Trail running basics

Trail running is a great break from miles on the road, or hours on the treadmill.  Trail running is also a key part of Ultramarathons.  Here are some tips to make your experience fun and safe.


One of the first things you’ll discover about trail running is that you often have to be more self reliant than you might otherwise be.  While you may know every park and schoolyard in your neighborhood that has a drinking fountain, five miles back from a trail head you will hurting if you don’t bring your own.  You should also plan on carrying extra fluids, just in case (see the Navigation section below :|).  A Camelbak comes in very handy, because in addition to providing an easy way to carry lots of fluid, they also typically have room for stowing some extra gear – either to put on if it gets cold, or to hold things that you strip off as you warm up.

If you plan on being way out in nowheres-ville, you should know how to make water safe out on the trail – typically this means carrying some sort of chemical treatment like iodine tablets.

Critters and plants

One of the great treats of trail running is seeing wildlife.  One of the worst things about trail running is seeing wildlife :?.  Hitting the trails in the early early morning almost guarantees you a sighting or two.  Common animals on the trails (at least in Northern California) are rabbits, deer, coyote (they’re WAY more afraid of you than you are of them!), the occasional (and very illusive) bobcat, snakes, gophers, squirrels, and all manner of birds.  And then one morning I came around a bend and saw a chewed off deer leg lying in the middle of the trail – probably the victim of a mountain lion.  Yipes.

OK, some big predator tips.  Unless you have crazy speed – don’t run.  Running triggers a “catch the prey” response that you DO NOT want to trigger!  The general rule is get BIG.  Stand up tall, raise your hands out, and talk defiantly to the cat/bear.  If they do attack, fight back.  (Note, some might say that playing dead for a bear is better – but I’ve never had occasion to have to figure that out).

Poison oak and ivy are a continual concern.  There’s a special soap called Tecnu that does a good job of washing off the offending oils – and can also be applied pre-run if you are pretty sure you’re going to be exposed.  A note about these plants, they are still dangerous even if there are no leaves.  So be cautious kicking branches out of the way – you can still get a good stripe of painful itch.

Ticks can also be a concern.  Always wear a hat, and give yourself a look over after the run.  Dogs running free are magnets for ticks – if Fluffy is running with you, be sure to check her out as well.


Trail running almost always means getting lost sometimes.  Make sure you have a trail map which often available at the trail head, or sometimes you can download them from the park’s website.  One thing is for sure – trail signs are very, very often not enough for you to successfully navigate a large area with many trails.

If you can, run with someone who is familiar with the area and the trails.  A GPS can help…if you know how to use it!  A Forerunner type device will give you some help – but again, you have to know how to use it.  If you’ve never played with the GPS functions, start by taking it on a familiar road run.

General Safety

Be aware.  No really, that’s one of the most important tips for trail running.  If you can “only” run with headphones – deal with it and don’t wear them for a while.  You NEED to hear the sounds around you.  You should be aware, particularly on singe track trails, of other people on the trails.

Until you get very comfortable running on trails, and even after that, it’s also critical that you focus on what you are doing.  One of the joys of running on roads, tracks, and treadmills is zoning out and just hammering.  You just can’t do that on a trail.  Rocks and roots, mud and branches.  When you fall (notice that wasn’t an “if” ;)), take a quick second and think back to what was going on in your mind – probably work, what to cook for dinner tonight, etc., etc. – but it was something other than “trail”.  It always happens…you’ve been warned.

Run in the middle of the trail/fireroad.  You are much less likely to brush up against harmful plants, and much less likely to surprise a nasty critter.  Many snakes will try camoflage first, then rattle, then strike – staying in the middle of the trail helps.


The best thing about trail running is your free license to spend $$$ on GEAR!!

