Switching It Up: Transitioning from Road to Trail Running

Updated: Jul 26

Dear Team Chaski,

I consider myself a pretty experienced runner, but I've only ever run on roads. Do you have any advice for somebody new to trail running and racing?

Sincerely yours,

Trail newbies everywhere

It can be a little more than intimidating to make the jump over to the trail running world if you never have taken that leap from the road or the track. I was born and raised in Florida. I didn’t know that trail running was a sport (or really even in existence) prior to moving to Colorado about three years ago. In Florida, we ran up parking garages and landfills in high school to incorporate hill repeats into our running regime, and our “off roading” consisted of the 6-inch grassy path in between the road and the sidewalk. The closest thing we had to a mountain was the intercoastal bridge that got us to the beach every weekend.  When making the transition to trail running about a year ago, I quickly learned that there is no guidebook or “MUT Running for Dummies” that really details how to make the jump from road to trail running. I decided it might be good to start a list with some of the concepts below.

What is MUT?

Let's start with the basics. MUT stands for “mountain - ultra - trail” and is an all-encompassing term in the trail running world. This is a term that I learned pretty quickly after moving out to Colorado. Mountain running is defined as having significant elevation gain and (mostly) taking place off-road. However, there are some mountain races that do take place on paved roads like the Mount Evans Ascent in Colorado.

Trail running is any race that takes place on trails or off road. Ultra running or ultra marathoning is technically any distance over the traditional marathon length (26.2 miles) but often is seen as anything greater than a 50k in the MUT world that I have seen. There is overlap between these three terms and a single race can definitely fall under more than one of these categories. Now that you know the basics, what are the next steps?

Get a Coach that Can Help you Make the Transition

This is key. It is helpful to have the guidance and oversight of someone - a coach or group of friends - that has been in the trail world for several years. They can teach you the running techniques, limits of your body, form over the technical terrain, racing strategies, etc. I joined Chaski Endurance for this reason. A group of experienced runners with differing experience and knowledge seemed to be the best place to continue my journey. (If you're looking for 1-on-1 coaching for this, look no further.)

Change Your Definition of Elevation Gain

My definition of “elevation gain” quickly changed from the couple hundred feet that I climbed during the course of a marathon at CIM to 1000s of feet during my first trail race this February. Pro tip: most people in the trail running world don’t say “elevation gain” -- it is “vert” or “vertical gain”. However, not all trail races and runs are hilly. There are a variety of courses with varying levels of vertical gain to suite anyone. There are courses and terrains out there that have less vert than road races and some that require power hiking for nearly the entire way. Try a little bit of everything and see what type of vertical gain and terrain you like best.

There’s a Reason Someone Invented Trail Shoes

I am a very stubborn human being and thought trail shoes were something people just prefered over road shoes. Maybe the colors were better? Those little stub things on the bottom were cool? Wrong. Very Wrong. They do have a purpose. I learned this after slipping, sliding and falling way too many times to want to actually tell anybody.

Trail shoes provide traction and the much-needed stability for any terrain including good grip to make those steep descents just a little easier. After trying out a few different models, I am now a  Hoka Speedgoat convert for my trail and mountain running adventures and have never looked back. There are plenty of shoe types and companies out there for trail running with varying levels of grip, traction, and cushion to find one that best meets your trail running goals.

It’s not Called WALKING. It is called POWER HIKING

If you’re coming from a road running or track background, you have probably never walked in a race as a winning strategy. In the MUT world, it’s totally normal to walk in a race especially in ones with several thousand feet of vertical gain. It helps to prevent the body from going lactic as quickly on a very steep course and keeps the heart rate lower. However, it’s definitely not walking. It’s called “power hiking.” That is the preferred and much more accurate term. 

The first time I ran a real mountain race was the 2018 Long Distance Mountain Running World Championships in Poland. There were two miles of uphill granite stairs that I attempted to power hike and got passed by nearly half the field (or that’s what it felt like over just a two-mile period). After that, I pledged to get on the Stairmaster and fine-tune my hiking/power walking/climbing skills. Lesson = Power hiking is an art that needs to be practiced and perfected for race day. It IS a winning strategy in some trail races.