How to Transition to Trail Running

Written by Andrew Simmons for the Summer 2021 edition of our Trail Times newsletter. Simmons is an avid trail runner and the Head Coach for Lifelong Endurance. Photo above: a youth mountain running race in Ambleside, UK – image by Jumpy James.

Track and cross country are probably the two dynamics of running that high schoolers are most familiar with, and if they come from an active family they might also be familiar with road marathons, half marathons, and 10ks. Trail running hasn’t been quite as pervasive. But, this is changing as trail races are starting to attract newcomers with events that offer an individual and team dynamic as well as awards in younger age categories. In some trail races, athletes can compete individually or score team points just like they’re accustomed to in cross country running.

It’s exciting to see trail running events targeted to youth – like the National High School Trail Running Championships – because this discipline offers yet another avenue for competition. For athletes on the outside looking in, trail running may at first appear brutal, unforgiving, and masochistic when considering the extremes of the sport from gut-busting vertical kilometers (VK) to the 100-mile distance. If you’re a young runner looking to change up your training, get close to nature, and experience something new – transitioning your training and racing to trails might just open doors you didn’t know were there, especially when learning that trail running offers a wide variety of terrain, distance, and challenge.

National High School Trail Running Championships in Salida, Colorado.

Change your mindset

Remember your first day at track practice or your first day at a new job? Lots of nerves, some confusion, getting lost, and relying on your skills to get through the day. It’s the same approach to take with transitioning to trails. You’re exchanging some of the comforts of east/ west grids on city streets, ovals on the tracks for green tunnels of foliage, views you can’t get to in a car, and a run that will challenge you and open up new sensory experiences. You are getting up close and personal with nature, taking away crowds, cars, and occasionally a cell signal. Getting lost can be part of the experience if you don’t plan your route in advance, but can also be part of the fun as it teaches you to think critically, trust yourself, and enjoy the time outdoors. Don’t expect your trail runs to have perfectly spaced mile markers, or be completely “runnable.” What makes trail running great is that it provides a challenge that isn’t as much about pace or distance – it requires you to manage what’s happening in front of you in the moment and nothing else. Worried about that big climb in two miles? Try not to trip over that root right in front of you first!

Practice the K.I.S.S method

Keep it simple stupid – I can still hear my 5th grade teacher Mr. Worthy telling the class about this method and it’s the first rule of trail running. Take only the basics. At first, you’ll think you need to look like G.I. Joe to get out and run. You don’t need anything but your running clothes and a sturdy pair of trail shoes. You likely won’t need to fuel along the way unless you’re planning a long effort (an hour or more). If you find that your sense of adventure is enhanced by longer runs in the hills or mountains – then be prepared and invest in appropriate gear that may include a hydration vest, wind jacket, headlamp, trail running poles, and a map.

Joslin Blair winning the WMRA International Mountain Running Youth Cup in Italy.

Gain Strength

If your first thought is that you’ll be checking your splits along the way hoping it will be similar to your lunch loop or road run – you’re going to probably see some numbers in which you’ll initially be disappointed. Running trails takes strength and speed to be successful; running fast on trails demands that your legs, ankles, and core are all engaged. Add to that the mental demand required to stay 100 percent engaged while moving your body through obstacles, lifting your feet to avoid roots and rocks, weaving between trees, boulders, or cactus. This focus is easily transferable to road racing because you build your ability to stay engaged with what’s happening in the moment.

You’ll learn how to pace yourself because the trail requires it and you’ll know where your red line is. Trail running can be demanding, but doesn’t have to be a battle. Constantly changing gears, managing your effort on an extended climb, or flying downhill requires a huge aerobic engine, great strength, and tactical speed. It’s why our club Peak Performance Running and schools like Western Colorado University recruit athletes who love to be outdoors in the mountains and on the trails. You can find numerous examples of athletes like Sage Canaday, Grayson Murphy, Max King, and Ashley Brasovan who are dual-threats on the roads and trails. If anything, the tenacity they’ve harvested from trail running gives them a leg up on their road-going compatriots.

Mikey Connelly at the Youth Skyrunning World Championships in Spain.

Set a new PR

There’s something about adding a new personal record (PR) to the list that makes the effort all worthwhile. Turning to trails opens many new doors and even a new ‘classification’ for you to measure success. Just as you can’t compare a road 5K to your cross country (XC) 5K PR, you can’t compare it to your new trail 5K PR either. There is a parallel beauty to XC for new trail runners as there are “fast” courses and then there are “technical” courses. It’s not always about the speed but rather about the effort you put into the race and what you learned because of it.

Training on trails will teach you to look at training in a new light and see that all that hill training isn’t just pre-speed work for your cross country season, it’s also a skill you can use to succeed in a race. At Peak Performance Running we look forward to hard, technical, and demanding courses as we run on trails year-round and hone our skills at our altitude camp in the summer. This doesn’t mean you can’t run fast on the flat courses, it just means you get to walk to the start line of the course most of your opponents fear, with a little extra swagger and confidence.

If you’re looking for a way to diversify your training or just get started, there’s only one thing to do: go out and get on the trail. You don’t even have to have trail shoes to get started (but, you’ll love trail running so much that you’ll want to soon invest in a pair). Be prepared to go a little slower, get closer to nature, and finish with a smile. Transitioning to trail running this summer is the perfect way to soak up all that the season has to offer.

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