There's a reason why many of the world's most elite runners prefer running off-road to the convenience of streets and sidewalks. All of that pavement can do a number on a runner's bones and joints.
While the softer earth found on trails may be the obvious solution for experienced runners, this unique terrain can present intimidating challenges to beginning runners. (How do I go downhill? How do I handle hazards on the trail? How do I make sure I don't fall down?)
We've asked running coach, Tim Neckar, to offer his strategies for tackling the off-road terrain, and what newbie trail runners should know before they head outdoors.
Tip No.1: Prepare for the Unexpected
Unlike paved roads, trail terrain can be unpredictable. "Small rocks often become loose," says Neckar. "This can make the trail slippery when heading downhill or uphill."
After periods of rain, trail runners must learn to navigate through muddy terrain and must exercise extra caution on slick rocks, such as limestone and granite. "Just because the terrain looks smooth and manageable, doesn't mean it is."
Tip No.2: Get Trail-Specific Shoes
While road running shoes might be sufficient enough for groomed trails, trail-specific running shoes will be necessary for more rugged terrain. "Look for a shoe with a rubber toe," suggests Neckar. "You'll stub your toe a lot. You'll fall a lot. You'll trip a lot."
Wearing a shoe with a rubber toe guard and a good heel cup will help protect toes from injury and keep heels in place. (And this will keep you from falling constantly.)
Tip No.3: Follow the Line
Because trail terrain can change quickly, Neckar suggests looking, "a good 15-25 feet ahead." When heading downhill, "do a quick evaluation," he says. "If the trail is steep, it might be necessary to run side to side in a zigzag pattern, like a skier." This technique will help you balance as you maneuver up a surface that could be cluttered with rocks, twigs and other debris, or could be damp from a recent rainstorm.
A runner should always be aware of his/her surroundings so that he /she is able to quickly make adjustments when needed. (By looking a little further down the trail you'll be able to anticipate something, even if it's of the critter variety, from surprising you on the trail.)
Tip No.4: Obey Trail-Running Etiquette
When encountering another runner on the trails, it's important to remember that the lead runner always has the right-of-way. If the rear runner must pass, announcing, "Runner up!" is appropriate, before passing on the left.
If a faster runner, a horse, or a mountain biker approaches, Neckar encourages the runner to get off the road and let them go by. "Everybody's got to get along," he says. "And when they do, there's nothing better than trail running."
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