How to Up Your Trail Running Game
Whether you’re looking to transition from pavement to dirt or just log more and faster miles off-road, Saucony athlete Katie Asmuth has you covered with hard-earned tips and advice
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
If you can run on pavement, you can automatically run on trails, right? Not so much—you’ll have a few skills to pick up. But the good news is, it’s never too late to get into trail running—and it’s certainly never too late to get better. Katie Asmuth, a nurse practitioner, mother of two young children, and Saucony athlete, is living proof of that. She didn’t start running trails until 2014; this summer she’ll race the Western States 100. With her tips, you’ll be ready to try out trails for the first time, run faster and farther, and take on more-technical terrain in no time.
Make the Transition
Getting on a trail for the first time can be intimidating, especially when you’re used to the flat, predictable surfaces of the road. “It’s a completely different way of running,” says Asmuth. That’s because there are so many more variables: hills, mud, roots, and rocks, to name a few. So adjust your expectations, slow down, and try running by effort rather than by pace—your pace on the trail will be markedly slower than the road pace you’re used to.
Another way trails differ from roads is that running them requires more strength and energy—so plan to carry water and snacks. And take this truth (which any longtime trail runner will tell you) to heart: it’s OK to walk! “It’s important to not take yourself so seriously,” she says. “Lean into the endorphin high of being amongst the trees and the dirt and the rocks.”
Know Your Why
“There are countless reasons why people run. Dig deep to find yours,” says Asmuth. “Is it to get into shape? To explore the backcountry? To challenge yourself to new heights? To find new friends?” Once you know what it is, you can elevate your experience by training harder, or getting a coach, or joining a local run club, or bringing your friends along, or just trying to get out on a trail a few times a week to enjoy the fresh air.
“Trail running will transform you. I guarantee that you will be a better human after running on trails,” says Asmuth. “But if you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong!”
Running quickly and efficiently on trails requires ramping up your intensity during training sessions. “Don’t be afraid of intensity,” says Asmuth. But intensity doesn’t have to mean running sprints around a track for an hour. Asmuth shudders at the idea of running a mile for time; instead she incorporates intervals, strides, hill repeats, and speed work into her runs throughout the week. This type of training isn’t just for professional athletes, because it’s all about improving your running economy, which is what makes running feel breezier and more enjoyable.
“If you put in some intensity during the week, you’ll be faster, you’ll be more efficient, and it will make frolicking around on trails easier and even more fun.”
Tackle the Technical
Technical sections of trail, especially on downhill segments, can be both challenging and intimidating, but they’re an important part of trail running at every level. Asmuth’s advice? Seek out the hard stuff during training. Seriously. On everyday runs, Asmuth intentionally takes the most challenging line in order to practice and build confidence. Then, on race day, she picks the easiest line. And if she knows a technical section is coming up, she’ll get extra fuel on board beforehand. “I need to be so sharp and focused for that downhill,” she says. Even if you’re not racing or running ultras, it’s crucial to develop your technical skills in order to avoid injury.
More sage advice for gnarly downhills: “Let it fly a little bit. You’re not trying to charge on the downhill. It’s more like you’re in a dance with it. Just try to flow.” Translation: take short, quick steps and keep your upper body loose. Oh, and make sure your shoes are up to the task—aggressive lugs and plenty of cushioning are key.
Asmuth runs in the Saucony Peregrine 11. “These shoes are all about grip and comfort with responsiveness for big adventure days. I love the 4.5mm lugs for use in harsh conditions and technical terrain,” she says.
Asmuth’s hands-down favorite distance is 100 miles. That’s an intimidating number for most of us mere mortals, but, says Asmuth, feeling daunted by the distance is integral to growth in the sport. Maybe your version of pushing yourself on trails is running a 5K or a ten-miler, but regardless, Asmuth’s advice is relevant whether you’re racing or not. “Stay present in the moment and get from one aid station to the next, or from this tree to that tree.” And if you’re just getting into running trails, remember to take it slow. Give your mind, bones, tendons, and ligaments the time they need to get ready to go longer distances—and choose goals that are motivating to you but work on building distance incrementally.
Beware the Bonk
Every trail runner will tell you how important fueling is. It’s crucial to eat early and often and make sure you’re getting quick-hitting, easy-to-digest fuel, usually in the form of sugary snacks.
Asmuth is also a believer in prepping her gut, and she always fuels the same way whether she’s doing a training run or a race. She sets an alarm to sound every 35 minutes to remind herself to eat and drink, and she aims to take in 250 to 300 calories an hour. On big days out, she places more emphasis on getting those calories sooner rather than later. As you run farther, “your stomach starts to turn a little and blood flow goes to your vital organs. So it’s just easier to digest at the beginning,” she says.
Ride the Waves
You never know what’s going to happen during a trail run—but you can bet it’s going to be tough. If you’re out there long enough you’ll ride endorphin highs and sink into deep lows. The key is to embrace the process. For example, in January, while racing the Bandera 100K, Asmuth fell and broke her nose. There was blood everywhere. But rather than call it quits, she shoved a tampon up her nose and kept going. She won the race.
What she loves about trail running is the wide range of emotions you feel when you’re pushing your body. “It’s almost sacred, being able to find a deeper part of yourself that you can’t get day to day. You are a different person on the other side.” Ultimately, when you’re out on the trail and feeling terrible, it helps to put things in perspective. “It’s such a luxury to be able to reach those depths and choose to do it,” says Asmuth. “But when you’re in a really bad mood, you should just have some sugar. That will usually help.”
Saucony is a leading global running lifestyle brand that fuses performance, innovation and style to create compelling footwear and apparel. Founded in 1898, Saucony exists to empower the human spirit, with every stride, on every run, in every community.