Tips for Fall Trail Running

Jan Guenther, owner of Gear West, and David Chamberlain, Gear West's Nordic Service Manager, weigh in on best trail running practices

From Jan Guenther:

1) Focus on time not distance

Don’t obsess over mileage completed. Trail running is a lot slower than road running, for all the logical reasons, uneven terrain, foliage underfoot, calling your dog back from running after a deer, trees, and streams blocking your way, and more. Your body is working harder on the trail. Additional balance muscles are called into action, feet are lifted higher and basically more energy is expended, so focus on total time running, not measuring k’s completed. Enjoy the beauty!

2) Choose the correct trail for your workout goal

Assuming your goal is to train your body for skiing and to build leg and arm strength, select a trail with either some long more gradual hills and/or some steeper challenging hills! Focus on ski-simulated workouts, using poles! Look up the difference between running with poles and ski bounding with poles and integrate a ski-related workout into your trail run. Trail shoes (the solid ‘true’ trail shoe) add stability, especially landing on the heel when ski bounding. The trail shoe lugs will reduce slipping down the hill when the grass is wet with dew, during early morning workouts.

3) Lift your feet up higher

Tripping on roots and rocks is the most common trail run injury. Therefore, concentrate on foot placement while running trails. Attention to your foot strike reduces accidental tripping. Those tiny roots or rocks can topple the strongest body in a nanosecond. Who hasn’t experienced a sudden tumble when an obstacle took you down while talking or when tired? Such a misstep can lead to a rolled ankle or a smashed toe. Thankfully most trail shoes offer a bit more rubberized toe protection than road shoes.

4) Avoid elastic laces and consider photochromatic sunglasses

This tip is aimed at triathletes who use elastic laces for faster transitions. Elastic laces are the bomb for triathlons, not trail running. Regular laces stabilize your foot into the shoe. Elastic stretch with every uneven foot plant and too much lateral flexibility in a shoe can turn an uneven foot plant into an ankle sprain.

Regarding glasses, you have to see the ground when trail running. Lens’ that change from light to dark (photochromatic) based on UV light intensity are super useful. Normal sunglasses prevent sun glare but are too dark to see well when the trail is shaded

5) Choose the right trail shoe. Most important!

Generally, the trail shoe genres are minimalist / light trail runners / rugged train runners / maximalists. 

Minimalist, usually zero drop, means there is zero difference in cushion height beneath your heel or toe. Additionally, the overall cushion is reduced. These shoes mimic how you run barefoot and rely on natural body mechanics to run injury free. Minimal trail shoes are popular with more expert runners who are efficient mid to fore-foot strikers and run on more rock-free trails.

Light Trail Running shoes are the most popular. These shoes are light and flexible and are enjoyable to use on grass and gravel and less rocky (Midwest) trails. Their outsole is more durable than a true road shoe and usually offers greater toe protection. The fit and feel however are similar to the average run shoe. Fast runners who like to experience a direct foot-to-shoe feel usually gravitate to a lighter-weight trail shoe. 

To handle sharp, rocky terrain a true trail running shoe must compromise slightly on pure running performance. This shoe design is less flexible due to aggressive traction (lugging) and a more durable, thicker outsole. Often these shoes offer additional underfoot protection by incorporating a rock plate in the sole, and a beefy rubber toe bumper. Thicker upper materials are chosen to prevent rock tears. Lugging on a TRAIL shoe can better handle mud and snow. Specific lug designs and rubber compounds either shed mud or better grip wet rocks. Select longer and fewer lugs for softer terrain such as running in mud and shorter lugs for hard terrain like rocks. The true trail shoe is the safest way to go when mountain running or aggressive off-trail travel.

Lastly, trail shoes are also available with max cushioning. These models focus less on a lower heal drop and instead build in max cushioning. They offer a taller stack height, meaning a lot of cushioning between your foot and the trail. Their outsole however still emphasizes aggressive lugging for durability and traction. Logically these heavily cushioned shoes are desired by older runners who need greater cushioning to absorb the running impact. The drawback of increased cushion and the higher stack height is exposed risk for ankle turning. Heavily cushioned shoes are less stable on uneven ground. 

6) Trail shoes = Adventure

Trail running opens a whole new world within running, I absolutely love it. The terrain offers beauty, the soft ground is kind on your knees, your dog can cavort at your feet, and, a different kind of strength can be built. Trails offer adventure and the opportunity to see and experience nature in a whole new way.


From David Chamberlain:

David, Gear West’s Nordic Ski Service Manager and top classic skier, offers his suggestions on how to use trail running for cross country ski training. 

Last year I got the bug to undertake the Superior Spring Trail Race 50k, a race distance that I had never done before. I didn’t do any real specific training above what I would consider normal Nordic training for winter marathons and was able to get myself to the start line in good enough shape to enjoy the adventure of the day. Below are a few tips and basic things that I learned from the experience.

1. Hydration

Hydration is the number one detail to iron out before any long-distance trail adventure and even for those training for shorter races. Workouts over an hour are a big piece of the puzzle when preparing for a running event of any distance or for winter races. For that length of workout, it is very important to figure out a way to carry water with you. There are many different options available and my recommendation would be to try on different belts and bladder packs and pick something you like. Take the time and endure the weird looks to run around the store to see how the pack settles on your back or hips. After trying many different solutions, I settled on the Osprey Katatri 1.5 for my long trail training runs and the Nathan QuickSqueeze handheld water bottle for racing. I also have carried a second soft flask water bottle in a Salomon Pulse belt around my waist for races. I like the Salomon belt because it feels very non-obtrusive and the soft flask can be easily filled up again or collapsed and stuffed into a pocket.

2. Nutrition

From my training days when I was a competitive skier, I went by the adage that real food was always preferable over bars and gels. For long runs, I try to vary what I consume. I pack a sandwich and eat as much real food for as long as I can and rely on gels and bars towards the end of a race or workout when I need them. One piece of advice that I read recently was to eat foods with a variety of types of sugar in them, sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltodextrin, etc. I like this advice and try to research ingredients and practice eating varied food in my workouts. For sports drinks, I really enjoy the taste of the Scratch Labs mixes and for gels have been using GU for my runs. I have also eaten my fair share of Cliff Bars over the years. I use these products often, but still like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when I can carry it. The last piece of advice is to make sure that any food or strategy is tested out in a workout before using it n a race – to avoid stomach pains!

3. Hill Work

This is one place where training for trail races and ski marathons definitely merge. With a full-time job and a family, having a rigid training plan every week is never possible. I do have some favorite hills around my house that I like to get out on once a week for some pole walking or bounding intervals. I use poles that are a slightly shorter length than my regular classic poles and use a couple of different uphill ski training techniques – ski walking, ski bounding, and mashups to keep it interesting. These workouts can be done at different intensities and time intervals depending on the goal. And trail running shoes are a must!

4. Speed Work

This is an often overlooked part of training for long-distance races. A simple running speed workout can add some spice to a training plan that might be heavy on distance training. On days when I do not have a lot of time, I will do a simple workout like 10x 30meter pickups with plenty of rest in between reps. Mobility and some active stretching can also be done before and after. It is always a fun workout and can be done in under 40mins if efficient. Once a week is usually enough for these types of workouts. Even for long-distance trail runs foot speed is important.

5. Adventure

Going into workouts and races with a sense of adventure always helps to keep everything rolling in the right direction. I try to vary my long runs as much as possible – never doing the same route twice and allowing the possibility of a detour along the way. This type of spirit is especially important in long races and has helped me move through some tough spots physically.

Good luck to all racers in the upcoming Birkie Trail Run!

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