So You're Interested in Ultra Distance Trail Running

More and more people are hitting the streets to run in America.  Last year, over 20 million people participated in an organized race which is up 300% since 1990.  Did you know that 45 million pairs of running shoes were purchased in 2013?  While pavement running has lots of benefits if you really want to find your flow and challenge yourself, hit the trails. 

Trail running is also growing and I expect it to pick up steam.  In 2012 there were an estimated 400,000 trail runners that participated in 2,700 events.  Want to catch a growing trend?  Lead the pack on trails.  Trails can be found in county, state or national parks and can be either single track (what you typically find in the mountains), fire roads (mountain roads that accommodate utility vehicles) or bark / gravel paths in more urban settings.   Most people tend to hike on trails but when you turn up the effort and begin running on them it opens up a whole new dimension of fitness and fun.

I have been trail running for about 8 years now.  Here is why I love trail running:

  1. Time to disconnect.  There are very few modern life distractions on the trail.  It’s you and the environment.  A few weeks ago I saw a Cougar and have even been followed by an owl.  Pretty cool.  It’s better than almost being swiped by a car or having to wait at stoplights. 
  2. Lots of strategy.  Trail running is a combination of strength, technical capability, nutrition, and discipline.  Trail runs can be tricky because of the changes in elevation.  Before you know it you’ve run out of gas.  Trail running forces you to rely on factors other than just “gutting it out” to be successful.
  3. You get to walk.  Nice, huh?  Trail running requires a balance between running and fast hiking.  It is nearly impossible (and not recommended) to run up the steep parts of the trail.  Typically you can hike those as fast as you can run so no need to exert too much energy.  It is a great way to recover as well and regain some energy.
  4. Strengthens your resolve.  When you are a few miles into a trail system you need have resolve.  You can’t easily throw in the towel.  You’re forced to make it through.   Trail running definitely has a “mind over matter” philosophy that transcends into everyday life.
  5. You meet really interesting people. There is something about the trail running sub-culture that is fascinating.  People are really nice, from all walks of life and typically have a great story.  I’m consistently inspired by people that are doing amazing feats across great distances.  There is no pretentious personalities on the trail and everyone says hello.
  6. Yes, you get super fit.  Trail running makes you strong at the core.  You get great aerobic fitness but also great anaerobic conditioning.  Because of trail running I am in the best shape of my life.

So if I haven’t turned you off and you want to start trail running, here is what I’d recommend:


  1. Get a good pair of trail running shoes.  All the major manufacturers make them.  You want trail running shoes.  They are much more stable and have the ability to grip better on the terrain.  Buy a good pair because they will get put to the test.
  2. Sign up for an event.  You can find trail running races here.  Sign up for a 5 mile race and set your sights on it.  There is nothing quite like being committed.  I’m calling it an event vs. a race because the “race” in trail running is really against yourself.  When you start running someone else’s race you are sure to unwind.
  3. Buy a hydration system.  People bonk all the time trail running and very often it is from lack of hydration.  Play it safe.  Get a hydration pack.  At a minimum carry a handheld water bottle.  I did that for a few years until I purchased the pack.  I’m glad I did.
  4. Ask questions.  Join a trail running Facebook group or find people that inspire you on EveryMove and ask your basic questions.  It’s okay.  Trail running was intimidating to me at first but I asked a lot of “new guy” questions to get comfortable.
  5. Practice going up…and down.  Climbing/running up a trail takes a lot of energy and training but we tend to think the downhill is a walk in the park.  Oh no.  Downhill will wreak havoc on your quads.  Embrace the burn.  You will need to train your muscles.
  6. Pay attention.  There is a lot going on underfoot when you trail run so you need to watch where you’re going.  Roots, rocks, boulders, and logs can creep up.  Focus on the trail in front of you and visualize where you are going to place your feet.  You’ll build up this sixth sense over time.
  7. Get a foam roller and roll.  Foam rollers are an awesome way to work out your kinks in your muscles, especially your IT band.  Buy a foam roller (link to a foam roller) and use it.  Trail running tends to tighten up your hip flexors quite a bit.
  8. Embrace nutrition.  Your body can absorb about 250-300 calories/hour.  That is the equivalent of about 2.5 to 3 gel packs.  Make sure to carry enough nutrition for your runs.  You don’t want to get caught without sufficient energy.  Also, if you don’t drink liquid with electrolytes than you can (and should) purchase electrolyte tablets and make sure you take them on days when you are sweating a lot. 
  9. Dress appropriately.  When it’s cold out I suggest you trail run with running pants, a shell, a wicking hat and gloves.  Changes in elevation can have a big impact on temperature and you want to stay warm.  I tend to run in Brooks gear but there is a lot on the market.
  10. Focus on your feet.  Many people fail at trail running because they don’t take care of their feet.  Changes in terrain and elevation create a lot of friction for your feet and once you start to get blisters or bruise your nails it is painful.  So, make sure you have trail running socks and tape the areas of your feet where they start to feel “hot”.  I use Leukotape (link) and it’s magic.
  11. Lube up.  Trust me, chafing is very common in running but much more so on the trail.  Bra straps, underwear liners, nipples.  This is just the truth so plan ahead.  It’s easy.  Buy some Body Glide and apply it before you run and you’ll thank me.
  12. Track your progress.  I’m a big fan of GPS watches and associated heart rate monitors to track trail runs.  I love to see where I ran and also to measure my heart rate over distance.  You’ll become much more attuned to your body and will start to know when to pull back vs. laying down the throttle.  I use Garmin but there are a ton out there.
  13. Carry a map.  You may think it’s a pretty obvious route but then you hit that trail junction and can’t remember if you’re supposed to go left or stay straight.  There are a ton of stories of people getting lost on the trail.  Don’t let it be you.  Get a map.  REI can hook you up.
  14. Don’t expect people to understand.  People will think you’re a little nuts but that’s okay.  People also won’t think that running 15-20 minute miles would be that difficult.  It is.  You will need to forget about speed and pace initially because what used to take you 9 minutes on the road will be about doubled.

This is a reasonable place to get started.  If you have other recommendations please add them in the comments.   Trail running has been such a powerful force in my life and I’m excited to share it with you.  Get out there and have a great time.

Useful links:

Brooks Running
Running Hydration Packs
Foam Roller
Electrolyte Tablets
Body Glide