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15 All-Terrain Tips For Trail Runners

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Imagining yourself in a slasher flick scenario, visualize being pursued by a crazed individual wielding a chainsaw as you navigate through the forest. As you hastily move, the sound of snapping twigs echoes, and you struggle to maintain your footing among rocks and maneuver through low-hanging tree branches. Eventually, as expected, you meet with an unavoidable stumble caused by tripping over a tree root.

Mackey’s expertise in trail running is evident as he has achieved the title of 2003 U.S. 50-mile trail-running champion and holds four victories in the challenging Breckenridge Crest Trail Marathon in Colorado. In order to escape his pursuer, Mackey would have employed short, compact strides and anticipated the presence of root yards ahead. Eventually, he would have overtaken his pursuer, leaving them breathless and doubled over.

1. Don’t rush into anything

According to Mackey, experiencing trail-running for the first time is comparable to one’s initial experience in the bedroom with a woman. It is likely to conclude sooner than anticipated and in case of any mishaps, there may be a need for first aid. However, Mackey reassures that such outcomes are acceptable.

Becoming comfortable and knowing when to speed up or slow down requires patience. When starting out, try maintaining a pace that is 75 percent of your usual speed and carefully observe landmarks, like taking a sharp left turn after passing the walnut tree or being cautious of a jagged boulder.

As you gradually shift from roads to dirt, you can gradually increase your effort to reach 100 percent; acquiring the technical aspects of trail running requires time. It will come as a surprise to discover the amount of speed you can attain once you are familiar with the upcoming obstacles.

2. Keep your back straight

When faced with big hills, even the most skilled trail runners find themselves out of breath. Instinctively, you may hunch like Quasimodo, but this prevents your lungs from filling up completely. Instead, follow Mackey’s example and allow your ankles to adapt to the slope while maintaining an upright posture. Utilize strong and concise arm movements to push yourself forward on the trail.

Because you are moving at a slower pace, you will not need to look far down the trail. However, it is important to avoid the urge of focusing on your feet while climbing because feet are not quite fascinating.

3. Snap a mental picture

To enhance your speed while descending, it is important to have heightened awareness of the upcoming terrain.

Mackey focuses his gaze several steps ahead, using his mind to position his feet accordingly. Maintain a slight backward weight distribution, as if descending a hill on your heels, and raise your bent elbows up near your chest while swinging your arms. Extend your arms outward to a moderate distance from your sides for proper balance.

Mackey explains that animals utilize their tails to shift weight, and similarly, you are employing the same technique with your arms.

When you are on a screen or loose gravel surface, you can bring your arms down to decrease your center of gravity and proceed with shorter, softer steps.

4. Stay low

If you wear your favorite running shoes on any surface except the most unpleasant, the greater the risk of falling will be, especially if you have higher kicks.

Trail shoes, which have more cushioning that diminishes stability and amplifies any rolling caused by rocks, are higher off the ground compared to them. However, the human body was naturally designed for off-road running, so unless your feet are extremely delicate, you should be alright.

5. Take the high road

Hill workouts provide an effective method to enhance leg strength, reduce stride length, and enhance endurance for extended runs. Aim to run hills that require at least 1 minute to ascend in order to experience substantial benefits. If you prefer running intervals, aim for hill climbs lasting 3 to 4 minutes; any longer duration will result in excessive fatigue, hindering the effectiveness of the workout.

6. Add trail mix to your training

Trail training, similar to on-road preparation, necessitates a combination of brief runs spanning from 20 minutes to an hour, performed two or more times weekly, as well as lengthy, leisurely distance runs lasting around an hour completed once per week.

According to Mackey, to successfully complete a challenging trail race, you should include hills and fartlek (a Swedish term meaning “speed play” which involves a combination of easy runs and bursts of speed) in your training. In his typical fartlek session, Mackey alternates between moderate- and fast-paced intervals lasting 3 to 8 minutes.

