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I haven't played a ton of sports in my life, but I'm nonetheless convinced that we runners have chosen what is arguably the most accessible and versatile sport there is. Unlike many other sports or activities, running is, by its very nature, pretty uncomplicated and fairly straightforward (both literally and metaphorically). To be a runner – or to run, generally speaking – provided you put a pair of shoes on your feet (if you want!) and then launch yourself in a more-forward-than-not motion, you can certifiably say that you run. Pretty easy, right?
Besides having the motion down, it's also crucial that you have some place to run, and here again, we runners should revel in how lucky we are. We can run indoors, on a treadmill or a track, or outdoors, through our neighborhoods, in forest preserves, on a community center track, or up the mountains. It's really pretty awesome how much freedom we have and yet how we can all still call ourselves runners.
I'm a little bit biased, though, when it comes to running. Like many others, when I started running, I stuck with what I knew best and what was most accessible to me: roads. My neighborhood. A nearby park (but only sometimes). Flat land. It wasn't until I had been doing this stuff for a while that I realized that there's this whole other world of running – trails! – and that I had yet to explore it. No doubt that trail running is different from road running, in that the terrain is typically pretty challenging and technical, and that you're more inclined (see what I did there?) to traverse over inclines and declines, but at its core, it's still running. It's just a different type of running.
Through my running career, I have found that running trails more often than not gives me a different type of joy than I get from running roads, as well as a different type of challenge, and I am beginning to find that I just can't get enough of trails. The mountains are calling, and I'm finally beginning to listen.
My personal trails experiences have also showed me that trail running works different muscle groups than does road running, but I also think that getting faster on trails has helped me get faster on roads (and in the process, become much less injury prone, which is a huge victory in and of itself). Plus – and I'll sound like a weirdo hippy for a second – I'm convinced that trail running has helped me find more inner “zen” than I can from running roads; that I revel in the change of scenery from running in new-to-me forests; and really, at no other time in my adult life have I been able to truly appreciate the magnificent beauty and splendor of our earth than when I am literally running through it. I'll sound strange for admitting it, but I'm pretty convinced that trail running is just good for the soul.
Obviously, a site like this one caters toward the trail running crowd, so I'm probably preaching to the choir with a lot of the stuff I'm saying here. There was a time in my life, though, that I was convinced that I couldn't run trails because it would just be too tough or that the types of beautiful mountains and hills I'd see on my trail friends' pages were totally inaccessible to me because of where I lived. If this at all describes you, fear not! Seriously – and bear with me for a second – take a minute to look at a map of where you live. Do you see any swaths of green, which usually indicate parks, forest preserves, or mountain ranges? Zoom out a little bit if you need to. I'd bet that you probably have some great trail running opportunities nearby, ones that you never even thought of.
We runners typically like our routines, but sometimes it's good to disrupt them, and foraying into the wonderful world of trail running is a perfect opportunity.
I'll make myself abundantly clear: trail running is awesome. I can't stress it enough. Seriously think about incorporating trail running into your current training regime. My experiences have taught me that running trails makes me stronger on both trails and on roads, and running trails have also really helped me avoid mental and physical burnout. In addition, there's that whole “it's good for your soul” thing I talked about earlier. Just give it a chance, and see what you think. If I were a gambler, I'd seriously bet that running trails would leave you a happier and stronger version of yourself.
If you're interested in running trails, and this is your first time venturing into this wonderful environment, here are some of my tips to help you begin:
Just like I said earlier, you'd be surprised at what's near you. Trail running doesn't always have to constitute running up and down mountains; you might find a near-to-you park system that lets you get off pavement for a while and run through the woods for a change. It counts! Spend some time researching what's in your immediate or near vicinity, and when you have a little bit of time – perhaps on a weekend run – go a little further afield and check out the change of scenery. Running is excellent for putting us on adventures, and trail running especially fits the bill here. Protip: look for bodies of water on a map, like rivers, lakes, and ponds, because those are often natural settings for adjacent trails.
Meeting-up with a trail running group near you can be really helpful when you're first getting started. Not only will the group likely have folks who have been running your area's trails for a long time, but it'll also bring with it a sense of camaraderie, which is really nice to have when you're doing something new-to-you for the first time. I know it can be awkward to show up to an event where you don't know anyone, but don't worry. We runners are welcoming and friendly people :) Running with experienced trail runners will be a great move for you because not only are these veteran runners experienced in the trail running scene – and thus able to answer probably any question you have – but practically speaking, they'll help you not get lost on your first few times out! (speaking from experience on that one…). In time, you'll be able to return the favor, and you'll be the experienced trail runner helping out a newbie at a group trail run.
Just like I said earlier, running is an extraordinarily accessible sport because we don't require a lot of gear or “stuff.” However, as social media shows us, many runners just love their “stuff” and getting all the gadgets and gizmos. Because there are some things about trail running that are inherently different, there is appropriately an entirely different marketplace for trail running accoutrements. It can be really tempting to go out right away and purchase gear specific to this new type of running that you'll be doing – from getting a new hat and watch all the way down to getting new shoes (and everything in between!) – but I'd suggest you wait. When you're first getting started, give yourself some opportunities for trial and error to see if the stuff you already own is sufficient. If nothing else, think of it this way: the money you save on buying new gear can go to registering for trail races.
Running trails is fun, of course, but racing trails is even better. With all the money that you're not spending on gear, that means you'll have tons of disposable income for some new-to-you races, which is awesome. I think it's only natural that as you begin to include more trail runs in your fitness routine that you'll gravitate toward some trail races, and this is where your local trail running group can be really helpful. They'll be able to recommend to you which races they've done, help you adjust your training so that you're ready to roll on race day, and hey, maybe even some of your new buddies will race with you! Trail runs generally offer distances of anything from a 5k all the way up to 100+ miles, so it's really just a matter of selecting a distance that you can train for effectively. Trail races often have a different vibe than road races – generally more low-key – but it's still an exciting atmosphere, and every runner I've ever talked to loves the thrill of pinning on a bib. Plus, since trail races are inherently different from roads – the elevation change practically dictate that your paces will be dramatically different on trails than on roads – racing trails will enable you to post a whole new category of PRs, too (5k road PR vs. 5k trail PR; half marathon road PR vs. half marathon trail PR, and the like).
Incorporating trail running into your regular fitness routine is an amazing way of breaking out of what can easily become the tedium of running the same routes day in and day out. Regularly running trails has helped me avoid mental and physical burnout; it's made me a happier and more “grounded” human being (and therefore, much more tolerable to be around); and realistically, I'm convinced it's made me faster both on trails and on roads. I thrive off the challenges of running trails, and I revel in the beautiful scenery I get to experience up close and personal. Taking the plunge into trail running might be intimidating initially, but it need not be. The trail running community is welcoming and warm, and entering it may help you re-discover the wonder and thrill that is running.
Dan Chabert: Writing from Copenhagen, Denmark, Dan is an entrepreneur, husband, and ultramarathon distance runner. He spends most of his time on runnerclick.com and he has been featured on runner blogs all over the world.