Trail Running 101 FAQ How-To Wiki-Thingy

The scene from the movie Dodgeball rolled through my head, the one where the old guy in the wheelchair throws wrenches and other assorted heavy objects at the "athletes" he is coaching and tells them if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.  There are five Ds in dodgeball: dodge, duck, dip, dive,  It took me awhile to remember the fifth D.  I thought of this as I tried to find another shoulder off of the shoulder of the road, a little extra room off to the side where hopefully I would land soft, not on broken glass or one of those Gatorade bottles that looks like it has varying shades of lemon-lime Gatorade even though the label reads Polar Ice or Red Berry Surprise or Chemical Orange Fruitish, but definitely not, I wouldn't want to land on that.  All of these thoughts were split-second life flashing before my eyes as the Hummer H1 rounded the corner of the small, curvy, suddenly way too narrow road.  Too narrow for a military grade vehicle made to cross the desert with a guy on the top manning a gun with full gear, too narrow for a utility vehicle that could drive over my truck without leaving a scratch.  I also wondered if they give you the aviator glasses when you buy the Hummer H1, are they included in some type of a-hole small-package upgrade?  Because every person I have ever seen driving one of these rectangular street-clearers is wearing aviator glasses, and I half expect them to yell out, "You can be my wingman anytime" to which I would respond lovingly, "bullshit, you can be mine."


And then the thought hit me as the Hummer sped away, what am I doing on the roads anyway?  Road running has its place and if you run, you should mix it up and switch surfaces.  There are definitely some benefits to running on roads - you can run faster on the roads, there's less wildlife, it's usually less hilly, and people perceive it as being easier.  People are scared of trails, scared of the unknown, scared of what might be lurking outside of the sanitized suburbubble.

I am lucky because I moved into a community that packed all of the houses for the 10,000 or so residents into a tiny space; the houses are close together, not much in the way of yards, but we have over 20 miles of wide, manicured, safe trails that were built into the community.  We are also surrounded by an older community, with coyote trails that criss-cross over hills and through streams and trails that I have been running for the last five years and still finding new routes and discovering some beautiful, hidden places, places that would remain hidden to me if I stuck to the wide, groomed trails or the sidewalks and asphalt.  There are trails all around us, trails that were here before us, so get off the road occasionally and go explore.  I'll even help by answering a few common questions I get about trail running.

Q: Why run on trails?

A1: It's better for you.  Trails are dirt, rocks, leaves and gravel.  This type of surface is going to be far more forgiving than asphalt or concrete (avoid sidewalks like the plague).  The softer cushioning of the trails will extend your running career and help keep you injury free.  There are injury risks, like twisted ankles if you are not careful, but the overuse injuries will go way down if you run on a softer surface.

A2: Continue to evolve.  We evolved into runners.  And we didn't develop the physiology that we now possess by running on hard surfaces.  Without running, we would probably still be on all fours, knuckles dragging, like the driver of the Hummer H1 in the aviator glasses.

A3: Get back to nature.  There is nothing like the sunset from the top of a mountain, or discovering a new stream or examining wildlife scat to determine the local coyote diet (that last one is probably just me).  I went for a run early in the morning a couple of days ago, the fog layer was thick as I continued to climb and eventually came out into the sun and it was amazing, the fog and the mist in the valleys, it was like running on clouds.  It almost made me forget how hard it was to get there.

Q: There are so many hills, is there a strategy for dealing with them?

A: The more hills you run, the stronger and better you will be at running hills.  For the uphills, shorten and quicken your stride, kind of like changing gears on a bike, try not to lean over at the waist or slouch, and keep the focus on picking your feet up, driving your knees and swinging your arms (almost like you are punching yourself in the face).  Try not to look for the top of the hill too often, focus on the trail in front of you or break a long uphill into sections (run to the next tree, pole, etc.).  For the downhills, try to lean forward a little from the ankles and use your arms and torso rotation to help you keep your balance, look ahead about 10-15 feet and plot your course.  You may take a spill once in awhile, but the rush is worth it and the dirt is forgiving.  Most of the hills where I run are rolling and not too long or steep, so I always try to use the momentum of a downhill to help carry me in the beginning part of an uphill.

Q: Do I need special trail-running shoes?

A: People who run on wide, non-technical, groomed trails can do just fine in regular road shoes, but as you start to venture out into the muddy, rocky, rooty, technical trails, a nice low-profile trail shoe can really help.  The main benefit of running in a trail shoe is the traction to help you going uphill, downhill or on a curvy trail.  I prefer a minimalist trail shoe like these or these that keep my feet low to the trail; I have found that a low-profile shoe helps me get a feel for the trail and prevents ankle twists and dirt lunches.  I also don't like carrying a couple of pounds of extra cushioning up and over mountains, so I try to go lightweight.  Barefoot running is enjoying quite a following right now and humans were born to run barefoot, but the few people that I know who have tried it have all gotten injured.  This probably has more to do with not gradually transitioning to barefoot running or Vibram Five Fingers running "shoes" than with the practice of running barefoot.  If you have a shoe that works for you and you have stayed injury-free, I wouldn't suggest going out and buying something radically different from the style of shoe that you currently are using.  Most road running shoes have a trail running counterpart, and if you need help finding a good trail running shoe, I suggest going to a specialty running store, spend some time there and get a good fitting.  It's worth the extra money to find a shoe that works for you.

