same HR and you'll be able to confidently tackle whatever you come up against on a trail.
Do a lot of slow running and enjoy the scenery! - Duncan Hall (UK)
Accept that there are things you can't control. Like in life, reactions to struggles matter so much more than what actually happened. Adaptation is the key to success.
If you ever feel like you can't continue, give yourself the goal of just trying to make it to the next aid station. It's often our minds that try to quit on us before our bodies do. Sometimes we need to tell the little doubt maker in our brain to F-off! - Joey Byrne (Vancouver, BC)
Vaseline your toes and practice your long runs with your full pack. - Charly Feldman (Leicester, England)
Start slow and build your base over time.
Always tell someone where you're going.
Use 3B or Squirrels Nut Butter for chafe BEFORE you start (anywhere that moves past another part of your body gets the treatment). - Hamish Wyatt (Australia)
Strengthen your ankles. - Bikeanddogtrips (UK)
Get good shoes! - Graham (UK)
Some gems in there and as a nod to Matt Cavers bear tip, here is the BC Parks page on interacting with bears, which he nailed.
3 - 4 Trail Running Years
That time in the learning cycle when you are still finding all kinds of new and interesting things to apply, but you’ve got a foundation of your own now too. You’ve figured out your anti-chafe, and you know where the best post-run food is.
By this point, you have started to figure out what questions you want to know the answers to and you probably have a favourite route or two by now as well. The world is your oyster.
Here are our sophomore tips:
Airplane your arms out for balance when running downhill and take short steps not long strides.
Look where you want to go. - Karen McCullough (Vancouver, BC)
Don't worry about time or pace to begin with, focus on exploration & enjoying where you're running. The biggest motivation for me is finding new places, getting out of the city, and just being in nature.
Learn the "penguin dance" (high cadence, short stride length, little steps) for navigating technical terrain and descending more safely (helps avoid nasty falls and will give you confidence going faster over roots and rocks). - Luke Merrett (Bristol, UK)
Pace doesn't matter, go out and have fun!
It is important to stay safe and injury-free so invest in good shoes/gear. - Melissa Sweet (Abbotsford, BC)
It’s OK if you walk when you climb.
Bring enough to drink. - Antonio (Mexico)
Ultra’s are cool as much as 20km or vertical races are and you won't be good at everything. Find what ticks for you, and have a good time doing it! Charles (France)
Eat little bits often.
Take smaller steps so your feet stay under your hips and you’re less likely to take a big spill. - Kristyn Carriere (Edmonton, AB)
Eating often is a good one for me and I love to be able to do it while I’m cruising slowly up a hill. It’s a great opportunity to get in some calories!
5 - 6 Trail Running Years
By now, you have a pretty good idea of what works for you (or at least you’ve established your habits, ha!). You can eavesdrop on a trail conversation and have a general idea of what area they’re talking about. You’ve learned to think about the wind direction when stopping at aid stations and you certainly carry TP in your pack. People have told you that “you’re crazy” enough now that you just nod, even though all you can think of is all the running friends you have doing way crazier things. Some of your trail running gear or clothing becomes everyday wear. You’re learning finer points and starting to think about big challenges. It’s a great spot to be in.
Here are the tips from the regulars:
Know that sometimes you're going to hit the dirt, so learn to fall.
Road running can be rigid, regimented, and monotonous. Trail running rewards individuality far more than the machine that is road running. Find your strength and be free out there! - Gordon Collins (Maine, USA)
Get online access to some mapping software (OS maps for UK) or an app like Strava where you can access routes to try out.
Training: Navigation for runners or similar one-day/weekend workshops. This will give you confidence on the trail and also give you access to like-minded folks whom you can make friends with and go on runs with. - Gail Mackay (Na Alba, Scotland)
Find a local trail running group to run with. You'll likely meet new friends with similar fitness levels and goals that you can run with on a regular basis.
Sign up for a race that scares you. The fear of failure can be very motivating to train and will give you a great sense of accomplishment once it's over with. - Alan Mijinke - (Abbotsford, BC)
Hills are your friend. You get a walking break, embrace them.
