Running is an impressively versatile activity – you can run 100 meters on a track, 100 miles up the side of the mountain, a 10k over an obstacle course, or any other practically innumerable combinations of distance and terrain – and therein lies its beauty and, at least for me, its appeal. Like many others, when I began running endurance events, I started on roads and the typical distances: 5k, 10k, half marathon, the marathon. It wasn't until I had been running for several years that I learned about the whole other as-yet untapped realm of running that I hadn't yet explored: trail running.
If you're already a regular 5k or 10k runner, I bet you'll be surprised at how easily you, too, can make the transition from running primarily on roads to running primarily on trails. You'll of course also get all the side benefits from running on trails – such as a totally indescribable appreciation for (and access to) nature, far exceeding what you'd be able to usually experience; a hippy-dippy feeling like you're becoming more “zen” and centered; and hey, practically speaking, running trails will probably help you get faster on roads over time, since running trails will make you less injury-prone (think of all those “little stabilizer muscles” that you'll be developing when you're running trails); – and fortunately, getting started on trails is easier than you think.
Here are some tips on getting started:
Look at a map, and see what's around you. You're ready to run trails? Awesome. Before you get ready to go run into the nearest wood sand hope for the best, check out a map and see what's around you. It might be obvious, but if you're a trail n00b, one of the easiest ways to find trail running opportunities is to simply look for the big patches of green – indicating forests or parks – on a map. Similarly, look for bodies of water, since oftentimes there will be trails adjacent to them. Who knows? Maybe there will be some trail opportunities nearer to you than you had imagined. If not, consider saving your trail forays for the weekend mornings, when you have a little more time than usual to run.
Find some experts. The internet is invaluable for bringing people together, and it's especially helpful in situations like these, when you're the new kid trying something out for the first time. Do some internet searching to see if there are any trail running groups in your area. When you're doing something new for the first time, it's always helpful to do so under the watchful eye of someone more experienced, and connecting with a trail running group will help ensure that you hook-up with a more experienced trail runner who can give you (solicited or unsolicited) words of advice. Bonus: most likely, experienced trail runners will be able to make sure that you don't get lost the first few times you go run in the woods. :) Chances are high that many of these experienced trail runners originally began running just like you did – 5ks or 10ks on roads – so definitely use their sagaciousness to your advantage. Learn from their trials and tribulations to help make your transition as seamless as possible.
Get the gear … maybe. Eventually. While running is naturally a pretty simple and straightforward sport, we runners like to have our stuff – our gear. You'll soon learn that there is an entirely different market that caters to trail running, and it can be really tempting to want to splurge on everything all at once, especially when you are first beginning. Take a step back and wait. It's likely that the stuff you already have from roads running will work just fine on the trails. Trial and error – giving yourself the opportunity to have trial and error – will teach you what is essential for you to spend your money on. Start small with affordable gear pieces that can add comfort and enjoyment like a good pair of trail running socks. Plus, saving money on some gear purchases will allow you to use that money for trail races, my next point…
Race trails! As a road runner, you already know the magic of race day. Pinning on a bib, lining up with a whole bunch of perfect strangers, and running to your heart's desire: few things in life are better than this. You'll likely find that the environment of trail racing is a little more subdued and chill, but it's still definitely exciting and invigorating – especially since you're running through woods and trails instead of business districts and residential neighborhoods. You have the luxury of being able to race anything from a 5k all the way up to a 100-miler (and beyond) on trails, so it ultimately boils down to picking a distance that's a good fit for you and one that you can safely and effectively train for. Use your local trail running group's words of wisdom when you're selecting your trail races – I bet that they've probably run many of the local ones already – and go out there and enjoy yourself. Another bonus? Racing trails means that you earn yourself a whole new set of trails-specific PRs, since roads/trails racing is inherently different.
If you've been racing 5ks and 10ks on the roads for quite some time, making the transition to trail running will be easier than you think. A little research can go a long way, and before too long, you'll find yourself standing at the starting line of your first trail race, staring down the side of a mountain (or into a thick, dense forest, perhaps) wondering what took you so long to get there.
Writing from Copenhagen, Denmark, Dan is an entrepreneur, husband and ultramarathon distance runner. He spends most of his time on GearWeAre.com, runnerclick.com and nicershoes.com. He has been featured on runner blogs all over the world.