With the warm weather, it's the ideal time to leverage the fitness you've built on the roads, and hit the trails. Getting into the woods can help revive a routine that feels stale, build all-around fitness, and help you get some quality time in a natural setting that you wouldn't otherwise get. "Trail running will make any runner stronger, which will translate back to their road running times and to other sports and activities they do," says Lisa Jhung, author of Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running (VeloPress, April 2015).
But running trails can be intimidating if you've never before. Here are some tips from Jhung to help you get going.
A lot of runners try to compare their mile splits on the trails to their road-running times. But that's not a fair comparison, says Jhung. Due to the nature of trails—which are often hillier, more technical, or even just smooth dirt or gravel—running on trails will produce slower mile splits that running on roads. "My advice is to not worry about splits, or distance," says Jhung. "Measure your efforts by time spent out, and by how you feel."
The prospect of negotiating, roots, rocks, and ruts can be intimidating. Ease into trail running by starting on a smooth, relatively flat dirt path, where you can just enjoy being out in nature and away from cars, Jhung advises. "You don't have to run something gnarly or run 100 miles to be a trail runner," she says.
You can use your road-running shoes and apparel for the trails. But having trail running-specific shoes with good traction will make you feel more sure footed, and socks that extend past your ankle bone will prevent trail debris from irritating your feet, Jhung says. And the more comfortable you are, the more enjoyable your trail-running experiences will be. Wear clothing that wicks sweat, that includes a zippered pocket for your car or house key. Consider sunglasses, a hat or visor. If you plan on running for more than 30 minutes, or it's particularly hot and humid, carry liquids in a small, handheld or waist-mounted hydration device.
Even if you don't usually run with a phone, if you're hitting the trails, it's probably a good idea. It will help you call for help if you need it, and the built-in GPS can help you find your way if you become lost, Jhung says. Always bring sufficient fuel and fluids (with electrolytes) for the run you plan, plus extras in case you end up on the trail longer than you intend. If you're running in the mountains, or anywhere the weather tends to turn quickly, take a protective layer like a lightweight rain shell, Jhung advises.
If you're running somewhere new, go with someone who knows the way, or study on the trail and the area before you head out. If you'd like to bring an emergency kit, make sure it includes:
On the roads we tend to measure our effort by the miles we cover and the pace we sustain. On the trails, it's best to measure the time you spend on the trails, Jhung says. "Trails vary so much that it's hard to compare trail miles," she adds. "A combination of time spent out and how you feel will serve you better than counting miles." After all, it could take you more than an hour and all your effort to cover a three-mile trail that climbs 1,500 feet in elevation.
Form, efficiency, and balance matter on the trails. Keep your hips directly under you to stay balanced; avoid leaning too far forward or far back, Jhung says. When running uphill, try to keep your eyes straight ahead of you, and your feet under your hips. Avoid bending too far at the waist, Jhung advises. This will compress your lungs, and make it tougher to get air. When negotiating downhills, avoid leaning too far back and braking with your legs. This can throw off your balance. It can also put you at risk for injury. Try to stay relaxed in the shoulders, back, and arms, as you're negotiating technical terrain. Use your arms for balance; widening your arm swing can help you stay stay upright. "You may look like you're swimming through the air at times," says Jhung, "but that's better than looking like you just face planted."
Being on the trails can offer relief and relaxation even beyond what you could get on the roads. There's even evidence that it can be more relaxing to run in the woods than it is to run on the roads.In a study published in the June 2014 issue of Journal of Environmental Psychology, people who spent time in a wooded, natural environment felt more restored, had better moods, and lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) compared to those who spent time in built environment. "On a mellow, smooth trail that doesn't require you to think about where you place your foot with each step, you can gain the same zone-out benefits that you do when road running, but potentially even more because you're not worrying about cars, and street lights," says Jhung. When you're running on more technical terrain, you need to focus on where you plant your feet. "On trails where you need to think about where you place your feet, due to rocks, roots and whatnot, you're forced to be in the moment, and you're forced to be present. This can be a fantastic mental break from an otherwise hectic day, and can be really therapeutic."
 Liisa Tyrväinena, , Ann Ojalaa, , , , Kalevi Korpelab, , Timo Lankic, , Yuko Tsunetsugud, , Takahide Kagawad. "The influence of urban green environments on stress relief measures: A field experiment."
Journal of Environmental Psychology. Volume 38, June 2014, Pages 1–9