Written by Meghan Burrows
Photos by lzf/shutterstock.com
We’ve gotten crafty with our exercise regimes lately. With rolling gym closures due to the pandemic, we were faced with an opportunity to flex our creativity muscles when our workout programs no longer included the weight room. For many of us, we joined virtual classes in our living rooms, got extremely friendly with small equipment such as bands and light dumbbells, and, when the weather was nice, we became one with nature as we hit the trails for a cardio sesh.
But, news flash, even though we’re becoming reacquainted with running outside doesn’t mean we’re reinventing the wheel or anything. In fact, the International Track and Field Federation estimates that since 2010, over 20 million people have participated in trail running, making it one of the fastest growing sports on earth. Along with its popularity, some North American healthcare programs have even started incorporating it into their wellness plans—PaRX in British Columbia, Canada’s first national evidence-based nature prescription program, allows patients to request and be engaged in the process of using nature to enhance their well-being.
Whether you’re a seasoned trail runner at this point, or you’re just out there more for the change of scenery than anything else, learning how to plan, fuel, and select trails can create a rewarding experience that will leave you craving more time outside. Not every trail run needs to be an ultra-endurance effort, nor should it be. Starting low and slow on the trails is key to not burning out, and changing up the intensity can actually work to your advantage. Here’s our guide to getting the most out of your all-terrain endeavors.
Start with mapping out what kind of terrain to begin on. Since the ground is softer, more energy is used with every step, which means 10 km on the trails will likely take a bit longer than 10 km on the road. But the ground isn’t the only factor you’ll need to consider on your runs. Be sure to think ahead to features such as hills, path width, roots, and uneven ground to ensure you stay as sure-footed as possible for your skill level.
Beginner (no running experience):
Start with non-technical trails. This means local parks, gravel, or dirt paths with not as many roots or hills so your body can get accustomed to non-pavement foot striking—you won’t have to be worried about stumbling over uneven surfaces.
Intermediate (moderate running experience):
Pick a trail with some rolling hills and more technical features. This could include loose gravel, medium sized roots, boulders, and single-track running.
Advanced (skilled running experience):
Pick a trail with some steeper uphill and downhill sections. Loose rocks and large roots are no problem, just remember to pick up your feet. At this stage it is appropriate to look at elevation gain, such as hills or mountains, as a part of training—your trail selection should reflect that. Or, choose trails that are more cross country to increase running economy on a trail surface.
Start easy and plan rest days. The PaRX programs states that two hours per week in nature for 20 minutes at a time is all it takes to build a nature habit. When it comes to running on the trails, time on your feet is more important than distance. Mentally getting caught up in the amount of miles you have left can take away from the experience of being present and enjoying the run. Try running for 30 minutes instead of going for 5 km and see how it feels.
Aim to not run more than two days in a row in your weekly plan, including cross training. Instead, build up time on your feet, progressing over four-week increments and then taking one week off to decrease volume and recover. Every body will handle volume differently, so if you start to feel pain during or after a run, seek professional guidance from your physiotherapist on how to build up the strength to continue with your goal. We often mistake running pain for an injury when it can be pain from weakness in a position or on terrain that is new to the body.
1. Always leave a trip plan. This simply means to let at least one other person know where you are going and when to expect to hear from you again. It’s easy to make a note in your phone and simply send the location and duration of your run to a friend. Give them a check-in time and then a time to call search and rescue or 911 if they do not hear from you.
2. Carry appropriate gear. For anything over 60 minutes, and especially in unfamiliar terrain, it’s good practice to carry a few extra items, not just for yourself but in case you run into someone else who needs help. The essentials include:
- Mini first aid kit, complete with any emergency medications (anti-inflammatory, epi pen, etc.)
- Compact space blanket or bivy sack
- Extra food/water
- Source of light
- Communication device
If you’re running 60 minutes or less, all you need is a good running shoe and a watch if you feel the need to keep time. There is no need for music in the trails because ear buds can hide important noises such as animals, bikes, or other people approaching, and it’s just not great etiquette to have them in while trail running.
For distances that are longer than 60 minutes there are a few helpful items for carrying snacks, water, and emergency gear.
This will vary greatly from person to person but, in general, if you are running for less than 60 minutes then there is no need to bring fuel on the run. For efforts over 60 minutes, aim for 100-200 calories per hour, either in the form of a sports drink such as tailwind or skratch labs electrolyte mix or whole food gels like spring energy. For endurance efforts that will take longer than one meal (meaning, if you’re missing lunch) bring real foods as well, such as a sandwich, or smaller snacks like these infamous rice balls from ultra-runner Scott Jurek. Keep in mind that the typical sports nutrition products are designed for men, by men. Check out Dr. Stacy Sims for her female-focused resources and research to support nutrition across a variety of ages and goals.