Get off the road: How to start trail running

Apr 26 2019, 7:04 am

If you want a change of pace, get yourself out on the trails.

In Vancouver, we are blessed to be no more than a half hour away from a park to explore. It’s a nice way to shed the stresses of the day. In fact, there are many studies that prove that time spent in nature is good for your health and well-being.

It may look intimidating at first, but once you try trail running, you may hang up your road shoes for good.

For your own safety, please make sure you are prepared before heading out on your next adventure. Information on how to prepare for your trip and stay safe while on your hike is available from North Shore Rescue and AdventureSmart.

What is trail running?

Trail running involves running in the trails rather than paved roads. The terrain varies from groomed gravel paths to technical rocky trails. It’s a mix of power hiking and running and involves lung-bursting ascents and adrenaline rush descents. Trail running can also make you a better road runner. I can attest to that.

What’s great about trail running is that it’s easier on your body. The repetitive pounding you get from road running doesn’t exist in the trails. Instead of just a forward movement, you tend to avoid obstacles by moving laterally, jumping and being light on your feet. You’ll feel muscles you never felt before the following day. You can trail run year-round. Adding snow and ice to the mix adds a challenging but fun element when you have the right gear on. I mean, who doesn’t like playing in the snow?

A word of warning: 99% of the time you will get dirty. Dirt tans are a thing. Whether it’s dry dirt in the summer or sticky mud when it rains, you have to embrace the fact that you’ll need a change of clothes post-workout. So go ahead and jump in that puddle, it’s more fun that way anyway.

Get the gear

Your road shoes, while they are suitable for smooth gravel paths, are not recommended for more technical trails. You need to get a grip (or at least shoes with grip)! Trail runners are built with lugs to help you maneuver uneven terrain. Check out your local running stores to get fitted. The brand that normally works for you might not have trail shoes your feet like so be open to different options.

On long runs, I wear a hydration vest. This allows me to carry extra water, food, a waterproof jacket, my phone and emergency supplies. It makes you look like a hardcore runner but it’s definitely functional. I don’t trail run without it. If you’re going somewhere relatively safe and not staying out too long, you can get away with whatever you normally wear for road running.

Know where the trails are

Local trail runners frequent the vast network of North Shore hiking trails, shared use mountain bike trails, and urban parks such as Capilano Regional Park, Pacific Spirit Park and Stanley Park.

Burnaby Lake has a nice easy 10k loop around the lake or you can explore the trails of Burnaby Mountain. You can make your route as easy or as hard as you want, which makes this a great sport for everyone. The Squamish and Whistler trails are also very popular and worth the day trip. Wherever you end up, remember to leave no trace. Take your garbage with you and let’s keep our environment clean.

It’s very easy to get lost in the trails. Pay attention to your surroundings and read all the signs. I also recommend downloading an offline Google Map of the area you’ll be running in case you have no signal.

One of my favourite apps, Trailforks, shows you all the mountain bike trails on the North Shore and beyond, as well as your GPS position without the use of data. Each trail is also categorized by difficulty so you can pick and choose the easier ones if you’re not confident. Don’t bite off more than you can chew if you are just starting out.

Find like-minded people

Trails are more fun with a friend or more. You make friends for life because when you’re out there for hours on end, you get to know each other to help you forget how sore you are. There are lots of running clubs in Metro Vancouver that organize group runs. Here are some of them:

There are also bi-weekly Knee Knacker training runs you can join for free, even if you’re not entered in the race.

Joining trail clinics will help you learn techniques for more efficient running, familiarize yourself with the trails, and meet people with a similar skill level as you. Two local trail clinics are Anchored Fitness and Foretrails. For either of these, you don’t have to sign up for the entire series, you can just pay for drop-in rates. Capra in Squamish and Pacific Pine Trail Running Co. in the Fraser Valley also hosts clinics from time to time.

Be safe

Trail running can be risky. The uneven terrain makes it more likely for you to sprain or twist something so focus and being two or three steps ahead are important. Running in pairs or groups allows you to keep an eye on each other in case something goes wrong.

If you are chatty, human voices can help keep wildlife away. You can learn more about wildlife encounters (specifically bears and cougars) on Wild Safe BC’s website. Whether you’re traveling alone or with friends, it’s good to leave a trip plan with someone you trust back home. Include important details like your route and estimated trip times. That way, should something bad happen, the proper authorities can be alerted. Don’t forget to bring the 10 essentials! For more information on being safe in the outdoors, check out Adventure Smart.

Sign up for a race

Photo by Rob Shaer Photography

There are a number of trail races in the Metro Vancouver area to satisfy your competitive edge. Newbies will love the 5 Peaks and MEC trail race series because of the shorter distances and more forgiving terrain. For something a little more challenging, you can check out the Foretrails Run Series and the Coast Mountain Trail Series. Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley are also covered thanks to the Vancouver Island Trail Running Series and Fraser Valley Trail Races.

One day, when you become a little more ambitious, you can try training for your first ultramarathon. The most popular races being the Squamish 50 (which sells out in minutes) and the Knee Knacker (lottery entry only). Your non-trail friends may think you’re crazy but you can rest assured that someone out there is training for a race twice as long or longer than a 50k. I’ve done a number of these races and reviewed them on my personal blog if you are curious to know more about them.

Photo by Rob Shaer Photography

Don’t be discouraged if your trail pace is a lot slower than your road pace. It’s the nature of the sport. In the midst of climbing yet another steep hill, you may question why you are doing this in the first place. Trust me when I say the rewards greatly outweigh the effort you put into it. You get to appreciate the beauty of your backyard, bond with old and new friends, and accomplish something not many people have. The trail community is one of the most supportive that I’ve ever seen and I hope someday you’ll be a part of it.

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