If I had known that you could walk the uphills and still call yourself a trail runner, I would’ve picked up the sport a long time ago. At the age of 19, I was absolutely addicted to all things running. I was training for the LA marathon, diligently planning speed workouts and cranking out miles on pavement. At that time, running meant speed. Sure, I loved hiking and backpacking but I always saw those as separate from my running goals.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve catapulted myself into all things backpacking and thru-hiking. Now that I’m a Utahan, I have access to massive trail systems within 10 minutes of my house. After just a couple months of struggling up hills and slipping on icy mud, I can officially say that I prefer running on trails. Now, target trail runs are mixed into my backpacking goals for this upcoming season, and I might be what some call “obsessed.”
Surprisingly, I use more skills from ultralight backpacking in my long-distance trail running than knowledge from road running. The two have blended together nicely to churn out one budding new trail-obsessed runner.
What I’ve Learned From Ultralight Backpacking
It’s not about the pace. As a road runner, I was addicted to seeing my pace drop. I used speed as a mark of improvement, and it took me a while to stop constantly checking my watch during runs. With long climbs and uneven terrain, trail running is a buttload of walking. What’s most important is that you keep moving, whether it’s a quick pace, slow jog, or fast walk.
Gear matters more. The right base layer can be the difference between comfort, hypothermia, or overheating. You want lightweight, yet hardworking layers for trail running. Quality gear is always an investment, so I usually end up running in the same merino wool layers all week until laundry day. That’s what they’re meant for, right?
For winter runs, I typically wear a warm baselayer, and maybe a shell if it’s snowing or exceptionally cold. The most important things I carry *always* are gloves and a fleece headband. Extremities take much longer to recover from cold exposure, and can easily be the difference between a fun or brutal run.
Start cold. Always. When you first hit the trail, whether it’s backpacking or running, I always want to feel a bit chilly. If I start out cozy, ten minutes in I’m filled with regret. This means dressing as if it’s 10-15 degrees warmer out than it is.
Friends help a lot. As a road runner, I almost always flew solo. This ties back to my obsession with pace; I hated the pressure of running too fast or too slow. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been blown away by how much I enjoy trail running with a community. If one person wants to stop, we stop. If one person wants to pull ahead, they do. Trail running with friends feels remarkably similar to hiking or backpacking with a group, as opposed to struggling to match the pace of a faster runner.
Research your route. Trail conditions vary throughout the season. I always make sure I have proper traction if there is snow, ice, or mud on the trail. Also, I study a map of the entire region, to look for areas where my route splits with another trail. I don’t like to pull out my phone and double check my direction every time there is a fork, but I always have a downloaded map just in case.
Be mindful of your environment. If I’m running solo in the morning or at night when there’s few other people, I never put my earbuds in. I live in a region with mountain lions and frequent moose sightings, so I keep my head on swivel.
Carry the essentials. For runs where I plan to be out longer than two hours, I bring a small running pack. This typically includes 1-2 liters of water, ~500 calories of snacks, salt tabs, band-aids, ibuprofen, an extra ultralight layer, and salt tabs (more on this later).
What I’ve Learned From Road Running
Recovery is king. Overuse injuries plague runners. A solid recovery routine is the difference between waking up in pain and enjoying a run the following day. After a long run, I stretch for roughly 5 minutes before getting into the car or going into my house. After a shower and snack, I do a 15-20 minute stretching routine that targets my hips, glutes, calves, and achilles tendons. If I’m still feeling stiff before bed, I pull out the foam roller for a 10-minute roll-out.
Find your fueling groove before race day. On backpacking trips, my body digests just about everything. Running is much harder on my system, and my fuel strategy is specific. Salt tabs or electrolytes like nuun work wonders for my stomach, and I take one about every 60 minutes of activity. For food, I alternate between high carb and high fat snacks. Dates and almonds are usually a good mix for my stomach. Practice the same fueling strategy you’re expecting to use for your race or goal run, so your stomach knows what to expect. Porta-potties are there if you need them, but I prefer not to rely on having an emergency toilet.
Rotate multiple pairs of shoes. For each training cycle (4-6 month period), I purchase 2 or 3 new pairs of shoes to rotate throughout my runs. This helps the body adapt to different stress loads, and gives you the option to select different models for different trails. For example, I use my Altra Timps whenever I need extra traction, and I use my Hoka Challenger ATRs when I want more cushion. I try to avoid getting stuck on one particular model of shoe, so my feet and body are more adaptable.
How I’m Training Now
Sometime Mid-December, I decided my New Year’s Resolution would be to run every day. Then, I realized that I might as well not wait until 2021, so I’m currently on day ~50 of a running streak. This would never be possible for my body without the lessons I’ve learned from trail running.
I try to mix up my weekly runs to include at least one with a lot of elevation gain, one on the quicker side, and one with lots of miles. Each week looks different, and on days I ski I’ll crank out one mile before collapsing onto the couch at home. However, I’ve found lacing up my shoes every day to be an incredibly powerful tool in training my body to be resilient and recover quickly.
You may remember that Rim to Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon in a single day is one objective I have in the coming months, but I also have a few other goals in mind. I’m still new to all of this, but please drop a comment or reach out to me if you have any questions or suggestions for this budding vert-loving monster!
Katie is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. When she's not behind her laptop, you can find her guzzling instant coffee in the backcountry or developing a new and expensive outdoor hobby. To see her adventures and occasional long rambles, follow her on Instagram @katelyn_ali
I’ve hiked since I was a kid. I’d look at trail runners and wonder WTF was wrong with them. ;-) Somewhere along the line, this chubby cyclist who hated swimming and viewed running as something one does in the winter to avoid getting really fat decided to complete an Olympic-distance triathlon. While training for that, I started running on trails; I pretty quickly fell in love with it and the ultrarunning community. A knee injury several years ago resulted in my not running on pavement.
I still love hiking, but there are times I think “this trail would be so much fun to run!” when I’m carrying a 25-pound pack and slogging along.