trail running {how to}

author’s note: today’s post is from my friend, Jonathan Tolbert.  Jonathan is an avid runner in the DC area and leads the fun run out of City Sports, Bethesda.  If you’re interested in trail running, but don’t know where to start, consider joining Jonathan – City Sports (Bethesda) does a trail run on the 3rd Thursday of every month.  A huge thanks to Jonathan for sharing his expertise & knowledge!

Everyone has their reasons for running. While it’s great exercise, I’m not out there to lose pounds or break records; I run to find clarity. I run to disconnect from whatever is going on in my life and truly live in my own thoughts. I’ve found the best place to run for that is on the trails. When you’re on the trail, it’s only you and the trail. It’s quiet, scenic, and isolated. Trail running allows me to focus, uninterrupted, on nothing but the task at hand. It’s almost meditative…almost. Most trails are very technical and require all of your attention in order to have a safe and enjoyable run. In the summer, I lead a trail run out of the City Sports Bethesda location (3rd Thursday of every month) – safety is important, especially with a large group, so it’s key to know these “rules” while trail running.Run with someone: The first, though contradictory to my reason for running, is to always run with a buddy. This is a general rule for running safely on trails, on the road, or even around a track.  There are power in numbers.

Forget about pace: The next thing to think about when trail running is to forget about your pace. There are too many factors at hand to be worrying about how fast you’re going. The main thing is to make sure you’re aware of what’s coming at you.

Be alert:  That brings me to the next step. There are many obstacles trails that can give pause to a good run: roots, rocks, sudden changes in elevation or terrain type, animals, etc. You should always be looking no more than 8 feet in front of you. As I said earlier, the terrain can change very quickly and something you may not have seen when it was 10 feet away from you may become very visible at 5 feet. You have to be ready for anything.

Trail features (natural vs manmade): Most trails are regularly maintained by the state. In order to prevent trails from being overrun by foliage, shifted by inclement weather, or becoming unusable, park officials install a variety of features. It’s important to recognize a manmade feature from a natural feature. Most manmade features are very clearly defined: wooden posts alongside the trail, logs spanning a creek, large rocks neatly placed like steps along an incline. These are the features you want to use. Natural features: downed logs, trees along the trail’s edge, vines, etc, are not to be trusted. Unlike the manmade features, natural features can fail at any point. They are subject to change and are unreliable.

Stairs are meant to provide safer and more stable passage as you ascend and descend hills along the trail. They are also used to prevent erosion and small mudslides that would be caused by constant traffic on the trail

Completely manmade: These are very reliable and constantly maintained, as they are for runners, hikers, and bikers.
Partially manmade: These are the result of reclaimed fallen trees. Though the actual bridge isn’t manmade, it is very deliberately placed across a ravine for quick passage.

Don’t forget to look around & enjoy the view: Aside from all the technical aspects of trail running, there are some nice features. On a hot day, it’s great to run on the trails because the temperature usually drops a couple of degrees as a result of cover by foliage. Most trails, as they are located in parks, have great access to creeks and rivers, and they are great places to cool off during or after a run. The most important part of trail running for me, is the access to great views. 

Trail running is where I find my clarity – there’s nothing better to me!

Do you enjoy trail running?  What’s your favorite route?



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  1. I enjoy trail running, my husband and I run with a local group often called Trails ROC. (#trailsroc) and it’s always a good time! We even went out last night for a nice 4.25 mile run.

  2. Great tips! I love trails, if I could run them everyday I would.

  3. I LOVE trail running. It’s been a while since I’ve gone, but my favorite route would be in the Eagle Cap wilderness in Eastern Oregon. I grew up hiking in those mountains and I absolutely love them. It’s amazing how much further you can go when you are trail running. Thanks for the post/guest post.

  4. Jonathan writes a great list of tips!
    Certainly helps me to forget about pace 🙂 Smart idea to use a buddy and be prepared with plenty to drink. A space blanket might also be good to have, (just in case). Happy trails!

  5. I’ve recently started trail running and am loving it! I just signed up for my first trail race on March 2 (Mississippi 20K). What I love about trail running is it gives you a chance to remember why you love running. No pace pressure, just the pure enjoyment of being outdoors and taking in your surroundings. I recently wrote a post about what I have learned about trail running, some of which is the same as Jonathan’s advice: The beauty of your surroundings on the trails is worth it in and of itself. Happy New Year!

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