  • Trail shoes.  While not an absolute necessity (you can get by with your regular shoes), trail shoes offer a number of benefits:
    • they typically have protection against sharp rocks poking through the sole (guess what, it HURTS)
    • they also typically have a good chunk of rubber on the front of the toe to protect you when you kick a rock or root
    • some level of water-proofness, and many trail shoes come in a Gore-tex version
    • wider base
    • “stickier” sole (hint, this means you should NOT run too much on hard surfaces since they will wear out fast)
    • bigger cushion around the ankle (keeps rocks out)
  • Camelbak – drinking is good
  • Trail socks.  Huh?  Yep, they are important, here’s why.
    • trail socks are usually crew or 1/2 crew – providing some abrasion protection, and a bit of protection from poison oak/ivy
    • the additional height keeps rocks out of your socks (which is a major pain) – anklet socks have a gap around your ankle bones that catch little rocks!
    • trail socks tend to have a bit more cushion, which really helps when running downhill.  The downhills on trails tend to be MUCH steeper than roads, and your toes will smush into the toes of your shoes.  Socks with cushion in the toes really help
    • you will ruin your regular socks (unless they already happen to be trail-dust-brown)
    • One brand that meets all of these: Injinji – highly recommended
    • I’ve also been running a lot with Drymax socks (I sweat a lot, and they don’t get soggy)
  • GPS – and know how to use it!
  • Survival kit.  Check out the S.O.L. (Survive Outdoors Longer) kit.  It’s missing water treatment tablets, but otherwise it’s a very light and compact way to carry most of what you need just in case.
  • Trail map(s)
  • Hat.  Good protection from ticks, sun, and the occasional overhead branch.
  • Sunglasses.  They are good to have for a number of reasons:
    • protection from bugs and branches
    • keep dust out of your eyes (kicked up from other runners, horses, mountain bikes, wind)
    • increased visibility in some situations
    • photochromatic glasses rock (they self adjust between light and dark) – highly recommended when running in and out of tree cover
  • After run – hopefully you won’t have to buy all this:
    • towel to cover your car seat
    • recovery drink (you’ll often have to drive home, so get recoverin’ on your way!)
    • new shoes if you don’t want to get your car dirty/muddy
  • Tracking tools.  If you have some geek-fu, there are many solutions for tracking your run in realtime.  Here’s an example: Where’s Mike Now?  This will help if you miss your return time (you did tell someone where you are going and when you will return, RIGHT!?!?).

Special techniques

Downhill – in trail running the ups tend to be more up, and the downs tend to be more steep than other running.  Going downhill the wrong way is slow, tiring and painful.  Most novices run downhill with the brakes on – leaning your boddy back, taking big steps and jarring their heels in on each step.  This results in trashed quads and lots of hip and knee strain.  Going downhill the right way is fast and exhilarating (ok, maybe “sphincter puckering terrifying” is a bit more accurate than “exhilerating”).  The strategy is to lean forward, take tons of small quick steps, and keep things moving under your feet, rather than trying to stop yourself with every step.  For illustration, think about a BIG rock falling straight towards your head.  You wouldn’t dif your feet in and hold your hands up and try to stop the rock, as it approached you would put your hands to the side of the rock and push it a bit to the side, and yourself the other way – so the rock “slides” by.  Well, there is a big rock, the earth, coming at you pretty fast.  So rather than trying to stop it with your feet, try to push it to the side, and yourself a little to the other side.  Running this way lets gravity move you, and all you have to do is stay ahead of it.  The first time you try this, you will feel very tired – this is due to the inevitable adrenaline rush that will flood your bloodstream as your brain thinks “I’m going to die”.  If you don’t die (if!), you will be on your way to mastering an important skill.

Uphill – Two rules: in training run, in racing walk.  When your running slows to 15:00 min/mile or slower, you aren’t really doing yourself any favors running rather than walking.  But the only way to get faster going uphill is to…go faster uphill.  So run up when training.  But when racing you’re just burning tons of energy without much speed gain.  Running uphill causes a lot of up and down of your body that doesn’t typically translate into faster across the ground.  Better to walk the ups, bring down your heartrate, and fly down on your newly freshened legs.  By the way, by “uphill” we’re talking UP, and HILL – not speedbumps or freeway overpasses.

One exception to the “run uphill in training” rule – if you will be racing in an ultra with extended very steep sections (like a mile or more of steep-steep), you should get some hill walking training in.  Walking uphill uses more glutes than normal.

As for form when running uphill, particularly in a triathlon when your quads are probably fatigued, you can help yourself by “recruiting” your glutes (butt).  As you’re running, rock your hips forward a bit – think of pointing your belly button down a bit.  You should pretty instantly feel the pressure come off your quads, and your glutes will come alive.


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