Are you ready?
In all honesty, most people are probably ready. But for a runner concerned with their ability to handle trail running as they are new to running in general or because they are worried about extra loading in what is already a heavy program my advice would be the same.
Build a good base of running, including hill work, and ensure you are strong enough. This will likely be a process of months, not weeks. Once you have sustained enough loading for long enough you can start to switch one of your runs for a trial run.
The biggest reason I suggest this work is an injury risk. A significant change in load is risky for injury, so having built up a good base of training, you have built your body’s load tolerance capacity and prepared it to head to the trails.
TRANSITION - FROM CONCRETE TO TRAIL
There are a number of ways to start trail running, part of your decision of how to start depends on your preferences in terms of scaling back some of your other running, part depends on how much you are currently running and some depend on your goals regarding trail running. If you run quite a bit already and have been doing so for a long time, including a good number of hills, you can probably just switch one of your runs for one on the trail.
If you are someone who is new to running you may be best suited to logging some good training months and transitioning across, though you may also just be able to make some of your initial running on trail. It is those in the middle, those who run a little bit but enough that they can at times struggle to recover and that run the biggest risk of a clean switch to the trails.
Largely much of the advice about being ready and transitioning pertains to injury risk and minimizing this: nobody likes being injured. This advice will help minimize that risk. Other things that can be done to minimize injury risk are:
consistency- the body does not do well with significant swings in loading (in either direction)
listening to your body- having time off if needed and developing an understanding between an injury and something that is transient (which takes time and even the best may not be so good at).
Find a group
Trail running seems to be quite daunting to many people. This is probably because it is a much less comfortable environment than road running for most, especially starting out. There is also a perception that it is much harder, which I disagree with.
That said, the potential to get lost or get into trouble exists.
It is for these reasons and for accountability that I suggest joining a group to go for trail runs, at least initially. The very nature of trail running is much more social than road running, something I really enjoy about it. Most groups and individuals are very friendly in my experience and most are happy to help beginners get involved and show them the ropes.
Whilst trails vary significantly, generally trail running involves significantly more hills than road running. These can be very different too; steeper, looser footing, longer, the list goes on. So making sure you are prepared for this is crucial. Running, and even walking, enough hills in training as you prepare to transition to trail running is a great way to be more prepared to hit the trails. This includes downhills too!
It is something that you should add in gradually, one of the most certain ways to get injured is huge changes in training in a short space of time. I would start by changing one of your weekly runs to include a few more hills, increasing this over time, or even shifting this session to one of the hills runs or hill-sprints. Again, remembering that trail running includes lots of downhills and the strength and skill these take does develop on the trails but can be prepared for with some downhill work on the roads too.
All trails are not created equal
Remember that trail running is not the same the world over and not all trails are the same. Starting with trails that are less technical, have fewer and less steep hills, and are more beginner in nature is the safest and easiest way to start. Similar to skiing, you would not start on the hardest ski runs so don’t start on the hardest trails.
Written by: Dr. David Lipman, Podiatrist and Exercise Physiologist