Rob Brodey has logged thousands of kilometres on trails, ran marathons and ultra-marathons, and undertaken many multiday alpine runs. Even then, he’s the first to say he’s not the most experienced trail-runner out there. But he has learned a few things along the way — all of which he shared in a special series for Outpost.
Text and Photos by Robert Brodey | Outpost Travel Media
(Feature photo: Outpost Travel Media/Jimmy Martinello)
I still remember the day so clearly. It was the final leg of a five-day solo trail run traversing Gran Canaria, a superbly picturesque island off the west coast of Africa (my feature story appeared in Outpost Nov./Dec. 2017).
I had just completed a mountainous 34-kilometre stretch the previous day, with 1,000 metres of climbs and nearly 2,000 metres of descents. My legs were officially trashed. But this was the home stretch, and despite the biting fatigue, I left my hillside hotel just after sunrise and began running south toward the coastal town of Maspalomas. Immediately, my spirits were lifted, and my legs relaxed into the effort.
As the morning sun rose, it painted the canyon walls surrounding me in a brilliant orange light — the sky, the bluest blue. In that moment, I thought of my father, who had passed away the previous year. I thought about all the effort and training that had gone into this project. And I felt the profound beauty of the landscape. With all this swirling in my soul, I felt a sudden wave of emotion sweep over me and began weeping as I ran. I was totally in the moment, yet keenly aware that the moment itself was fleeting.
As a trail runner, these are the experiences I live for — the feeling of vitality. The feeling of connection to a place and to my own being. Of course, not every trail run is going to possess this kind of profundity. But trail running, even in an urban setting, can quickly ground you, making you feel more in your own skin.
MORE in Rob’s How-To Trail Run Series:
Over the last decade or so, I’ve logged many thousands of kilometres on the trails, done a bunch of marathons and ultra-marathons, including the 82-kilometre MYM in Whistler, British Columbia, and undertaken three 5-day alpine trail runs (Mont Blanc, the Dolomites, Gran Canaria). I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m definitely not the fittest, most ambitious, or experienced trail runner out there, but I have learned a few things along the way.
So how do you make the transition from road to trail runner — or even from couch potato to trailblazer? My advice: slowly.
The idea of slow permeates many aspects of running. For instance, many running experts don’t recommend increasing your weekly mileage by more than 5 to 10 percent. This, of course, isn’t written in stone, and some recent research suggests that novice runners can potentially handle a greater weekly increase. But my advice is to remain conservative when ramping up mileage, particularly for the first few years of running. After all, injury prevention is key to a runner’s longevity.
Slow also applies to the beginning of each run. Instead of sprinting out the front door like a frenzied puppy, keep a moderate pace, which will allow the muscles to warm up, and the cardiovascular system to kick into gear.
I’ll never forget the time at a trail race in southern Ontario when I jumped off the start line in a near sprint. After less than a kilometre, I was totally gassed, and fell off the back of the pack like a ragdoll tossed from a station wagon window (lesson learned!). Another approach to taking up trail running is to cover the distance using a walk-run technique (a.k.a. the Galloway method). If you’re new to the running game, you may choose a 1:7 ratio: 1 minute of running, followed by 7 minutes of walking.
As your fitness and stamina increase, so too does the ratio in favour of more running and less walking. According to Jeff Galloway, the person who popularized the method: “Walk/shuffle breaks will significantly speed up recovery because there is less damage to repair. The early walk breaks erase fatigue, and the later walk breaks will reduce or eliminate overuse muscle breakdown.”
For new runners, the walk-run approach can be less daunting both physically and psychologically — even for very short outings. Run-walking is also an extremely common practice in ultra-marathoners, particularly when faced with long climbs. According to Galloway, the key is not to start walking when you’re tired, but rather, before getting fatigued. In other words, you don’t have to run the whole time to be a legit trail runner!
If you’re a road runner, a key difference between the road and trail is the variability of terrain. Steep dirt trails, for instance, engage very different muscles than, say, a flat open road. And in road running, you may be able to maintain a consistent pace and settle into a certain stride length.
But on trails, every foot fall requires an adjustment based on the ever-changing conditions underfoot. I find this variability not only places heavier demands on the cardio system, but it also forces a constant mindfulness of body and terrain, which is perhaps the gateway to the meditative aspect of trail running.
If you aren’t quite ready to hit the trails, a good place to begin is to run in a grassy park in your neighbourhood. This will get you used to the feeling of jogging on uneven ground. It can also help “wake up” all those muscles and tendons that help stabilize your feet. You want those stabilizing muscles to be strong for the trails, which can help prevent injury. Even now, I regularly run loops in the dirt and grass at my local park, including doing hill repeats (more on this in the coming weeks).
All this to say, if you are transitioning from road running to trails — or taking up trails without any running experience at all — your body needs time to adapt to the new demands being placed on it.
Speaking from experience, you don’t want your newfound enthusiasm for trail running to sideline you because of overtraining or injury. In 2011, I was hobbled for months by tendonitis in my foot from being too enthusiastic a convert to the barefoot-running movement. Give your body months, if not years, to build time on your feet off-road. And don’t forget: rest isn’t laziness. It’s a crucial aspect of your training and recovery!
One last piece of advice: invest in trail shoes early on. Road shoes just aren’t going to cut it on the trails. The range in style, stack height, weight, and price is wide, so you’ll probably want to go in to a store to try things on before you commit.
In the coming posts, I’ll take a deeper dive into training, how to plan your workouts and your rest, nutrition, gear, and some tips on planning for an ultra-marathon or a multiday running adventure. Along the way, I’ll share some highlights and bloopers from my experiences training and running. ♦
Disclaimer: My opinions are no replacement for professional advice. And my experiences are based on many factors, including age, gender, locality (city guy), VO2 max, propensity to get injured, and state of mind. Always get qualified health/medical advice (consult a doctor/qualified health care professional) before undertaking any unusual/strenuous physical activity.