From Road to Dirt – Making the Transition to Trail Running
by Adam Vognild

I was recently asked when I first started trail running. It made me pause and think back to what nudged me from pavement to dirt. I did some 5k and 10k fun runs in college while in Seattle at UW.  Then I moved to Colorado after graduation where I continued to run on the pavement and I started alpine climbing.

Alpine climbing is defined as rock and/or ice climbing in the mountains. Due to the frequent and gnarly afternoon thunderstorms in the Rockies, we timed our day so we would be on top of a route by noon. Usually my intention was to go light and do routes, car to car, in a day. Usually this meant hustling to and from a climb that could be anywhere from four to eight miles from the car. The best way I found to train for these efforts at altitude and to condition my body to the distance on the trails, was running in the foothills behind Fort Collins. I fell in love with the “training”, and the rest is history.

In the last eight years, I’ve competed regionally and recreationally in non-ultra distance trail runs across the state. I’ve become a bit of a dirt snob, exclusively running on dirt these days for my mountain cardio conditioning.

I want to briefly discuss the benefits trail running offers road runners, the gear needed, how to plan your run, and different hazards on the trail.

Benefits

  • It will strengthen you in different planes.  There is much more lateral movement when trail running.  This type of movement will help strengthen your “core” (I hate this word as a trainer) abductors and ankles.
  • Most trails are at higher elevations than where you live.  Training at higher elevations will force your body to adapt, improving your lower elevations efforts.
  • Wikipedia says, “Depending very much on the protocols used, the body may acclimate to the relative lack of oxygen in one or more ways such as increasing the mass of red blood cells and hemoglobin, or altering muscle metabolism.”
  • The terrain is typically hillier, and you will be running in different aerobic zones. Running on trails can be like running intervals as you work through a run.
  • Running up and down hills tends to reinforce good body position and good running technique. Incidentally, don’t feel bad about walking the hills if running shoots you into the anaerobic zone. Just keep moving.
  • Softer ground reduces the pounding on your joints.  Often street runners will insert trail running into their normal training as a recovery run due to the softer surface and slower pace of trail running.
  • Every footfall is different both because of the surface and the obstacles on the trail.  This will require you to have a more compact stride, vary your stride constantly and to be more agile. You will also be forced to pick your feet up higher when clearing those obstacles. This greatly reduces some of the repetitive-motion injuries that can plague street runners.
  • It improves your balance and reaction time due to the jumping, twisting, directional changes and pace variations.
  • Holy cow it’s beautiful out there in the hills!  The air is cleaner and it’s great to connect with your local lands and watch the seasons change.
  • There are no stoplights, cars, bikes, or metro slowdowns — you can really let your mind wander. A wandering mind can take you on interesting personal journeys and solve thorny problems you’re grappling with.

Gear

To get started you can use most of your existing running gear and pick-up more specialized equipment gradually over time.

  • Shoes. Trail shoes are typically constructed with more sole under foot and toe protection.  They should also have more aggressive tread for going maintain traction for going up and, especially, for coming down.
  • Glasses.  Sunglasses should not be too dark because you will be both in sun and shade.  Glasses are also important for eye protection.  Often times you will be looking down at the trail and run through a bush or a branch that slaps across your face.
  • Gadgets. Bring a watch and either a phone or iPod.
  • Gaiters. You won’t need these for many runs, but slim, ankle-high gaiters are beautiful for runs where you’ll be going through lots of high grass or contending with scree.
  • Cool-weather gear.  You’ll want a hat, windbreaker, and thin gloves as your trail runs move into the shoulder season – or if you run really early in the morning.
  • Longer runs. Over time you’ll figure out at what point you’ll need food (energy bars) and water to keep you going. Naturally the expected temperature plays a huge factor in whether or not to carry water, but given moderate temperatures, many of us will leave behind food and water for runs lasting less than 60 or 70 minutes. On longer runs in new territory a smartphone with a map of the area and a GPS is highly recommended. Carrying a BIC-type lighter with some duct tape wrapped around it is also a super-light safety net – in the event of an injury you can make a fire to stay warm. The duct tape is not only a good fire starter but can help protect cuts and blisters received on a long run.

How to Plan Your Run

Figure out where you are going. Get a map and have a plan. WenatcheeOutdoors.org or Alltrails.com are great places to start.  Here in Wenatchee, I’d recommend a map from our local Chelan Douglas Land Trust.  Or a guide titled “Tips and Trails for Every Season” that you can download from WenatcheeOutdoors. If you are not a good map reader, read up on trip reports of the trail you’ll be going on to get a feeling of what kind of trail you’ll be running on.

  • If traveling alone, let someone know where you are going and when you’ll be back.
  • Plan your run around time, not distance.  Miles take much longer to complete on hilly trails than on relatively flat asphalt. Initially, try “out and back” runs so you aren’t committed to a big loop.  Just run for time in a certain direction.  When the time is up, turn around and head home on the same trail.
  • It would be ideal if you knew the trail, and have biked it or hike it before hand.  A known quantity can be a good thing when trying something different.

Trail Hazards and Considerations

  •  Mountain Bikes. Get off of the trail for them.
  • Horses. Get off of the trail for them (on the downhill side if possible) and give them a wide berth, moving in a “predictable” way.  I try and make contact with the rider.
  • Insects. Carry an EpiPen if you are allergic to certain insect stings.
  • Snakes. They are out there. They may scare you, but they are also scared of you. In our local foothills you are more likely to encounter a bull snake than a rattler, but if you hear a rattle, stop, look around, let your heart rate slow down and then walk around the rattling give it a wide berth (5-10’ if possible).
  • Ticks. In our foothills these are only an issue in early to mid-spring but, of course, the tick season depends on where you run – the season is later in the mountains. Get in the habit of quickly inspecting yourself for ticks before going indoors and while showering.

Trail Running in Wenatchee

For organized runs in the Wenatchee area check out runwenatchee.com or TedDriven.com. For non-organized runs check out the trail running filter option in our guidebooks, it will show all 157 guidebook posts we have for trail runs in and around Wenatchee. Throughout the Wenatchee Valley we have many amazing trails, but to truly know them you need to get out and explore them. So get out there and get dirty.

For organized runs on the West side check out Evergreen Trail Runs.  For events in the Methow, check out methowtrails.org.


Adam Vognild is a Wenatchee native who has run, biked, skied and climbed throughout Central Washington for the past 20 years.  He is also the co-owner and personal trainer at the Inner Circle Gym.  He likes to run alone in the hills more than get behind a computer a type. He has also organized some introductory trail runs to introduce more people to the sport through the Chelan Douglas Land Trust.

This post was originally published on 5/8/15.

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