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Trail runner CamE Tasker runs across the ridge of Trappers Peak for a portrait in Washington's North Cascades. Photo by Nick Danielson.

A Beginner's Guide to Trail Running in Washington

A great day on trail is even better when you're running. That's why we created this Trail Running 101 guide to cover everything you need to know to get started: food, gear, training, trail etiquette, and planning your run | by Wendy Wheeler Jacobs

The act of trail running often intrigues and perplexes hikers. Why would anyone want to rush through unique and beautiful areas, when they can be hiked leisurely and savored? On the flip side, trail running grants a feeling of exhilaration that comes from rapid movement through nature’s obstacles. The challenge of working a little harder can actually make an effort’s rewards even more gratifying.

Trail Running Man
A great day on trail is even better when you're running. Photo by Kevin Kincaid.

Not convinced? There is a logical reason you might want to trail run, too. Simply put, you cover more ground in less time. This unlocks a broader set of destinations that you could previously only reach with a weekend or multi-day backpack. For example, a trip that would normally take you all day to hike now has you home before dinner. In addition, you’ll carry less gear than what you would in a typical day or overnight pack, and wear more nimble footwear so you’ll feel less cumbersome moving down the trail.

Add to that, trail running is a great way to get an overall body workout. The uneven surfaces are demanding on your core as you work to retain posture and balance. Many trails provide good hill workouts which build leg strength, while rocky or rooted trail surfaces help build strong feet and ankles. Carrying water bottles can even work your arms like mini bicep curls. Even more, the continuous aerobic activity builds endurance and cardiovascular strength.

Though trail running can be a more demanding exercise than hiking, you can ease into the process at your own pace, doing as much or as little as you like. As with most sports, it’s easier to start slow and progress as you build familiarity and skill.

Fuel Up: Food and Drink

  • Calories. Trail running is a great way to burn calories. But in order to maintain a consistent exertion effort, you’ll need to replace enough calories to provide your body the fuel it needs. “Bonking” is the term runners use for the physical and emotional crash experienced when your internal energy is used up. Quick energy from simple sugars like gels or candy is helpful for short runs or a burst to get you up the next hill. Longer runs require more low-glycemic foods that take a little longer to go through your system. These can come from fruit or whole grain granola bars.
  • Salt replacement. If you are sweating a lot on your run, you may also want to consider an electrolyte replacement drink or simply a snack with a little salt like crackers or potato chips. Experiment with different food types and form factors to determine what works best for you. For instance, if you plan to keep moving while snacking, a bar is going to be much easier to handle than a bag of trail mix.
  • Hydration. Water intake needs vary greatly by individual but also due to environmental conditions and overall level of exertion. A general starting point is 20 ounces per hour, but it is best to always take more than you think you will need. Your body will tell you when it is thirsty, but no need to wait until then. Recovering from a “bonk” or even mild dehydration can ruin the rest of your trail experience. If you have concerns about running out of water on your trail, consider carrying a small water purification device or tablets. (See more about hydration and filtering products in this issue’s gear section.)

Gear Up: Ten Essentials

Before you hit the trail, you’ll want to prepare yourself for the experience so that it is as enjoyable as possible. As with most outdoor activity, choosing the right gear will help keep you both comfortable and safe.

Use what you've got, but watch the seams. If you have already amassed a collection of hiking clothing and gear, much of that should work for starters. The continual motion of trail running can cause chafing, so a closer inspection of seams and straps is recommended.

Take the essentials. Similar to hiking’s Ten Essentials, there are basic essentials you should consider carrying on your trail runs. Of course, you’ll want to add personal essentials and items specific to your adventure. And though you may not need all these things on your back for a loop around your county park, as your runs get longer or further away from civilization, you will want to include them in your day pack.

    Get Going: Time to Run


    Warm Up

    Start with a trail you know. When you are ready to give it a try, start with a trail you already know. Only run as far as you are comfortable, and begin to familiarize yourself with your fuel and gear choices. Expect your trail runs to
be performed at variable speeds depending on trail conditions, ascents and descents, altitude and how you feel. You’ll eventually find your pace, but be aware that even on the same trail it can vary.

    Walking: a key part of trail running. Though you are embarking on a trail “run,” don’t expect to be running all of the time. Even during trail races, many runners walk the steep uphills or sections with difficult footing. A general rule is if you can walk it faster than you can run it, walk. Walking can also provide a good break to eat or drink. Take as many walk breaks as you need, especially when you are first starting. Continuing to move (vs. sitting) will provide a rest break while not allowing your body to cool off or stiffen up.

    Pace yourself. When you are ready to move on to longer trails, gradually increase your distances by simply running slower, or at a pace that you can sustain for a longer time. Before long you’ll be ticking off the miles.


    Running Form

    Running should feel natural and free. There isn’t a much better feeling than sailing along a winding trail with the cool mountain air in your face and birds chirping above. (See more about chirping birds on page TK.) There are a couple places where a little practice will make you more efficient and potentially safer.

    Keep your feet underneath you. When descending, it is human nature to lean back but this could result in your legs coming out from underneath you, especially in slippery conditions. Shorten up your stride and keep your feet underneath your frame.

    Use your arms. When climbing, use your arm swing to propel you forward, and try to keep your arms from crossing in front of your body and turning your energy into a twisting motion.


    Trail Etiquette for Trail Runners

    Say hello. You will likely overtake other trail users during a run more often than while hiking. Since you’ll be coming up on them more rapidly than they will anticipate, call out ahead to avoid startling them at close range. This is especially necessary if you are coming up behind a horse and rider. This goes for game too, as you’ll come up on critters much faster and can easily surprise them (as much or more than they may surprise you) so know what animals to expect in the area.

    Be prepared to yield. For oncoming hikers—especially those with big backpacks—and horses, it is common courtesy to step off the trail to allow them to pass. Though technically, mountain bikers should yield the right of way, be prepared to step off the trail for them as well. Individual trail rules may vary, so be aware of the expectations.


    Plan Your Run, Run Your Plan

    Don’t throw your usual caution to the wind just because you are moving a little faster. In fact, you’ll have to consider that moving faster is more likely to trigger falls and the potential for injury. Run with a friend, or leave a plan with someone so they know where you are and when to expect you back, just like you would on a hike. While cell phones are great to take photos for your trip reports, they are not always reliable as a safety device in the backcountry.

    We all know how to run, and have all done it at some point in our life. Now give it a try on one of your favorite trails. You may find that experiencing trails in this new way will bring you a newfound enjoyment—in addition to more trail miles in your log.

    Wendy Wheeler-Jacobs has been running on trails since childhood and started racing in trail ultramarathons in 2004. She averages 3,500 trail miles per year. Wendy is also a member of WTA’s board of directors, currently serving as president. Her favorite trail run is the Enchantments.

    This article originally appeared in the May+June 2014 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Join WTA to get your one-year subscription.