Photo by Steven Rojas
Ready to take your workout off the road and onto the trails? Making the switch offers new obstacles, challenges, and rewards—including breathtaking Hudson Valley views.
Since March 2020, when the world went into lockdown, outdoor running and exercise increased by 38 percent in the U.S. and, according to a survey by Nielsen for World Athletics, 13 percent of all runners say they began the sport within the past year. “Based on the number of cars parked at trailheads and increased congestion on many trails, I’d say running has shot up during the pandemic,” says Ian Golden, founder of Trails Collective, an online resource and meeting place for trail runners to find out about routes, events, races, gear and more. Golden, who is also the director for Red Newt Racing Group and the Ithaca College Women’s Cross Country and Distance assistant coach, believes the interest isn’t due to people wanting to race and compete, but because “trail running provides a meaningful experience and a sense of community.”
It also offers the opportunity to get up close and personal with nature and immerse yourself in stunning scenery. “The best run is when you forget that you’re even running. The serenity and isolation of the trails can do that for you,” says Jes Woods, a Nike running coach and founder of the Brooklyn Trail Club—a running group she created to show New Yorkers all the trails and adventures just outside the city. She adds that since “trails are always changing, from start to finish, and from one season to another, there’s always a new way to empower yourself.”
Trail running is challenging (in a good way). It requires you to think fast on your feet, thanks to rocks, boulders, creeks, and mud. So, unlike road-running, there’s no zoning out to your Spotify. You also need stamina to handle steep inclines, uneven terrain, and high altitude if you’re heading into the mountains. “Trail running can be intimidating for runners who are nervous about possibly tripping or rolling an ankle over stones and roots, so it takes practice to get comfortable,” says running coach Caleb Masland, founder of TWB (Team Wicked Bonkproof), an online coaching platform. But he stresses that it’s an excellent workout. “Trail running is great because the repetitive impact forces are shifted all over the place due to the uneven terrain. This means you’ll become stronger and be less likely to suffer a repetitive impact injury if you add some trails to your weekly routine,” he says. For a lot of people, trail running is also just a mental shift away from worrying about specific distances and paces and focusing more on enjoying nature.
Every run presents a new and different opportunity. Beginner trail running is often appealing to experienced road runners when they need a change of scenery or want a challenge. Once you get a dose of the breath of fresh air trails can provide, you’ll be hooked. Follow these tips for novices to start a new routine and explore the region.
Work on strength training
The best way to get ready to run on trails is to boost your core strength and leg stability, says Masland. This will help with some of the initial “shock” to your body that comes from running on uneven surfaces. If you aren’t already integrating some technique drills, skips, and other basic plyometric exercises, these will also prepare you to run well on different types of terrain. Focus on balance work and anything that increases your stability. Woods is a big fan of incorporating single-leg exercises into your strength training routine, moves like the single leg Romanian deadlift, a runner’s lunge with a Bosu ball, or single-leg glute bridges. “Even just standing on a Bosu or wobble board can help develop your balance and strengthen your ankles, which is really important for varying terrain,” she says. Exercises that challenge your fast-twitch muscle fibers and agility, like putting a ladder on the ground and doing lateral speed drills, is really going to help prepare you for the trail.
Leave your watch at home
There’s no need to keep tabs on your pace! For starters, any GPS pace data you’re getting while on trails is going to be inaccurate in real time. “It is much better to focus on time and effort for easy trail running,” says Masland. (When you get to the point where you might be training for a race and want to do some proper workouts on trails, duration and intensity are really all you need to worry about.) “Trail running is about adapting to the terrain and conditions, not meeting an expected time,” he says. Micro-managing your splits on a trail can be frustrating because trail elevation profiles and conditions vary so much. In fact, expect to go slower on a trail run (you may even double the time it takes you to do the same mileage on the road). “On straight, flat terrain, it’s going to be easier to hold a certain pace; if you’re going up what feels like a ski slope or meandering through rocks and trying to maintain a certain pace, you’re going to end up disappointed if you’re watching the clock,” he says.