Q: What about the wildlife?

A: It's out there and if you run enough on the trails you will run into some local wildlife.  I have seen coyotes and snakes on the trails, and have heard unnamed and imagined monsters rustling in the brush next to the trails; the imagination goes wild and the whole evolutionary flight or fight reflex kicks in and mine tends much more to the flight strategy.  If you do come across wildlife it is important to stay calm and realize that the animals are more scared of us than we are of them.  There are mountain lion warning signs on the trails that I run and they say it's important to remain calm, not to run, back away slowly.  The group that I run with ran into a mountain lion a few months ago, and I was relieved that I missed it, but at the same time a little jealous.  Mountain lion attacks are rare - they avoid human contact.  Rattlesnakes make themselves known as well.  Being the super predators that we are as humans, it's no wonder that other animals avoid us, so don't let that be an excuse to avoid the trails.  My wife carries mace with her when she runs alone, and it makes her feel more comfortable because the four-legged kind of animals aren't the most dangerous kind of animals out there.  If you are worried about your safety, try to run with a group or another person.

I have tried to answer some basic trail-running questions and concerns.  I am not an expert, and would like to keep this list of FAQs going.  I posed the question to an ultra-running email list and received some interesting responses:
Running too close to the person in front of you will lead to injury.
Not watching the ground in front of you will lead you to a closer inspection of the ground in front of you.
Don't litter. Ever.
-Scott Undercofler
Trail Running 101: one-hour lecture, 10-hour lab weekly [BYOS]
-John M.
Fast turnover
Stay relaxed
Focus about 20-30 feet ahead (your feet will find the right spot
Smile at how much fun you're having!
-Joe Judd
Listen to the sounds around you, if you can do that you're not running too fast....enjoy the moment!
Expect to move slower than you would on the roads.  This was especially frustrating to me the first time I raced on trails, a 50k (and only the third time running on trails!), as I had no idea how much I would slow down on the hilly technical stuff.  Now, I settle into my pace and enjoy the scenery.
Always have more water than you think you need, especially as it gets warmer and warmer. 
Roll with it.  You will roll ankles, stub toes, trip on air, kiss the ground, so you have to let those things roll off your back when they are minor.  And, on that note, remember to literally *roll with it* during a fall...there is a right and wrong way to fall on the trails (kind of like in skiing).
And, always, always make sure someone knows where you are, how long you'll be gone, and thus when to expect you back.  Trails ain't no joke :)
Hope those help a little!
These articles I wrote on trail running a few years ago have most of my beginner tips:
- Blaine
1. When running downhill look ahead of you, not at your feet. Your
mind will remember what you saw and instruct your feet.
2. Sometimes a power-hike is just as fast as struggling to run up that
3. Look around you, remember and enjoy why you are will
make it easier and more satisfying.
4. Gaiters are not just for snow....pebbles in the shoe can do more
damage than a boulder.
5. Be mindful....trail running may be "softer" than road running, but I
hardly ever trip on a root, slip on wet leaves or bash my ankles on
boulders when running on the road (and I won't even mention poison oak
or poison ivy).
-Alan R. Geraldi
Keep upper body and feet loose and relaxed so you can adjust to rocks
and other obstacles.
Hills are your best friend! Practice your ascending and descending as
much as possible. Off the more gradual grades and cambers of road hills
as much as possible (remember, roads are graded for cars, trails aren't!).
Specificity of training--hit the trails at least once a week, if you
plan to race on them.
Hit the gym--leg and core strength are even more important than on the roads
You packed it in, you pack it out (ain't no road race out here!)
Gaiters don't bite (but gators do)!
-Scott Martin
If one runs in the woods one will encounter those that inhabit the woods. Some pleasant, others not so much. It might be a mighty stag that takes your breath away or a big ole spider that lands right on the brim of your hat as you run through his web resulting in you screaming like a 4 yr old girl. Remember, a true ultrarunner realizes the woods belong to no one but the forest itself. We as humans, (and runners) are merely guests in its wonderous being.
If anyone would like to offer more tips, please leave them in the comments.

Happy trails.

This is one of the maintained trails in my neighborhood


  1. Thanks for the advice.

    I've been planning to start some trail running and can use all the '101 tips' that I can get.

  2. Nicely done, Dax! Love the blog, by the way :)

  3. Thanks Paige, and thanks for the input. You have a great blog, too. Good luck at Rocky Racoon 100 - looking forward to reading about it.

  4. Great Q & A. I think all runners at some point should test out the trails. There really isn't anything like it!


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