How to Transition from Road to Trail Running

Truth be told, I honestly didn’t expect my last post, “Trail Running Ruined My Life“,  to get as much attention as it did.

But I’m certainly not complaining.

A bloggers dream is to be able to produce content that people get a kick out of, and share with their friends, and share you did.  So, a sincere thank you for that. In addition to all of the comments listing other races I need to sign up for (thanks a lot you enablers, contributing to the FOMO) a handful of you reached out to me asking how to transition from road running to trail running.

I’m glad you asked.

How to Transition from Road to Trail Running

It really, truly is as simple as finding a trail and running. That’s the best part about it. Running is one of our most basic, primal instincts, and nothing feels more primal than running through the woods. (And if you aren’t feeling the “primal urge” to run, just pretend there is a really fast bear behind you…)

But, for the sake of this blog post, and making that transition a little easier, I’ve got some tips for those of you who are looking to make the transition between road and trail running.

1) Get the right shoes.

Can you run on trails in your road shoes? Of course. Especially flat, wide trails like these:

Forest Path with Trees Arched over Trail in Evening

Trail? Mini road? Either way, it is dirt, and it is beautiful.

But if you are going to tackle something slightly more technical (i.e., rocky, roots, etc) like this:

monadnock ravine

That is indeed a trail! White Dot trail, Mt. Monadnock, NH

…you are probably going to want a trail specific shoe. For two reasons: first the tread on the sole of the shoe is going to help prevent slipping on rocks, mud, slimy roots, etc. Second, trail shoes are typically a little burlier, designed to withstand the abuse of a trail.  Some even contain what is called a “rock plate” in the sole of the shoe. This helps protect you from the rocks that try to tear up your feet, either when you land on them or kick them. This happens a lot, especially when your legs get tired and your gait starts to transition from “perfect form” to something that resembles an awkward, newborn baby giraffe.

Altra soles

You can tell the difference between a road and trail shoe by the more aggressive grip and traction on the sole. And in this case, by the dirt. Left: Altra Lone Peak 2.5 trail shoe. Right: Altra Torin 2.0 road shoe.

2) Find the Right Trail for Your Ability.

If you are like me, you’ve got about 1.5 trail options within a 45 minute drive, so you take what you can get.  BUT…if you are lucky, you live in an area with a number of trails to choose from.  So be choosy in the beginning. Start with the less technical trails.  As mentioned above, “technical” refers to, essentially, how much stuff is going to try and trip you on the trail. A flat, wide, hard packed trail isn’t considered technical. A single track trail with some rocks and roots is slightly technical. A super steep climb covered in jagged boulders that you have to climb with your hands AND feet? Extremely technical.

Find a trail that suits your current ability.  Start with a flat trail to get used to the sensation of not running on pavement.

DCIM100GOPRO

Start with relatively flat, open trails like this one (Vereen Memorial Gardens, Little River, SC)

Work up to some mildly technical trails with some roots and rocks.  As you become more comfortable with finding the correct line to run down a trail to avoid obstacles (or hit them with precision), work your way up to more and more technical trails if you like.

7 Sisters

This takes a bit more practice to run up. Geoff on the 7 Sisters trails & mountain range , Amherst MA

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Hands AND feet = extremely technical. O2X Summit Challenge, Loon Mountain, VT.

 

3) Watch Your Step.

I remember during drivers-ed back in high school, our teacher told us that we must look far beyond the steering wheel and scan a half mile ahead while driving. At the time, that seemed ridiculous to me, it was all I could do to stare just past the front bumper of the car I was driving. But eventually it started to make sense. When you combine the speed of your car moving forward combined with your reaction time, you HAD to look that far ahead in order to be a safe driver.

Trail running is kind of the same. Of course, the distance you need to look ahead is far less than a half a mile, but the concept remains the same. If you are constantly looking down at what is directly in front of your feet, you may miss something beyond your range of sight…say a downed tree overhead or an oncoming cyclist. You need to scan further ahead to allow for proper reaction time. And with practice, this becomes second nature: you see a big rock to the right of the trail ahead, so you subconsciously time your steps to land on your left foot to the left of the trail next to that rock.

