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How to Transition from Road to Trail Running

For many runners, taking to the trails to log your regular miles is a dream. The scenery alone is enough to attract running enthusiasts. However, when you consider the wear and tear caused by road running, there is even more reason to switch your routine.

The majority of seasoned runners are aware of the effects of running on the road. Regularly pounding your joints and muscles on hard surfaces like concrete and asphalt can lead to long-term injuries, particularly to the knees and ankles. 

road runners at race finish line

Transitioning from road to trail running can be daunting, but it is easier on the body. Although you may feel more drained post hike, trails provide a much more shock-absorbent surface for running, reducing the impact on your joints. 

However, the transition does take some consideration. Our guide can help you to take the leap from the road to the trail, ensuring you get up to speed as quickly as possible.

Invest in Trail-Running Shoes

After reading certain guides and forums on what is needed to complete trail runs regularly, you may find yourself overwhelmed with the number of recommended items. In reality, the most critical piece of equipment you need is a good pair of trail shoes. Trail surfaces can be unpredictable, so it’s important to be prepared as possible. 

The key characteristics to look out for in trail-running shoes are grip, stability, width, weight and stack height. Each of these qualities contributes to the comfort and safety of your run. 

While the grip and stability are characteristics of the actual shoe, the width, weight and stack height are down to the preference of the individual. Some runners enjoy a super-lightweight shoe, while others prefer the comfort of a heavier sole. Ensure you consider the trail you intend to run and choose a shoe to match. 

Depending on the trail type, you may need foam or rock-plated shoes. If you frequently run over rocks, you’ll want some added protection to prevent injury from sharp stones; carbon fiber or plastic rock plates can be effective in this scenario. Foam soles may be better suited to soft surfaces like forest floors. 

Develop New Strengths

trail runners

Road running is generally quite linear. It involves straight running over even surfaces with very few dynamic movements. Your body can become accustomed to the motion, giving you excellent stamina. Your quads, hamstrings and glutes do the majority of the work, but other muscle groups remain largely unaffected. 

Trail running involves using several other areas of the body. Your core and lateral muscles are constantly engaged as you traverse hills and shift your body to compensate for uneven surfaces. Agility is an important attribute to work on.

It is good practice to start developing these muscles outside of your runs, so the transition to trail running goes smoothly. Dynamic exercises, such as lunges, squats and Russian deadlifts, can help you build strength in key areas. 

Establishing a strong core and improving balance can also help. Single leg squats, chair leg raises, resistance band toes taps and basic wobble board exercises can tone and strengthen these key muscle groups.

Incorporate two to three days of functional trail-running training into your current workout routine to gradually build up stamina in the new muscles you’ll need to tackle the trails. 

Be Present

Running can have meditative effects linked to reductions in symptoms of depression. There are even guided meditations to listen to while you run, and people are now performing an active form of meditation as they train. The rhythmic pattern of road running allows you to stay in sync with your breathing and heartbeat, providing an ideal meditation environment. 

This form of mindfulness doesn’t necessarily apply to trail running. The mindful approach has more of a safety focus. While you can afford to zone out during a run around your neighborhood, trail running requires your constant attention. You must be present in the moment to respond to the terrain.

Planning and mapping out your runs is crucial to prepare your body and mind for potential obstacles. Take your first run on a new trail slowly. Decide on a rucking vs. running approach if it’s a challenging surface. Taking the trail slowly with a weighted backpack can be safer and more beneficial.

Pace Is Less Relevant

Runners  on roads tend to become obsessed with their mile splits. Gaining an extra second or two on your personal best can be monumental. This is something you’ll have to forget as you transition to trails. Leave your stopwatch behind, as your pace doesn’t hold the same importance. 

Trails are far more technical courses than roads or race tracks. Conditions can have an enormous influence, and you’re constantly faced with varying elevation levels and inconsistent surfaces. There is no use in comparing your fastest mile on a 7-mile road run to your best mile on a 2-mile trail hike, as they simply don’t translate. 

While you can try to beat your time on a particular trail, it can be more useful to look at metrics like heart rate and VO2 max rate. Focus on how you feel physically and mentally after your runs. Although road running can result in muscular legs and weight loss, trail running often brings about more holistic changes, including leaner muscles and a stronger core.

trail runner checking watch

Learn to Recover

Trail running is more taxing on the entire body than road running, especially at the beginning. It’s vital you pay attention to your body and learn to recover adequately to avoid injury. 

Immediately post hike, drink a protein-based recovery drink to help regenerate muscle fibers and tissue that were harmed during your workout. It’s also important to replenish the glycogen stores through a supply of carbohydrates. 

Stretching, massages and ice-baths can help you recover from intense runs, reduce inflammation and limit lactic acid build-up. Alternating trail run days with road running days can give your body the time it needs to recover.

Transition with the Right Equipment

Transitioning from roads to trails is exciting. Swapping the suburban skyline for rolling hills and colorful forests adds a natural element to your exercise routine, benefiting the mind and body. 

Make the transition easier by ensuring you have all the right equipment for the trails. Mossy Oak is your go-to destination for trail-running gear. For all your outdoor clothing and equipment needs, visit our online store today.

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