If you want to go off-road running and enjoy the peace and quiet of the trails, hurry up; it's about to get crowded out there.
With the weather getting warmer, more people are ditching the gym and heading outside for a run or hike.
Trail running benefits include new scenery, no car-exhaust and, if you want it, some extra-challenging terrain that can add a whole new energy to your running experience. But roadies are often surprised by how different off-road running is. Here's what to know before you head out:
You Discover Muscles You Never Knew You Had
"Trails force you to use your body in a way that road running often doesn't," says movement specialist and elite triathlete Jessi Stensland
The uneven surface makes you engage your core and lateral stabilizing muscles, says Stensland, who also founded MovementU, nationwide workshops about movement efficiency, injury prevention and endurance performance.
Think About Your Feet (at First)
"On the trail, you need to make decisions about foot placement more often and respond to the terrain quickly," Stensland says. "What facilitates that is a stable core."
It doesn't take long to get confident. "At first, you're worried about where to put your feet and you're worried about falling. Once you get more experienced, you're not going to stare at everything but you'll see it anyway," says Joe Prusaitis, ultrarunner, race director, and trail running coach for the Austin, Texas-based Tejas Trails.
"It's like driving a car: You're not concentrating on every little thing in front of you, but you're paying attention to it. As long as you keep scanning, you'll be fine."
You Need to Start Slowly
"The road runner might be fit from running, but they're not fit for trail running," Prusaitis says. "Most road runners are used to the same foot plant every single strike and they don't realize that on the trail, you land differently [each time]."
"The first few times out, you don't want to do a lot of mileage because it can trash you pretty good," he adds.
Leave Extra Time
"On the road, you can take the shortest distance between two points," Prusaitis says. "But on the trail, you're looking for the path that requires the least amount of energy. That might mean you're taking switchbacks up the face of a mountain rather than climbing straight up a hill like you might on the road." Especially at first, plan on a trail run taking longer than the same distance on the road.
Part of the joy and challenge of trail running is planning a route. Lots of people go out on a trail and plan on turning around and coming back the same way. The problem? "Things look different when you're coming the other way," Prusaitis says. "Every time you turn on a trail, you need to turn around and look behind you so you'll recognize it when you're coming back."
More: Hitting the Trail
Bring Something to Drink
This is a must, even if you're just going out for a short time. Remember that you can't just stop at the local deli once on the trail.
Consider a Camera
"On the trail, there's so much more to see than when you're on the road," says Stensland. "I often bring a camera. At one race, in particular, I shoved a camera in my sports bra at the last minute-that's something I never would have done in a road race. I didn't know just how epic the course would be-it finished atop Mt. Baldy outside of Los Angeles-and I was so stoked to have my camera to capture that memory."
Use the Shoes You Love
Off road running shoes are designed to protect you from rocks; they have more support on the bottom and bumpers on the front. But you don't have to buy them for the very first time you go off road, Prusaitis says. "You can wear the shoes you're already comfortable in. I think it's more important to have the right shoe for your foot than the right shoe for the terrain," he says. "If you're running on a manicured trail that doesn't have rocks or roots, you may not need trail shoes at all."
Enjoy Your Strength
"I think trail running makes your legs stronger since you're usually either going uphill or downhill. And since you're doing a lot of jockeying around to position yourself, trail runners use their upper bodies more," Prusaitis says. Does this make you better on the roads? "I'm not sure it makes you run the roads better, but I think it makes you finish better. If you have a firmer core and a stronger upper body, these help you finish a race better when your legs start to tire than someone who doesn't have this strength."
Ready to run? Search for a race.