How to Up Your Trail Running Game

By Sarah Tuff Dunn |

Trail running is not just running off-road. By stepping out of your local concrete jungle and onto the varied terrain of the great outdoors, you can strengthen your body and your mind. Aficionados love the challenge of tackling dirt, rocks, roots, mud, sand, and more — all of which guarantee that they rarely have the same experience twice.

“A run on trails can take you up and down mountainsides, with rocky, rooted, sometimes muddy footing, or across desert or coastal landscapes, escaping the sights and sounds of urban life,” says longtime ultrarunner Sarah Lavender Smith, author of The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras.

While providing a new perspective on nature, trail running also offers tremendous physical and mental benefits. “It’s easier on the body than road running, and you have a lower chance of most injuries because every footfall is different, depending on the terrain,” says Life Time trail-running coach Ryan Krol, who competes in Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100 Run event. “It’s also a great way to get out in nature and connect with a welcoming community,” he notes.

The range of terrain provides a full-body workout while benefiting our brains, which adapt to new experiences, adds Terry Chiplin, event director for the U.S. Trail Running Conference. Plus, it’s a natural meditation.

“Running on the trails is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the importance of being in the present. You have to be in the moment — focused — while also aware and connected with what is going on around you.”

More than 10 million Americans run off-road, nearly double the number from just five years ago. But the sport’s growing popularity belies the reality check that many — especially seasoned road-, track-, and treadmill-runners — face when they first take up trail running.

Since the pace for tackling hilly and technical terrain is generally slower than that for cruising along concrete, Smith suggests taking a step back from time expectations: A 9-minute miler on a paved road could easily turn into a 15-minute miler on the trail.

And be prepared for “downshifting” into power-hiking mode. “It’s OK to be slow,” she says.

It’s also important to budget more time and patience — and carry more hydration and nutrition, too, to handle the extra time on the trail.

Developing greater physical resilience and fitness will make the tradeoff of slowing down worth it in the long run.

Yourmay naturally shift to suit the terrain. Take the following cues to fall into stride. can ­enhance the trail experience, helping you tune in to your body and connect with your natural surroundings. Paying attention can also prevent injury. Try the following techniques on your next trail run.The following safety precautions are worth the minimal time and effort.

This workout will boost agility, strength, and cardio all at once, Smith says. Plus, the knee-lifting stride will train you for running hilly trails with tripping hazards.On the trail, you’re working in multiple planes of direction, moving laterally or lifting your legs higher than usual to go over rocks and branches or to just follow the zigzag of the trail.Smith suggests practicing these five moves at least twice a week; work in one to four sets before or after a run.“Working on cadence — the number of times your feet land on the ground in a minute — is a great place to start for new trail runners,” says Chiplin. Experts have found that the magic number is around 180 for moving efficiently to .

The form-fitting grip allows hands of all sizes to grasp the 21-ounce bottle; an elastic pocket can hold a phone, car keys, money, and other essentials. $30 at This nifty app is ideal for trail runners. Its topographic maps work even when you’re out of cell range. Free. A longtime favorite of all types of trail runners, this shoe offers comfortable cushioning and great grip for unpredictable terrain. Winged tabs on the sides ensure a snug fit. $120 at

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