4) Pick Up Your Feet.

The secret to avoiding falls in the first place? Pick up your feet. I think this is one of the hardest transition factors for many road runners. On the road you only have to look out for the occasional pothole. the treadmill? Nothing. You can shuffle all day, even as your legs get tired, with nary a worry but potentially scuffing the tread on your sneakers.

If you shuffle on the trail, however, you are going to fall.

But like I said, watching your step AND picking up your feet takes practice so…

5) Be Prepared to Fall.

It’s going to happen, so you might as well just get over it now.

In the beginning, you are going to feel so incredibly awkward and maybe even fearful, and that is OK. Unfortunately the awkwardness often leads to clumsiness, and when you least expect it, a root or rock will jump out and trip you.  Hell, sometimes even the most confident of us still fall.  Sometimes the fall will end in maybe some dirty knees and arms, and probably a slight bruise to the ego…

INKnBURN OUT N BACK

No, that’s not one ridiculously tanned leg. It’s Carolina red clay/dirt/mud after a nice trip and slide across the trail…

transition to trail running

Apparently Sarah S. did the same thing…

…though occasionally there may be blood.   (Blood warning for those of you who get queasy…)

stephanie M

Stephanie M. and her battle wounds from the trail.

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Nahoko I. This happened 17 miles into the Zion 100. EMT’s said stitches. She said “wait till I’m finished”, and finished the race. THEN got her 4 stitches. #Badass.

When falling inevitably happens, I try to remember the wise words an equally as awkward 16 year old snowboard instructor once gave me during a snowboarding lesson: never fall on your hands (your wrists will thank you). Tuck and roll as best you can. I promise in good time you will be bounding from rock to root to trail like a svelte and graceful deer, with only the occasional fall.

But until then, pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and keep moving forward.

6) Use Your Arms.

While road running, athletes often either use their arms to help propel them ahead, or let them hang completely limp at their sides, a-la the “flightless bird”.  Hey, I’m not judging, simply observing.

When trail running, using your arms as counterbalance can help you avoid a fall, especially when barreling down a hill or around a sharp corner. I’ve also been known to hang onto a tree to whip around a near 180 degree turn. While this arm usage will come naturally, it often feels UNNATURAL to road runners at first. Don’t worry, flapping your arms around like a 6 year old running down a hill is 100% acceptable.

Leaf Em

…it’s not the chicken dance.

7) Strengthen Your Ankles.

Here in Myrtle Beach we have an amazing and large road running community. We also have one tiny, but decent, trail that is maintained by the county as a “running and cycling park”. Yet despite this awesome resource, it is like pulling teeth to get any of my road runner pals to join us out there. Why? They are all scared to “twist an ankle”.

Here’s the thing: the MORE you trail run, the STRONGER your ankles get. When road running, you are almost always going in one direction: forward. Perhaps there is the occasional hop off of a sidewalk or dip to the left to avoid someone who stopped short for water at an aide station. While trail running, however, there is often a ton of lateral (side to side) movement, which can lead to stronger ankle ligaments and tendons. Further, as you become a more experienced trail runner, and your reaction time significantly decreases, your proprioception increases, and you learn to hop out of a potential ankle roll really quickly.

So what do you do in the beginning? Work on strengthening your ankles. My FAVORITE exercise, and one I make all of my runners do (even road runners) is single leg balance on the Bosu ball. The instability created by the Bosu forces ALL of your ankle to engage in every direction possible. 30 seconds each side, three times, is my go-to.

Ankle Stability

Don’t have a Bosu? That’s OK! Simple PT exercises like “spelling” your name or the alphabet with your feet will help.

8) Ignore your pace.

