10 Tips For An Injury-Free Trail Race

There’s a big difference between running the pavement and running a trail. The principles that you apply to cover seven street miles pretty much go out the window when you’re on a trail with mud, hills, tree roots and a narrow winding path. A trail race is an obstacle course and it can get tricky.  But if you pay attention to your surroundings it can be enjoyable and rewarding.

I did a trail run last weekend and had a specific goal in mind: not to fall down.  I took a pretty bad fall on the trail race I did in September and have been nursing an aching shoulder since.  A couple of the runners had battle scars after the run on Saturday. One fall occurred on the trail just ahead of me when a runner got her toe caught in a covered tree root and literally went head over heels down a steep incline.  Not pretty.

Trail Run

If you’re an inexperienced trail runner or thinking about signing up for your first trail race, here are 10 tips to help you get to the finish line injury free.

1.  Pick Up Your Feet – The ole street shuffle doesn’t work when you’re dodging, sticks, roots, holes and mud puddles.  You have to consciously think about picking up your feet throughout the race to reduce the risk of falling.  I found as I got near the end of the run and my legs started to fatigue I was stubbing my toe on things that I was skimming across during the first half. I constantly reminded myself to pick up my feet as I watched for rocks, limbs, roots and other obstacles.

2.  Wear Old Tennis Shoes – You don’t want to worry about getting your shoes wet and muddy and in many cases you’ll do both.  The trail runs in this area always have patches that are wet because of streams and rivers that run through the woods or rain water that lingers in the thickness.  Wear shoes that fit well and are comfortable and that you won’t mind throwing in the washing machine when you get home.

3.  Follow Loosely – Running downhill and hearing the person following close on your heels trip and start to fall isn’t a good feeling.  More than likely they’ll take you with them if they are too close to you.  Many of the trails only accommodate single-file running so make sure to keep a good distance between you and the runner ahead of you so if you do have a mishap, it won’t affect them.

4.  Skip The Music – Trail running calls for a different level of concentration and music is a distraction.  Even though I love to run to music I’ve given it up so I can focus on what I’m doing and what the people around me are doing when I’m out on steep, muddy, slick terrain.  For me, music creates an out-of-body experience when I’m running that I love when I’m on the street or treadmill.  On a trail I need to fully concentrate on each step so I’ve found I’m safer without music.  Plus, there is so much to think about and the miles go so much faster on a trail I don’t even miss it.

5.  And The Sunglasses – On the run in September when I crashed and burned my sunglasses were a large part of my demise.  The woods had patchy sunlight coming through the trees and the sunglasses prevented me from seeing through the shadows as well as I needed to.  This time I wore sunglasses when we were out in the open fields but they were secured to the top of my head in the woods where I was running through patches of sunlight.

6.  Pregame With Bug Spray – Deer ticks and mosquitoes are the two insects that can do the most damage when you’re trail running. Make sure you pack a bug repellant that contains Deet in your bag and thoroughly spray your clothing and any uncovered skin before heading into the woods. A generous dousing of bug spray will save you from being miserable from scratchy – and maybe even harmful – bites the next day.

7.  Run The Course Ahead of Time – If you know what’s ahead you will be more prepared both mentally and physically.  If you can, run the trail at least once before the race.  Even after doing the route one time you’ll be better acclimated for the hills, valleys, muddy patches and rough terrain, and will be able to cover the ground more efficiently.

8.  Be Patient – As I mentioned in #3, on a trail run you’ll spend plenty of time in areas where runners have to travel in a single-file.  This can be frustrating if you get behind someone that is moving slower than your ideal pace.  Be patient and be polite, and when you do have a chance to pass them provide an encouraging word.

9.  Be Verbal  – You’ve been loosely following a slower runner down a treacherous hill and at the bottom see an opportunity to pass them.  Be sure to alert them that you’re coming around.  This is not only courteous, but will help prevent any trips and potential injuries from two runners getting tangled.  If they hear you coming up to pass they may try and step to one side to get out of your way.  Notify them of which side you’re going to pass them on so they can move to the other.

10. Bring A Change of Clothes –It’s no secret the after-party is the best part of the event. If you plan to stay for the party be sure and bring a set of clean, dry clothes and shoes.  You may not need to change, but if you did happen to fall in water, or got into mud up to your ankles, you’ll enjoy yourself to the fullest in clean, dry clothes.

Trail running is challenging, fun and a little dicey but if you go prepared to stay relaxed and enjoy yourself you can successfully navigate the rocks, hills, and mud injury free.

What tips do you have for fellow trail runners out there?

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