Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Road To Trail

I was a road runner long before I was a trail runner. In my 30+ years as a competitive track, cross-country and road racer I was always focused on winning and race times. I took racing very seriously and would often get “butterflies” before the starting gun was fired. Once the running began, I was focused on beating the guy next to me or catching the runner ahead of me. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

Since transitioning to trail running I have mellowed considerably, somewhat out of necessity but mostly by choice. Injuries and inexperience made me a much slower and less competitive trail racer than road racer. At first I didn’t like the fact that I was so slow. Then I decided to accept it and to be thankful that I was able to run, period.

Running in the woods seems more natural than running on pavement. The tranquilly of the trails is refreshing to the soul and spirit, and embraces you in a certain calmness I never felt when running on the roads. The beauty found in nature is my reward. To me, it’s more valuable than running fast or winning races.

I found this article on running your first trail race in the September 2002 issue of Running Times Magazine. The author has a good sense of humor and I thought it worth passing along to you.

Ready to go from road racing to trail racing?

Been running trails for years and want to step up to racing on them? Nothing should hold you back, especially if you prepare by laying a proper foundation, which begins by acknowledging the many distinctions between trail and road racing.

In Due Time

Spontaneous combustion is one of the biggest problems that first-time trail racers suffer, especially if they are long-time road or track runners. They typically go out way too fast and blow up. Such incendiary starts are embarrassing, wreak havoc on one’s confidence, and can lead some runners to quit trail racing before giving it a real chance. Think negative split, especially if the second half of the course is easier than the first, such as in the common up-and-down format of mountain races.

Trail races are almost always slower than road races and pace is crucial to enjoying—or even finishing—a first trail event. Never try to set a time goal in a trail race that correlates directly to a road or track race of equivalent distance. Trail races are often run on hilly terrain and many are held at higher elevations. They often include challenging terrain that slows runners down as they try to avoid ankle twists, blown knees or major falls. Some trail races are rough enough that they demand almost double the time it takes for a road race of the same distance.

Even comparing the same trail race from year to year is not a fair measure of performance. Trail conditions can change dramatically due to weather, wildlife, trail maintenance and other exogenous factors. Consider the prospect of being bogged down by mud, ice, snow or all three. Route finding can slow the pace, especially at high altitude when marmots are wont to eat flagging and other trail marking materials. And don’t forget the chance encounter with moose, bears, wildcats and other wildlife.

Vertical Velocity

Unlike roads, which are often graded and winding in order to avoid steep ascents, trails frequently run straight up mountain faces. If the trail is extremely steep and the race is long enough to warrant energy conservation, then it is often best to power hike some of the ascents. Some people are more efficient if they climb up hills leaning forward a bit at the hips and swinging their arms to match an equivalent leg stride. Maintaining a consistent rhythm is crucial to powering up a big climb. Others find it best to trudge along in a running motion, taking baby steps in order to keep up their cadence as they make it to the top. Some alternate the two to vary the strain. Practice both and try to determine the ideal style given your body type, personal strengths, the course on which you will be racing, and the length of the race.

Another consideration when contemplating a first trail race is the difficulty associated with passing people on single track. There is a certain etiquette involved in gracefully telling the bozo in front of you to shove over so you can sneak past him. Practice makes perfect, so go to local trails and try zipping by people without starting any fights.

Trail ‘Tudes and Rules

Speaking of fights, keep in mind that most trail runners are pretty laid back and that the prevailing attitude in most trail events is that of: "We are all out here together to have a groovy time with nature, dude." Trail races tend to be less "competitive" than road races and racers will often help each other along and coordinate finishing in unison. It is considered bad form to run into the finish with someone and surge in front of them in the final meters, unless they were pushing the pace and being competitive by drawing first blood. In that case, just trip them up or push them in a mud bog. What do they think this is, a race or something?

Finally, if you are used to drinking from cups and tossing them on the pavement in your road races, or leaving gel or energy bar wrappers on the course, be immediately disavowed of that lame habit. Trail races are conducted with a strict "leave no trace" ethic and many race directors will disqualify those who litter the course. Public stoning is a more suitable punishment.


  1. Even though I am a road runner now, I am a trail runner at heart. I get what you are saying about trail running, and feel the same way. I have thought long and heart about this issues, and decided that I want to see how fast I can get on the road, and then switch to the trails. Road running is much more convenient for me and my family right now, as it does not involve driving. I am hoping to be able to combine the two to some extent in the near future, as I may be doing the Fells Ultra after Baystate. Will see...:) Ana

  2. I love trails!!! One must not be in too much of a hurry to enjoy nature, it needs time to soak in. I find myself running lass and less on the road these days.

  3. You don't know how much this helped me! My first long trail race is coming up and I didn't even know what questions to ask, thanks!


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