In fact, leave your GPS at home, or at least change the screen so you can’t see your pace. You absolutely CANNOT compare road paces to trail paces, for numerous reasons. First of all, the terrain is typically much softer, which in and of itself will slow you down. Second, the terrain, such as hills, rocks, or even sharp corners can slow your momentum. Lastly, no two trails are the same. So you might run a 1:45 half marathon on a flat, wide open trail….but it takes you 3 hours to cover the same distance on a course that ascends a few mountain peaks.

Never, ever, ever compared your road pace to your trail pace.  You will only frustrate yourself, and besides, trails are meant to be enjoyed.

And the sheer enjoyment factor is why I encourage EVERYONE to give trail running a shot, even if it is just supplemental to your regular road running routine.

WANT MORE TRAIL RUNNING TIPS?

Well I’ve got them for you, and I’m happy to help.

Might I recommend you start with this one: Trail Running Etiquette.  It is indeed a different world out there, and while most of these ettiquite tips are common sense, some you might not have considered.  You don’t want to upset the locals.  And by locals I may or may not mean bears…

trail-running-etiquette

Trail Running Safety Tips.  Safety first, kids.

Trail-Running-Safety-Tips

And just incase I haven’t fully convinced you to hit the trails yet:  The Benefits of Trail Running.

8-Benefits-of-Trail-Running

Have any questions that weren’t covered in the above posts? Please comment below!  Have any tips to add? You can comment below too!  Want to tell me a knock-knock joke? Comment below!

 

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Comments

  1. says

    I love this post. As a non-runner, the only way you’ll ever find me running is 1. after a soccer ball 2. to the dinner table or 3. out on a hike or in nature somewhere!
    Growing up my dad and I would camp at this one place by the river [GORGEOUS area] and after I helped set up camp I would just take off and explore. I would run some, hike some, and even swim across the river to the other side and start it all over again. Running on a trail is a super fun adventure!

  2. says

    Wow, fantastic and comprehensive post! Trail running is certainly different. In 2013 I ran several marathons. My road marathons were all around 4:20-4:30 and my trail marathon was just over 7 hours. Yet I wasn’t sore in the same way after the trail marathon. Much more variety in motion, I suppose. Thanks for sharing this! I’m going to pin as a running reference in case I get back into trails!

  3. says

    Great tips! I find myself running more and more trails these days, even in winter while they’re frozen. The one fall I took (knock wood) was a nice belly flop on a trail when I caught a root in mile 20 once. Ugh.

  4. Sue @ This Mama Runs For Cupcakes says

    I have only done a few trail runs in my running career, but I really loved it. I really wish I had the chance to do it more often!! The shoes are definitely key. I would need to invest in a new pair if I started doing trails more!! Great tips!

  5. says

    Thanks for sharing. :-) Looking for some races to sign up for. There is a Dances with Dirt in my state, Wisconsin in July. This looks like a good race.

  6. Janelle @ Run With No Regrets says

    This is such a helpful guide! I love running trails but I don’t have trail running shoes so I haven’t had a ton of experience on the more technical trails. I hope that changes because it’s really where I feel most in love with running!

  7. alisamarie says

    Wow, so much that I never even thought of! I’m totally guilty of hiking sometimes in my running shoes, but have to admit that my trail runners are so much better – no matter the speed!

  8. says

    This is so great! I badly sprained my ankle out on the trail in November, and am a little nervous to head back out there this spring. My dr recommended one-legged squats to my PT regimen, so one-legged BOSU balancing goes on the list too! 😉

  9. Sonali- The Foodie Physician says

    Thanks for sharing all of these great tips! Wearing the right shoes is so key and yep, #5 is going to happen, so be prepared!

  10. thisrunnersrecipes says

    Such a helpful and comprehensive post! I live on the Eastside of Seattle where trails abound, and I run some on gravel trails but want to expand to dirt trails and maybe even more technical trails. And yes to the arms tip – arm swing is so important for hiking and I noticed that the more I hike, the more my arm swing has improved for running.