Don’t focus on time, focus on your surroundings. - Richard (UK)
Forget about PBs, or worrying about whether you are good enough, or whether you are a proper runner. No one cares how long you take, or which bits you walk. Trail running is playtime. It's fun!
Experiment with different paths and terrains. If you like the look of a path, just follow it. Make sure you have a good mapping app so that you can find your way home again and a head torch (for darkness). - Sarah (Hampshire, England)
Trail running is really different from road racing in that you are not going to RUN the entire time. You will be forced to power hike the steep hills (even the steep descents).
Take time to learn how to navigate the technical terrain by joining trail running clinics and groups (having the proper gear is important too and will make the whole trail running experience more pleasant). - Sandra Louie (Burnaby, BC)
Lots of love for running groups in here, and I can’t blame people for that! I have a favourite running group that I join in the off-seasons and have met some truly great people there. You won’t be disappointed in making that effort.
7+ Years Trail Running
You might not remember where you parked, but you can give turn-by-turn trail instructions to friends by this point (whether they listen to you or not is a different matter). You might have a pair of shoes that Strava says have more KM on them than your car but you can’t bring yourself to throw them out (you should). You know it’s a good idea to have more viscous calories in the heat because they’re easier to digest than solid foods and you know most of what you know because you’ve messed it up in the past (or you finally hired a coach). You’re probably a resource to other runners and if you enjoy trail racing, you know a large portion of the community by this point. It’s a part of who you are.
Here’s what our grizzled veterans had to say:
Learn to navigate with a map and compass and get off the paths and go wild.
Practice running downhill. It's fun when you go fast. - Duncan Jones (England)
Find out before a big race which food/fuel works best for you.
A trail running group to run with during training helps keep you motivated and accountable, and is very fun! - Greg Faber (Terrace, BC)
Take what the trail gives you.
If you need more info & inspiration, I hope you'll read my book "The Trail Runner's Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras." Sorry for the shameless plug, but it distills ALL my mountain/ultra/trail advice! - Sarah Lavender Smith (Colorado, USA)
Never try something on race day that you haven’t tried in training! This goes for clothing, shoes, packs, and especially food and drink.
Time passes differently in trail running. It’s much more about endurance than the speed and PRs of road racing. The point is to lose all sense of time and live in the moment. - Amie McGraham (Arizona, USA)
Practice running downhill (lean forward and keep those feet landing just ahead of you).
It's OK to walk. Save some energy for a strong finish when everyone is watching! - Axel Kussman (Ontario, Canada)
Step lightly on downhill technical running. Jump over roots/slick rock instead of placing your feet in/on them.
Take pictures!!!! It’s fun to look back at a photo journal of all the cool places you have run. - Niki Kearl (Chilliwack, BC)
Get comfortable with going slow through difficult areas & speeding up when the terrain allows.
Figuring out what nutrition works is a trial & error kind of thing.
Remember to enjoy the journey, it isn't all about the finish line. - Michelle (Canada)
It’s OK to walk! Don’t feel discouraged that you’re not as fast on the trail as you are on the road.
Don’t forget to take in your surroundings. Trails take you to some beautiful places and while it’s good to focus on where you’re stepping, you should also pause to look around and admire the beauty nature has to offer. - Jeannine Avelino (North Vancouver, BC)
Cross-train! I resisted for 20 years and it has transformed my running in the last 5 years.
Take a wilderness survival course. You may never need the skills but someone else might (and you’ll feel better about going into even wilder places where there is even greater beauty to discover). - Toby (Washington, USA)
Find your local trail race. Run it.
Enjoy the adventure. That's what it's all about. - Mathias Eichler (Washington, USA)
Mathias, that IS what it’s all about! Enjoying the adventure is the name of the game and I think a huge reason all of us trail run. I hope everyone coming together and sharing their tips has you thinking about applying them, talking about them with someone else, or even thinking about what your own tips would be. Feel free to share in the comments!
Once more a huge thank you to all those that contributed. Trail running is the greatest.
If you enjoy my newsletter, I would really appreciate it if you could like, share, subscribe, or comment! I’m trying to make this the best trail running newsletter it can be and I certainly appreciate your time. Thank you all and happy trails.