This article was written by Ashley Brasovan, 2007 Foot Locker Cross Country Champion, Duke University graduate, and most recently a “MUT” convert with two USATF Championship titles to her credit – 2017 Trail Half Marathon and 2018 30K Trail Championship – and a USATF team appearance at the 2018 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships.
Have you thought about making the transition from road running to trail running, or are you new to the trail scene without much of a track, road, or cross country background? It can be more than intimidating to make the jump from road to trail and equally daunting to start trail running with little or no running experience.
I was born and raised in Florida. I really didn’t know that trail running was a sport prior to moving to Colorado about three years ago. In Florida, we ran up parking garages and landfills in high school to incorporate hill repeats into our running regimen. Our “off roading” consisted of a six-inch grassy path that sprouted year-round between the road and the sidewalk. The closest thing we had to a mountain was the inter-coastal bridge we drove up and over to reach the beach every weekend.
When I was making the transition to trail running about a year ago, I quickly realized that there was no guidebook, nor a text entitled “MUT Running for Dummies,” detailing how to make the jump from road to trail running. I decided to start a list incorporating some of the concepts I learned during my transition to the trails and what follows are my top go-to tips and lessons.
What is MUT?
Let’s start with the basics. MUT stands for “mountain – ultra – trail” and is an all-encompassing term in the trail running world. This is a term that I learned pretty quickly after moving out to Colorado. Mountain running is defined as having significant elevation gain and (mostly) taking place off-road. However, there are some mountain races that do take place on paved roads like the Mount Evans Ascent (14.5 miles, 4410′ of ascent) in Colorado, and the Mount Washington Road Race (7.6 miles, 4200′ of ascent) in New Hampshire, with the common denominator being a mostly uphill route from start to finish. Trail running takes place on trails, with no pavement, e.g. off road. Ultra running is technically anything over the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles (42K), but often is defined in the MUT world as anything greater than a 50K. There is overlap between these three disciplines and a single run, or race can definitely fall under more than one of these categories.
A coach can help you make the transition
Getting coaching support is a key ingredient to success as a MUT athlete. It is helpful to have the guidance and oversight of someone – a coach or group of running friends – that has been in the trail world for several years. A coach can teach you running techniques, explain the limitations of your body, hone your form over technical terrain, provide racing strategies, etc. I choose to connect with my former college friends, David and Megan Roche, who shared with me their trail running philosophy and introduced me to their team of athletes, also known as the SWAP Adventure Team. I joined SWAP shortly thereafter, and it has been priceless. Between Megan and David’s advice and the SWAP community, I have had every question answered from footwear selection to carrying a handheld bottle during a race.
If you’re thinking about making the jump, I recommend hiring a knowledgeable coach, or joining a trail running group.
Change your definition of elevation gain
My idea of “elevation gain,” quickly changed from the pedestrian 800 feet I climbed during the California International Marathon to the thousands of feet I ascended during my first marathon trail race this past February. I also learned that most people in the trail running world don’t say “elevation gain.” The term used is “vert,” or “vertical gain.” However, I also learned that not all trail races and runs have crazy amounts of “vert.” There are a variety of trail courses with levels of vertical gain ranging from relatively flat to jaw-dropping ascents and everything in between. Some trail courses feature less vert than a road race and some require power hiking for nearly the entire way. Try out different routes and see what type of vertical gain and terrain you like best.
There’s a reason someone invented trail shoes
I am a very stubborn human being and thought trail shoes were something people just preferred over road shoes for no apparent reason. Maybe the colors were more suited for the dirt? Perhaps those little stub things on the soles were cool? Wrong. Very Wrong. Trail shoes do have a purpose. I learned this after slipping, sliding and falling way too many times to want to actually admit to anyone my failings. Trail shoes provide traction and much-needed stability for the variety of terrain encountered off road, and include good grip to make those steep descents just a little easier. After trying out a few different models, I am now a Hoka One One Speedgoat convert for my trail and mountain running adventures and have never looked back. There are plenty of shoe types and trail running brands offering varying levels of grip, traction, and cushion. Seek the support of your local specialty retailer to help you identify the shoe that will best meet your trail running goals.
It’s not WALKING, it’s POWER HIKING
If you’re coming from a road running or track background, you have probably never walked in a race. This is just not a winning strategy. In the MUT world, it’s totally appropriate to walk in a race, especially in ones with several thousand feet of vertical gain. Slowing down helps prevent the body from going lactic on very steep courses, and keeps the heart rate lower. However, it’s definitely not referred to as walking. It’s called “power hiking.” That is the preferred and much more accurate term.
The first time I ran a real mountain race was the 2018 Long Distance Mountain Running World Championships in Poland. There were two miles of uphill granite stairs that I attempted to power hike and I got passed by nearly half the field (or that’s what it felt like over just a two-mile stretch). After that, I pledged to get on the Stairmaster® and fine tune my hiking/power walking/climbing skills. Lesson learned: Power hiking is an art that needs to be practiced and perfected for race day. It IS a winning strategy in some trail races.
Getting lost in a race is part of the sport
If you decide to enter the MUT world, you will get lost if you are not prepared. There are typically fewer participants than in a road race and courses may wind through the middle of nowhere. You may end up by yourself with no one to follow, and have to look for markers on trees, rocks, or roots and rely on your best navigation skills. You should study the course map in advance, and not plan to simply follow the person in front of you. Trail races tend to spread out much more quickly than road races. Listen to the pre-race instructions and learn what markers you should follow and where they are located. I learned this lesson the hard way. I got lost during one of my first trail races assuming I would just “follow the pack.” Well, there was no “pack,” so I got lost in the middle of Utah with no cell phone service. I did luckily find my way back on course after a few miles and finished the race.
It takes desire and commitment to climb rocky steps, ascend steep slopes, fly down loose gravel, and be willing to get lost during a race. I found my niche in the MUT world, and I absolutely love it.