New to trail running? Follow these tips to get the most out of the activity

Experts share safety advice, essential items and other tips for taking a run over natural terrain.

Experts share safety advice, essential items and other tips for taking a run over natural terrain

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

There's nothing quite like the sensation of running on a trail — the focus that comes from your feet hitting the earth in rhythm, releasing the scents from the carpet of damp moss, fallen leaves and pine needles underfoot.

"I think a lot of people are surprised to find how natural [running] feels when you get on a nice trail in a good environment," says Eric Carter, who is a Squamish, B.C.-based competitive mountain runner and the co-owner of Ridgeline Athletics, a coaching service that works with athletes training in mountain, ultra and trail running. Getting to visit spectacular places is also what makes trail running so fun, says Carter. "You end up in beautiful mountain vistas and places that other people haven't been, and waterfalls and rivers, and deserts and canyons, and all that kind of stuff. And so, to be able to get to those places, and get to them quickly and efficiently, is kind of nice." 

On top of the scenic views and the positive effects of spending time in nature, trail running can be a great social activity, too. "Some of my great friends, I've met through running," says Kylie McKendrick, owner of Strides Canmore, a running and Nordic ski store in Canmore, Alta., that offers running clubs for beginners and intermediates. "And also just for safety," she adds. "Especially as we get into trail running ... you're always safer in numbers."

Read on for more safety advice, essential items and tips for trail running.

Essentials for staying safe

There are a few things that McKendrick advises when it comes to trail running safety. First if you live in an area with bears, whether running alone or with a group, she strongly suggests that runners carry bear spray, and ensure it's easily accessible in the event of a sudden wildlife encounter. Second, she recommends layering up, such as with an extra jacket, gloves and a tuque on colder days, especially if you're going out for over an hour. "Just in case something does happen — you twist an ankle and you can't get back, and you're out there for a while — it can get really cold, really fast on you," McKendrick says. Lastly, bring along some water and snacks, again in the event of injury and inability to return as expected (and also to stay fueled on longer runs). 

Find the right trail for you

Both Carter and McKendrick agree that the way to start is by researching the best trails for your skill level. Although there are tons of resources available to trail runners, they also agree that a running store local to the trails is the best place to go for advice. "You might have trails like in the city park that would be a good fit, and you might have trails like way up in the mountains," Carter says, "so figuring out what's right for you is important and [they're] going to have the best suggestions there." 

Start slow

Experienced road runners may think they can run the same distance on trails as they would on roads, but they'd be wise to manage their expectations. "[Five kilometres] on a trail is much harder," says McKendrick. "You have elevation to deal with, you have technical features, which are roots and rocks and variable terrain, so you're much slower on technical terrain than you would be on a road." 

"With trail," she adds, "you're often gaining a lot of elevation and losing elevation and those require different strength from your legs … [You've] got to condition your legs accordingly." 

The philosophy of her Learn To Run clubs is "start slow, build slow and always incorporate a walk component to your running." The technique used is similar to the one they use to train for road running: a one-to-one to start. That means running for one minute, then walking for one minute, then progressing week to week by adding another minute (i.e. running for two minutes, walking for one minute; running for three minutes, walking for one minute; and so on). In addition to pacing yourself, McKendrick recommends walking up steep inclines to save leg strength.

Consider gear for comfort and protection

Having the right gear can make a big difference between a good trail run and a bad trail run.

While it may be tempting to put on your regular ol' runners, wearing trail running shoes designed with features to help negotiate varying terrain can help keep runners safer on trails. McKendrick points to their grippier outsoles, better ankle support and built-in rock plates, which sit between the insole and outsole "to protect your foot from those … sharp rocks and roots and all the stuff that you're going to be running on on trail."

You might think to wear something windproof and water-resistant, but don't forget the importance of dressing in layers, and ones that will wick and dry quickly as you sweat. "Either Merino or a base layer that is designed for high output activity," recommends McKendrick, "it will breathe a bit better than a cotton t-shirt." 

As with running in general, a good headlamp is handy for evening or early morning runs, or for use in low-visibility conditions. But remember to charge up those batteries, particularly when running in extreme cold, says McKendrick. "A common mistake with runners of all kinds is that they go out with their headlamp and it's -15 C, and they don't realize that the batteries wear out a lot faster and their headlamp dies halfway through their run and they're in the woods and it's pitch black." 

The key component in trail running — to enjoy it and to stay safe — is to be prepared. "You can be in the city running in sunny weather and cold weather and rainy weather — it doesn't really matter," says Carter. "But as soon as you head out onto the trails, all [the factors] kind of get amplified, so learning how to take that into consideration is really important and just requires a higher level of preparedness."

Janet Ho is a writer, grad student, and nature enthusiast based in the Canadian Rockies. You can follow her at @janetlynho.

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