Your Guide to Trail Running

Stay safe by investing in a good pair of shoes, carrying water and letting someone know where you are.

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I'll never forget the morning I laced up my worn-out road running shoes, grabbed a bottle of water and took my first steps on a hiking trail in Tuscaloosa, Ala. It didn't take long before I came to two startling conclusions: I was not prepared for trails, and I would never be just a road runner. That morning I learned that running on trails offers a whole new world that cannot be explored through pavement.

Trail running is a fast-growing sport. According to a study by the Outdoor Foundation, 4.8 million Americans participated in trail running in 2009. And trail running has been growing in popularity since then. Each year, we hear statistics on trail races that are selling out quickly. The Leadville Trail 100 Run in Colorado is perhaps the most famous trail race, and ultramarathon, in the United States. In 1983, just 45 runners participated. Now, the race has expanded into a three-month series, and the 100-mile race's participants are decided by lottery.

Why the popularity in trail running? For many people, their first trail experience is with friends or family on a hike during vacation. Most trails are dual-purpose, shared with bikers and hikers, and seeing a trail runner in action can spark an interest in trying it out. There are several reasons to return to the trails:

[Read: How to Identify a Running Injury.]

• Stress relief. Running in the quiet of the woods is a great place to forget about the world and just enjoy the peace and tranquility of the space around you.

• Mental clarity. Many people get away from the noise and distraction to get lost in thought, make major decisions or get their priorities in line.

• Escape plans. The only things you'll encounter on trails are other people and some wildlife. No traffic, no city sounds and no worries means a trail runner can find a mini-vacation in a 30-minute trail run.

Injury prevention. Running on trails requires the use of many muscles and ligaments, not just the same repetitive motion that defines road running. The impact on dirt is easier than the road and can be less stressful to the knees.

No matter why it's appealing to you, trail running is different from racing up and down the road. The gear is slightly different and the training is different. Here are a few key tips for trail running that I should have learned before I made my mistakes:

Grab the right gear. Perhaps the most obvious – and expensive: Trail runners need trail shoes. These are designed with more grip in the tread to prevent slipping. They usually have a medial plate to protect the foot from bruising caused by rocks and roots, along with a lower profile to prevent ankle turning, which is a common injury while running trails. Some shoes are made with water-resistant materials, which is helpful when crossing streams. As with road shoes, do your research. If you go to a running store for help, make sure the person assisting you is experienced with trail running.

In addition to a good pair of shoes, don't forget weather-appropriate clothing. You'll need layers, and always make sure you're wearing bright reflective gear so you can be more easily spotted in case of emergency. While road runners typically wear reflective gear so others stay away, trail runners need it to help others find them.

[Read: How to Exercise in Cold Weather.]

Get ready to slow down. Rarely will you find that someone reached a personal record for a specific distance while trail racing. Any records are usually course records for people who race the same distance on the same course. In my racing history, I make note of two sets of records. I keep up with distance records in road races and course records in trail races. That's because a trail run is going to be slower, depending on the technical traits of the trail. Hills, roots, rocks, shale, scree, boulders and any other topographical elements can contribute to a slow run. And that's how most of us like it. That does not mean we're not working just as hard as our road peers. We're doing more than just running. A trail run includes lunging, leaping, hiking, lateral side-stepping and other movements. That's why all those additional muscles get a new workout. Be prepared to leave the distance speed goals for the road – on the trails, the road less travelled is a slower one.

Lift your feet and keep your eyes ahead. It may seem contradictory to boast the beauty of trail racing if you're only looking ahead a few feet in front of you. Make sure you're stopping for a water break before you do any panoramic viewing. Otherwise, your face plant will be epic. Don't look straight down. Look ahead about 10 feet so you can be prepared for the technical elements like rocks, roots, mud and dirt. Also, it will become second nature to lift your feet a little higher when you're running. That comes with experience, but it won't take long to realize that tripping over every rock is frustrating, and you'll automatically step a fraction higher each time.

[Read: A Beginners' Guide to Running.]

Bring water – don't leave it in the car. There are several efficient ways to carry water on trail runs. Hydration packs, hydration vests and handheld bottle holders are the most common. Whichever option you choose depends on your preference. The most important thing is to choose one. Don't go off into the wild blue yonder without water. Even if your trail run is a couple miles and back, going into the woods without water is not smart. Should you suffer a debilitating injury, you could be stranded for a while. Also, beginners often underestimate their effort on the trails and may not realize how quickly they can become dehydrated. I put water right up there with trail shoes – both are non-negotiable.

Tell someone where you are. That doesn't mean shouting to Facebook that you're at XYZ trail, complete with GPS info, and you're the only one there. Don't make it easy for the bad guys. Leave a note for your family if they're not home when you lace up your shoes. If you're not with family and friends, then yes, a simple social media plug saying you're going off-road will at least give the authorities an idea where to look if you're not at work Monday. This is not to scare anyone away from trail running – it's simply good advice for the worst-case scenario. Turning an ankle is a reality when you're on the trails, and if you're injured, you want to be found quickly.

With these tips in mind, consider checking out a local trail in your town. Especially this time of year, when holiday stress is at its peak, a few miles in the woods can do amazing things for your mind and body. Stay safe, and happy trails to you!

[Read: 10 Themed Races to Make Getting In Shape Fun.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback. 

Katrina Plyler is a full-time teacher and part-time runner, blogger and amateur photographer. She is a regular contributor to the Cooking Light Blogger's Connection and has been featured in Fitness magazine. Her food photography is regularly accepted in Tastespotting.com and Foodgawker.com galleries. For more information on the daily adventures of teaching, running and cooking, check out her blog, Katrina Runs for Food.