By Lucy Maher, SELF
It's fall, the light is pretty, and the air is crisp -- a perfect cocktail for exploring woods or hills. But remember, this isn't like pavement. Before you head out, heed these expert tips to avoid injury and fatigue.
Buy Shoes Made For Off-Road Running
Investing in trail shoes means you'll protect yourself against bruised feet and stubbed toes, and experience fewer twisted ankles and slippery falls. "Road running shoes don't have the ankle support, sole and toe protection, or the grip of a good trail shoe," says Lesley Paterson, 2012 and 2011 XTerra World Champion.
Know that "your speed is going to be slower on the trails than it is on pavement," says Dimiry McDowell, co-author of Run Like A Mother and Train Like A Mother. "The terrain is more rugged, and usually has more inclines. Count on your average pace per mile slowing down anywhere from one to two minutes--or more if you're climbing significantly. If you've got a five-mile run on a training plan, and that normally takes you 45 minutes, don't go for five miles on the trail. Instead, just run for 45 minutes."
Focus On Your Middle
Core training will strengthen your abdominals, lower back muscles, hip flexors and oblique muscles to increase stability and power when running over uneven terrain, says Paterson, who focuses on core work for six minutes a day. "A strong core is also critical to maintain your running form when fatigued," she says, "and stops your body from getting too beaten up by the jarring and jumping that comes from running off-road."
Start on a trail that has a technical level you feel comfortable with. "First try running on fire roads or double tracks, before you hit the single track and steep hills," says Paterson. "This helps build confidence. Most state and regional parks have free trail maps with the difficulty of each trail listed."
Take Baby Steps
"On any trail -- and especially when you're headed uphill or downhill -- take short, frequent steps," says McDowell. "Don't overstride, which can put you in a compromised position if your foot lands on an unstable surface."
"Rather than trying to navigate around roots and rocks, the easiest foot placement may be on top of it," says Elinor Fish, running coach and owner of Run Wild Retreats. "Scan the trail for the flattest food landings, which sometimes may also be elevated off the ground. Even if your whole foot can't fit there, placing your forefoot or mid-foot on the obstacles... may be the most efficient way forward."
Don't Go It Alone
Safety is always important so try to always run off-road with a group and take your mobile phone with you. Even better if you can team up with people who know the trail system well and are of similar ability to help reduce your nerves and anxiety about holding people back or being too slow.
It's unlikely you'll encounter water fountains or a vending machine, so carry some fluids and calories in case you get lost or caught out longer than expected. "A Camelback is great way to run without carrying a water bottle," says Paterson. "Perhaps try a hydration belt that enables you to attach small bottles of energy drink around your waist. There's nothing better than stopping on the trail for quick drink and to marvel at the amazing views."
It's OK To Walk
"The biggest thing to know about trail running is that you'll likely encounter trail sections that seem 'unrunable,'" says Fish. "In such cases, it's okay and even advisable to switch to power hiking or walking until the trail becomes runable again. All experienced trail runners use this technique to conserve energy and complete their run in the most efficient way possible. As you gain more experience and lower-leg strength, the frequency with which you need to walk may decrease, but particularly when getting started, knowing when to hike or walk a trail section makes you a better tail runner overall."
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