How to Successfully Transition From Road Running to Trail Running

Are you a road runner who wants to venture onto less-traveled trails? If running the same paved route is starting to feel monotonous, then developing your trail-running skills and spending more time in a natural environment could be your ticket to better — and happier — running and fitness.

But many women view trail running with some apprehension, because they’re unsure of how to navigate the terrain, how to stay safe, and what trail-specific gear to get. A new book, The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras, delivers everything a gal (and guy) needs to know to hit the trail. Written by trail-running coach Sarah Lavender Smith — a 48-year-old working mom of two teens, whose running resume includes several top finishes at 70-plus marathons and ultras — the book is both a practical training guide and an inspiring read full of real-life trail tales. (For example, want to know what it’s like to get your period unexpectedly at Mile 12 of your first 50-mile race? Read the section, “How to Pee, Poop, and Deal With Your Period on the Trail.”)

The Trail Runner’s Companion goes beyond coaching technique; it also reveals the ethos and spirit of the sport. In this excerpt from Chapter 1, Sarah explains how to develop a trail runner’s mindset, to successfully transition from road to trail. (Excerpted with permission from The Trail Runner’s Companion, which can be purchased here. For more info on Sarah and trail running, check out her blog, TheRunnersTrip.com. )

The First Step: Think and Act Like a Trail Runner

The first thing to realize is this: Trail running is about more than the physical surface you’re running on and the environment surrounding you. It’s a mindset, an attitude, even a culture.

This mindset, and the culture around the sport of trail running, tends to be:

  • More flexible than prescribed about pace, elevation change, and terrain
  • More adventurous than cautious
  • More inclined to run by feel than by data output
  • More unplugged than attached to and distracted by devices
  • More interested in going long and steady than short and fast
  • More friendly than standoffish
  • More humble than arrogant

6 Ways to Adopt a Trail Runner’s Mindset

David Laney, of Ashland, Oregon, was named UltraRunning Magazine’s 2015 “Ultrarunner of the Year” because of his accomplishments at prestigious, ultra-distance trail races. But he also is a 2:17 road marathoner, so it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about crossing over from road racing to long-distance trail running.

When asked during an interview with UltraRunnerPodcast.com if he had any advice for runners who are just starting to get into trail running, his answer nicely captured the trail runner’s mindset:

“The biggest thing is to just kind of chill,” he said. “The trails are really, really different. The intensity is different, the way it beats you up is different; it’s really fun, but you have to take it slow at first.”

Beyond “chill,” how can you act and think more like a trail runner? Try these:

1. Be exploratory and even playful during your regular road runs. If you always run the same sidewalk on the same loop around your neighborhood, deviate from the route to explore a side street. Hop off the sidewalk, over the curb, and weave in and out of the street (avoiding traffic, of course) so your sidewalk run incorporates subtle shifts and movements in different directions, as in trail running. If you spot a grassy area, run across it just for fun. If you run past a parking structure, run up the stairwell and down the ramps. Even on a familiar road route, challenge yourself to try new things or go new places while running.

2. Make at least one of your weekly runs a trail run in a mostly natural environment. Over the weekend, plan your schedule of runs and workouts for the coming week; find a time and place to fit in a trail run. Research trails and choose a new one to explore. Make a commitment and look forward to this special run.

3. On both your road runs and trail runs, don’t be distracted by your phone. Turn off its notifications, and pack it away in a pocket or hydration pack rather than carrying it in your hand, so you’re not tempted to look at it and check messages or social media. Also, try running without music. You might find this boring at first. That’s the point: to develop patience and tune into your present surroundings, which can trigger some of your best thinking. Save your music and podcasts for extra-long, multi-hour runs when it’s okay to tune out for an hour or so.

4. Pay attention. Cultivate mindfulness — an awareness of your present surroundings. Open your ears and eyes to what’s around you. This is for your own safety, because on trail runs, paying attention is key to avoiding hazards. A keen awareness of your surroundings will help prevent you from bonking your head on a low tree limb or tripping over a root.

5. Minimize the amount you check your GPS during your run. Many runners become addicted to the pace and mileage settings on their high-tech watches. On trail terrain, measurements of average pace and cumulative distance are more likely to be inaccurate or lag behind real time. The signals that track your location and speed can be imprecise when you’re in a remote, woodsy environment with steep switchbacks, for example. You may find yourself frustrated if the pace and distance showing on your watch is noticeably different from what you feel to be accurate. Just chill out and ignore what your watch or smartphone GPS app says! Listen to your body instead. But keep your GPS running so that you have a general sense of how far you have gone, and at the end of your run, you’ll have a somewhat precise, but not perfect, tally of your miles and average pace. Don’t worry that you’re going “too slow” if your watch says your pace is a minute or more slower than you anticipated. Aim for less quantifiable, more intuitive efficiency and steadiness on the trail.

6. Smile. Seriously, smiling will help you feel better and run better! When you smile at others or just smile for the sake of smiling, even if you inwardly feel grumpy or fatigued and don’t genuinely want to smile, you are doing at least three beneficial things: spreading your joy and making other people more inclined to be friendly; improving your running form by relaxing your facial muscles and the tension in your upper body; and, increasing your odds of feeling and performing better for the remainder of your run. Think “fake it ’til you make it”; by smiling and acting positive, even if it’s somewhat faked or forced, you are increasing the likelihood that you actually will feel better. Trail runners “grin and bear it” — that is, they suffer discomfort during their runs with stoicism and humor — and by doing so, they work through those low points.

The only question is now, what trail will you hit first? —Jenn

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2 Comments

  1. Trail running is an awesome experience. Just be careful – to avoid rocks & roots, wild animals, getting lost – running with a partner is a good idea, especially when you’re new at it and the trails are well off the beaten path… If you’ve never been trail running, you can even start by running on the grass next to a road or sidewalk, or a dirt road, or just a few minutes on a trail that’s not too remote.

  2. Every runner has to overcome physical and mental obstacles. Trail running is physically rewarding, but will take some time for our body to adjust and get used to running on the trails. Constantly scanning what’s happening in front of us so we’re able to adjust our form and prepare for any physical changes that must be made.