Practice picking up your feet
It’s okay to be one of those slow and steady runners, maybe you even shuffle your way through a half marathon. But on the uneven and unpredictable terrain of the trails, you’ll have to pick up your feet more. “Running with a higher cadence can help,” says Golden. That means you’ll take more steps per minute. “A lot of people can do that on flat terrain, but when it comes to rougher terrain and weird footing, we get more tentative because we’re scared,” he says, “But staying upright with your feet directly below you is going to give you the best power. Even if you do slip, your other foot will come down pretty quickly to be able to correct any loss in balance.” Besides picking your feet up, look up too! “Keep your head up and eyes scanning the trail 10–15 feet ahead at all times,” Golden explains. “You don’t want to be surprised when you step into a small stream or onto a rock.” One of the best parts of trail running is the scenery but be careful to stay focused on the upcoming trail. Also, know your trail etiquette—on most trails this means stay to the right and pass on the left, and be alert for any mountain bikers.
You can always walk
Since trail running has become more popular among endorphin chasers, the mindset has changed, too; it’s no longer, if I’m not running every step then it’s just called hiking. “Realistically speaking, sometimes you’re not going to run the whole thing, but that doesn’t make you any less of a trail runner,” says Masland. “Depending on how steep of a climb or descent you are managing, you may make better use of your energy resources by walking or power hiking rather than forcing a run. Especially when you are starting to get your bearings on trails, it’s a good idea to walk anytime you find your heart rate spiking,” he says. It can also be a lot safer to walk down steep hills at first. (Some trails may also have sections that are only accessible by walking over rocks or using stairs.) Once you’re more comfortable handling yourself on the trails, these walk breaks may disappear but there’s never any shame if you need to take one.
Stay on your toes
Before you head out on a new trail, check the course profile and the description of the trail so you know what you’re getting into. Woods recommends a wise safety tip: When on the trail, always know your route. “Study the trail map before you head out, even download it on an app like Avenza, so you won’t need service to know where to go (put your phone in airplane mode to preserve energy). If you were supposed to make a left at the yellow trail blaze in 1 mile, for example, and it’s been 1.5 and you still haven’t seen it, you know to stop and troubleshoot,” she says. Also, always tell someone at home, or a friend, what trail you’re heading to before you go.
The GEAR to GET
1. TRAIL SHOES
You’ll need running shoes that provide the best mix of performance, comfort and traction, like Saucony Peregrine 11 ST ($90) or Hoka Mafate Speed 3 ($180). “Running shoe recommendations are tricky because everyone’s feet are different,” says Masland. He recommends looking for a few key things: “You need good traction, breathability; support around the midfoot and ankle; and some cushioning.” Most of all, choose the shoe that feels great on your feet, not the one that someone tells you has all the “right” features.
2. HYDRATION PACK
When you’re heading out on a long run a hydration pack is essential to tote your H2O as well as your phone, ID, and the fuel and gear needed for any conditions you may encounter. “Having a hydration backpack allows your hands to be free in case you need to protect yourself if you fall,” says Masland. Try the Osprey Duro 15 Running Hydration Vest ($110, Amazon) or the Nike Kiger 4.0 Women’s Running Vest ($170, Nike).
3. WATERPROOF JACKET
Depending on where you live, a waterproof running jacket won’t be needed the majority of the time, but when you do need it, it’ll be a game changer for comfort and safety, says Golden. For those living in mountainous environments, or, if you plan to cover more rugged trails (where reaching you could take a while if something goes wrong), a waterproof layer can be critical. The tradeoff with waterproof materials is breathability. “If it doesn’t breathe well, you’ll be as wet in sweat on the inside as you will be from precipitation on the outside,” he says. Try the North Face Flight Lightriser Futurelight jacket ($300) or the Janji Rainrunner Pack Jacket ($198).