By Thomas Brown
I love the excitement that spring brings with more and more people hitting the trails. When I started trail running over 30 years ago, I would head out on the trails completely carefree, without any more of a plan than going hard and having fun. Needless to say, I made some mistakes but luckily I survived without incident and learned a few things along the way. As a recent military retiree turning 50 this month, I continually reflect upon what I learned and what I can give back to my life-long hobby of trail running. Now that I’m part of another amazing running community here in Western North Carolina, I want to share a few trail running tips that I find applicable for every trail runner from the novice to experienced, whether local or from out of town.
Get a trail shoe.
Working at a running specialty store, this is undoubtedly my number one suggestion. These specialized shoes are built to hold up to a variety of conditions you’ll encounter. When customers come into the store asking for a trail running shoe, the first thing I ask is what trails they plan to run. With that I have them consider the tread and the amount of protection needed and also the amount of cushion and need for comfort. I try to find a mix of comfort, cushion, grip, and rock protection, which really signifies something different to everyone. All trails are different which is a big factor when picking your shoes, but in the Asheville area you can always count on a few rocks, mud, and roots. For me, I choose a shoe that resembles what I wear on the road but with more protection and grip. My favorite: Hoka Speedgoat. Honorable mention: Brooks Cascadia, Saucony Peregrine
Pick out a comfortable pack.
Handheld water bottles are great for a short run, but for longer runs a hydration pack is needed for both safety and practicality. I always felt the first hydration packs were awkward to use but they really have improved considerably over the past few years with regards to weight, comfort, and durability. I always recommend trying on the pack for comfort and base your decision on need. I like versatility, so I always choose a pack that has pockets for handhelds in the front as well as a bladder in the back. My favorite: Nathan Air 7L 2.0. Honorable mention: Salomon Advanced SKIN 5 SET
Find your nutrition.
I like boiled potatoes and other complex carbs when I race, but I still love potato chips and M&M’s. Gels are excellent for a variety of reasons, especially their shelf life, but sometimes I need more solid food for longer runs and races. Running a few races overseas, I learned to train on the food that would be at the race. Wow, I still remember eating miso soup in Japan, avocados in California, a slice of pizza in Colorado, but my all time favorite will always be grabbing a Spam musubi in Hawaii. Foods that work for me may not work for other people and vice-versa. Bottom line: try different foods during your training and find out what works. My favorite besides Spam musubi: Spring gels. Honorable mention: Gu gels, homemade oatmeal cookies.
Don’t forget about hydration.
Maybe the most important tip. I always carry water, even in the winter. Everyone does it differently, but for the most part I tend to keep my hydration and nutrition separate. I do like adding some electrolyte replacement to my hand-held, but never in my water bladder. Adding anything sugar-based is an invitation for mold. If you’re getting water from streams, don’t forget to either filtrate or purify accordingly. My favorite: Pure H2O. Honorable mention: Scratch hydration drink mix.
Have your hat, gloves, and jacket ready.
I sometimes swap my warm beanie out for a cap, but I never forget my jacket. Rain in the mountains can be dangerously cold, even in the summer, and weather can change within minutes. I used to just carry a windbreaker in drier regions but now opt for a rain jacket especially with some of the newer lightweight, breathable rain jackets out there. Even if I don’t stay completely dry, I will at least keep warm enough. I also bring gloves in the summer to protect my hands in case the trails are rocky and slippery. In the winter, I carry a set of outer mitten shells. My favorite: Salomon Bonatti Water Proof Jacket. Honorable mention: Buff Original Multifunctional Headwear, Brooks glove/mittens
Buy a map or book guide and learn the area.
Nothing beats learning a trail by actually running it, but having a map or guidebook sure helps. Many of us will use an app on a smartphone but cell coverage is not always reliable so a GPS watch like a Garmin is a good idea. I love that digital maps are available and this is another aspect of trail running that has greatly improved in the past 30 years. Still, I tend to always buy a hard copy initially. My favorite: Asheville Trail Running, Hiking & Biking by Trish Brown. Honorable mention: Pisgah Map Company Trail Guide maps
Tell someone where you are going.
Also mention how long you’ll be gone. Staying safe is always a priority on any run. After a few scary close calls in Alaska, I eventually resorted to telling my wife where I was running and for how long. Slipping on ice, weather changes, bears, and moose were just a few things that could quickly change the dynamics of any run. Hawaii was different but even scarier. Slipping and breaking a leg, or falling off a cliff could easily happen even in paradise. Now that I’m settled in the Asheville area, I tend to run with a group and I still let someone know where I’m going. My favorite: Tell my wife. Honorable mention: Carry a cell phone, run with a group (like one of Jus’ Running’s weekly group runs!)
Get a headlamp and back-up flashlight.
One time or another, if you keep on trail running, you’re going to need a light. Luckily with the advancement of technology, rechargeable lights are readily available. A small back-up flashlight is great to have, especially in foggy conditions. When choosing a headlamp, I always recommend considering brightness, burn time, and comfort. My favorite: Petzl RL Swift Headlamp. Honorable mention: Any small flashlight.
Go Race and volunteer!
I love to race and recently have begun to volunteer on a regular basis. It’s a great way to meet other trail runners, learn different trails, and support others in the sport that has given me so much. Running ultra-marathons has mainly shaped my thought process on trail running but I do also enjoy the shorter trail races. Western North Carolina has some amazing race directors putting on some incredible races in a safe and fun environment. I love that many of the races give back to the community and I find it essential to volunteer when possible. My advice: if you haven’t joined a race, try it out and if you’re a veteran, keep it up. My favorite: Shut-in Ridge Trail Race. Honorable mention: Black Mountain Marathon, Table Rock Ultras.
I hope everyone enjoys the trails this spring. I feel very fortunate to live in one of the best trail running areas in the country. Stay safe and have fun!
Thanks Thomas. A good read for all trail runners Ready to go for run group and trails and more daylight!
Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do some research on this. We got a grab a book from our local library but I think I learned more from this post. I’m very glad to see such great info being shared freely out there.
You are very welcome! Glad y’all got some good information out of it 🙂 Happy running!