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Trail Running 101

Posted by: on May, 28 2013

Trail Running 101 at Peak Performance

Last night, Ian Parlin and Jamie Anderson spoke for an hour or so at Peak Performance Sports about trail running, providing an introduction to the local trail options and a primer for those who are first making the migration to trails from the roads.

They described the popularity of the sport and defined some technical terms that any new trail runner will need to know. After offering advice on how to running on trails differs from running on roads, they offered some tips on running safely and being able to enjoy the trails. They finished off the night by describing some of the different gear that they have used (and stopped using) in their training and racing.Trail-run-800x449

They put together a short PowerPoint presentation that they projected onto a wall at the store. There are quite a few pictures and diagrams that are worth taking a look at.

Trail running is gaining in popularity.

The popularity of the sport has been growing steadily here in the North East. While ultra-endurance events are still fairly underground, shorter trail races and plenty of trail running groups have been springing up left and right. There may even be a trail race grand prix here in Maine next year. Trail running offers numerous advantages over training on roads, which is what is drawing most of the newcomers to the sport.

Some of those advantages include:

  • There is less impact on the body…
  • Trail running is fun…
  • Recovery is much easier…
  • There tend to be fewer overuse injuries…
  • Trail running is fun…
  • The air on the trails tends to be cleaner (more trees, less traffic)…
  • You utilize more muscle groups on trails…
  • Trail running is fun…

Technical vs Non-Technical Trails

The first thing that a trail runner wants to know about a new trail is whether it is technical or non-technical.

Non-Technical Trails are basically soft roads. They are well maintained, they tend to be wide enough for 2 or even more people to run abreast, and there are not very many obstacles in your path as you run. The best non-technical trails in this area are at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, which boasts upwards of 15 miles of trails and is the home of the Pineland Farms 25k and 50k race each Spring.

Technical Trails tend to be single track trails, which means that only one person can advance along the trail at a time. There will be numerous obstacles, including but not limited to rocks, roots, and rivers. You need to maintain your focus in order to run safely along a technical trail. The trails at Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal are a good example of technical trails and are easily reached from Portland. They are also the site of the inaugural Bradbury Bruiser Trail Race at the end of October, of which there are more details at the end of this article.

How to Become a Trail Runner

Jamie and Ian both became serious trail runners fairly recently. Jamie recently underwent knee surgery, 4 months after which he ran a 100 mile race.

Ian turned to trails after numerous stress fractures and deciding that he needed to get off of the roads to allow himself to fully recover. Other than 1 10k road race, he only ran trails for a full year and has become a much happier runner. He formed the Trail Monsters running club, which meets twice a week and competes in local New England mountain races.

To become a trail runner, you only need to decide to start working them into your regular routine. I started running with the Trail Monsters this Summer, and have been having a lot of fun with it. So much fun, in fact, that I have signed up for my first ultra marathon which is only a few weeks away (the Pisgah 50k Mountain Trail Race.)

There are a few things that you should try to learn before jumping onto the trails, though, especially if you have a background of running on roads.

Biomechanics

When you run on the roads, your foot (almost) always points directly ahead of you unless you have some serious biomechanical problems. When you run on trails, you need to avoid rocks and will twist your foot back and forth and there will be a lot of lateral movement, not just forward movement.

The varying surfaces that you run on tend to promote good form, especially if you want to maintain some level of control while you are running.

No matter what the terrain, you should really strive to keep your stride length short. By keeping your feet beneath your body, you land with your feet flat. This will provide more surface area between your shoe and the ground, which gives you a more stable connection, and will also serves to better absorb the shock of your foot strike rather than transmitting that shock through the rest of your body. It will also allow you to make adjustments faster as you advance across the terrain, which can save you from twisting your ankles or taking a fall.

When you are running downhill, you need to avoid leaning back. This will cause you to heel strike, which will not only allow you to slip easier but will also cause you to work your quads much more than you need to. This can lead to early fatigue.

Specific points that you can analyze about your running gait and work on when running trails include:

  • Relaxing your ankles and feet…
  • Taking short strides…
  • Maintaining a quick cadence…
  • Striking the ground mid-foot…
  • Maintaining good posture…
  • Developing your core strength…

Running uphill, you should avoid hunching forward. This will make it more difficult to breathe, and can throw you off balance. You can utilize a slight trick by facing forward and turning your hips to one side or the other and side stepping in order to give your calves a break and keep you fresh as you ascend the hill.

Shoes

Jamie and Ian do not necessarily share the same views when it comes to shoes, which further illustrates the point that you should always find out what works best for you and your biomechanics. Ian has some very strong viewpoints about shoes, but he can not really fault Jamie for what he wears since Jamie has successfully finished completed a 100 mile race and Ian does not start his first one until next year.

Ian believes that your shoes should allow your foot to function as close to naturally as possible. He wears shoes that are so flexible that you could fold them up and put them in your pocket. He also recommends wearing narrow shoes, because if you are running along a trail with a camber, then your foot will be less likely to be rolled because it will not need to bend at as great an angle.

Trail Running Tips

Trail running is a very pleasurable activity, and following these 7 tips will make sure that it stays that way:

  • Respect the Trail: Stay on marked trails, and never litter.
  • Eat & Drink: You need to be able to carry your own water, and possibly bring food with you on your runs. You never know what sort of conditions that you will find or when you will be delayed past dark. You are going to need to the fuel and hydration to keep yourself operating safely.
  • First Aid Kits & Dry Clothes: These are two items that you should have in your car at all times.
  • Run with a Friend: Running with a friend is more fun and is also safer. Always let somebody know where you are running and when you will return, especially when you do not have anyone to run with. At the very least, leave a note in your car. If you get injured on your run, then it will be easier to find you if somebody knows where to start looking. You may also want to stick to more frequently traveled trails when you are running solo.
  • Bring Insect Repellent: You might be able to run away from the mosquitoes, but nobody can out run deer flies. The insect life on trails is going to be much heavier than elsewhere, so plan accordingly.
  • Follow the Left Hand Rule: If you are unfamiliar with the trails that you are running on, then always turn left whenever an opportunity presents itself. Worst case scenario involves running in a circle, and the best case scenario is that you can easily find your way back to the trail head by turning around and taking right turns if you get lost.
  • Hunting Season: While bird hunters probably won’t shoot you, it pays to be careful during hunting season. During deer hunting season especially, make sure that you wear blaze orange and make a lot of noise so that anybody that is out there knows there is a human coming. Know the rules of the land that you are on as well; even state parks may be open to hunting during certain days of the week.

Toys for Trail Runners

They had a short “show and tell” of some of their favorite gear that they bring with them on their trail runs. Click the picture to the left for a larger image; you will notice that most of what they brought provide ways to stay hydrated on the trails. They both suggested that you use water bottles with wide holes to make it easier to refill during a race, as well as to make it possible to get ice into the water bottle.

The head lamp is a good item to carry with you any time that you are on trails, even during the day. You never know what sort of conditions that you are going to find; some clouds and heavy tree cover can make it dark even at noon in some places.

Surprisingly, they did not bring a Garmin GPS watch to show off. Those watches are pretty neat these days; you can download “maps” that let you know when you go off course from the trail that you are supposed to be running, which makes it easy to keep yourself from getting lost.