7. Light up

After developing your trail intuition to automatically detect obstacles, practice running on the course at night. This will improve your ability to react with minimal visual cues, enhancing the naturalness of your running style.

A light but powerful headlamp for running, such as Black Diamond’s Zenix weighing 4.9 ounces and priced at $45 on, should provide sufficient light. Headlamps are also useful for fitting in runs after work during the fall and winter seasons.

8. Know the rules of the trail

When using the trail, give priority to other users such as equestrians, hikers, and mountain bikers.

When it comes to yielding on hills, uphill runners should generally be given priority as stopping and starting on an incline requires more effort, whereas downhill runners often have better visibility. However, in case of uncertainty, it is always best to be polite and considerate regardless of whether you are going uphill or downhill. Please remain on designated trails and run through puddles instead of going around them, as this would expand the trail’s width. It is important to leave no trace and avoid littering.

9. Keep your eyes on the trail

Although it may be tempting to admire the nature surrounding you, it is important to avoid doing so as it can result in unintentional stumbling and falling. If you wish to appreciate the scenery, either slow down your pace or come to a complete stop; otherwise, concentrate on focusing your gaze three to four feet ahead in order to establish a clear path for your movement, specifically determining your next few steps.

By thinking step by step, you can rephrase the text while keeping the same meaning. This will help you stay focused and present, which is one of the key benefits of trail running. Trail running is both a physical and mental challenge, like a puzzle. As you gain more experience running on trails, you will develop a natural sense of where your limits are.

10. Slow down and smell the roses

Running on trails can be more challenging than running on roads, especially when dealing with technical singletrack trails that have roots, rocks, and other enjoyable obstacles. It is not advisable to compare your pace on roads with your pace on trails because you will inevitably be slower on trails than your usual pace on roads. Instead, focus on establishing a tempo specifically for trail running.

When considering your effort level, heart rate, and body’s rhythm, new trail runners may choose to walk uphill and run downhill and on flat terrain. There is no need to feel embarrassed about this approach. Gradually progress towards running uphill to avoid injury and exhaustion during your running journey.

11. Be mindful of your time

Starting with more challenging trails, it is advisable to begin running based on time so that you can understand your pacing on the trails, rather than embarking on a six-mile run that could unexpectedly take 40 minutes longer than anticipated. Running an out-and-back route is an excellent method to familiarize yourself with your pace and build confidence in trail running. Following this, you can create loops and routes that suit your requirements.

12. Change gears

When you encounter uphill terrain, make sure to adjust your pace and maintain a steady level of effort. If you are unsure, it is advisable to walk instead. It may take some time to adapt to running over obstacles like downed trees or through mud and sand, so it is better to proceed gradually. As your body becomes stronger and more accustomed to trails, tackling obstacles will become easier.

13. Wear the right shoes

If you plan on incorporating trail running into your routine, it is a smart decision to purchase a pair of trail running shoes.

Trail-running shoes are distinct from road-running shoes due to their sturdy construction for rough terrains, as well as a lower profile that minimizes the risk of ankle sprains from high heels. Moreover, their robust tread provides enhanced grip on muddy and wet trails. Ideally, these shoes should fit snugly around the heel while allowing ample space in the toe box.

After obtaining them, make sure to take care of them. If you have just finished a run in wet or muddy conditions, take out the insoles, wash away the mud, and then fill them with newspaper or paper towels to dry.

14. Add appropriate accessories

Even if trails offer shaded paths, it is still advisable to apply sunscreen. Sunglasses, regardless of their darkness, will shield your eyes from branches and bushes. To ward off insect bites and repel ticks, wearing a hat and using bug spray is recommended. Utilizing gaiters will keep dirt from entering your shoes.

15. Carry fluids

It is essential to bring hydration while trail running because you cannot predict the duration of your workout or the conditions you might face. There are three options for carrying fluids during the run: handheld, multi-bottle waist belt, and hydration pack. Discover your preferred method and swiftly proceed with it.

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