Transitioning to Trail

For road runners or even hikers, trail running represents the next frontier, with a whole new host of rewards. It allows you to see the best that nature has to offer—up close and human-powered. And, compared to hiking, trail runners can experience in a single run what would otherwise take several days.

But with these rewards come equally powerful challenges. Beautiful trails are often paired with severe conditions—rugged terrain, wicked-high elevation and extreme weather. As such, many budding trail runners are timid at first. And seasoned road runners worry that it’s not “real” running. But never fear—what follows are some common misconceptions, debunked, about transitioning to trail adventure.


1. Myth: “I need expensive, specialized gear to start out trail running.”

When I ran my first bona-fide trail adventure—on the Pacific Crest Trail through the Three Sisters Wilderness in 2001—my only gear was the clothing on my back, an energy bar and a water bottle stashed in a fanny pack. Yet it was plenty sufficient to get me out to enjoy the Central Oregon wilderness.

Since then, even the demands of competitive trail racing, culminating in my first 100-mile trail race at Western States in 2011, required acquiring only a bit more high-performance gear and fuel, such as a hydration pack, quality apparel and some gels and electrolyte capsules. That simplicity is the beauty of our sport.

Take-Home Message:

Don’t let the gear junkies keep you off the trails. Start small, keep your runs short and keep it simple: wicking clothes and solid trail shoes, a water bottle and calories—of any kind—are all you need. Once you accumulate trail miles and experience, you will learn what items to purchase or upgrade.


2. Myth: “If I train on trails, I’ll lose all my hard-won road speed.”

As a former road and track runner, I too was enthralled by the numbers: distance, pace-per-mile and personal bests from mile to marathon. But when I first ambled onto the trails, seeing GPS readouts of double-digit mile splits had me wondering.

Yet trail miles, with their often hilly terrain, elevation and rough footing, require a whole new “exchange rate.” Remember, the hard work is the same, whether it is flat and fast, or rugged and strong.

Former road or track stars who have accepted a relative slow-down on the trails have been richly rewarded: 2014 Western States, Leadville Trail and Run Rabbit Run 100-mile winner Rob Krar brings a mid-distance track speed to the trails. Before him, Sage Canaday (2:16 marathon) and Max King (2:14 marathon) have both raced at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon—while actively training and racing on the trail. Canaday and King are first to admit that, while they still crave the road speed, it is the trails that keep them healthy and strong—avoiding repetitive road pounding, developing hip and core strength—and invigorated in spirit.

Says Canaday: “It’s mentally and physically refreshing. By racing a wide variety of distances on different surfaces I keep my body constantly adapting and finding new ways to expand my thresholds for overall strength and speed.”

In fact, not only are the trails enjoyable, Canaday believes they make him a better marathoner: “The strength from running ‘over-distance’ beyond 26.2 seems to really help with my last 10 kilometers in the marathon. I’m more dialed into my nutrition and hydration during marathons because of my ultramarathon experiences.”

Both runners intend to collect U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying times for 2016—Canaday is shooting for a sub-2:18 B-Standard at the Houston Marathon in January— and if their trail results are any indicator, they will fare well against their orthodox road competitors.

Take-Home Message:

Road runners wishing to experience the adventure and splendor of the trail need not worry about a loss of speed. Challenging trail adventures provide excellent cross training, strengthening and a refreshing mental boost.


3. Myth: “Running mountain trails—up steep hills at altitude or rugged, slick downhills—is too hardcore.”

A common preconception among road-turned-trail runners is that rough trails require super-human strength. However, it’s simply a matter of tactics—at a certain threshold of terrain, footing, pitch and altitude, running becomes less efficient than power hiking. A form of whole-body, core- and hip-dominant walking that can be as fast or faster than uphill run shuffling, power hiking includes an aggressive forward trunk lean coupled with a powerful hip extension beneath. Often, this is complemented by a hands-on-thighs push, where the arms help drive the legs up steep grades.

Lastly, power hiking can also provide the muscles a much-needed break from running, helping to keep the legs fresher in the late-stages of a long run or race.

Rugged, slick or scree-filled downhills can be daunting for a new trail runner, too. It is not uncommon to tip-toe or walk slower down a hill than up. With time and practice, downhill running improves. The world’s best downhill trail runners—including the otherworldly Kilian Jornet—compare a skillful mountain descent to a dance: a fast-footed fandango that, when mastered, can be more invigorating than any other run.

Take-Home Message:

Practice makes perfect. Be patient on uphill climbs, working on strong power hiking, and, when running, taking shorter, quicker steps. On the flip-side, ease into technical downhill running—mud, scree, rock, root and snow—and remember to look ahead. Soon you’ll have earned those dancing shoes.


4. Myth: “To complete a long trail run or race, I need just a water bottle and a few gels.”

When tackling multi-hour trail outings, our simple sport gets more complicated in terms of the fuel required. The wrong—or the lack of—food, drink or supplement can be the difference between success and failure, and enjoyment and misery. The goal is to avoid the dreaded “bonk:” the brain-and-body crash that results from a lack of fuel.

Distance trail races feature aid stations, which may supply most of your nutritional needs (research any race beforehand to determine what exactly what will be offered and how frequently, i.e. the distance between each aid station). Backcountry runs, on the other hand, are more committing and require you to carry all your fuel. So experiment on shorter-length runs to find out what types of fuel work best for you.

Take-Home Message:

Talk to other runners and research your proposed race or adventure route. For races, if the aid stations don’t offer foods that you’ve used in training, carry your own nutrition. A race is not a place to try anything new.

For backcountry runs, determine how long you think it will take, and err on the conservative/long side. Remember, you may only cover two or three miles per hour in rugged terrain. Short-distance runs under two hours in cool conditions might be runnable with no fueling, while hot, multi-hour adventures might require several liters of water and several hundred calories.

The key is to eat and drink frequently, typically in the range of 16 ounces of liquid and a couple hundred calories per hour (or more, if running in hot conditions). If you run low on water or calories, simply slow down, which will help your body conserve water and tap into its fat stores for fuel. Even the leanest runners have days of fat stores to keep them going.

If you’re running a trail race and hit the wall, slow down and spend extra time at the next aid station, eating, drinking and, if needed, taking a salt pill. If it tastes good, eat it.


5. Myth: “I’ll be back at the trailhead in a few hours, so I can leave the ‘10 essentials’ at home.”

As your experience and ability develop, you may go for longer, more remote adventures, which can quickly turn dangerous. For example, you can become lost, sprain an ankle or get pounded by a storm. So you need the right gear and backcountry know-how to survive the unexpected.

Case in point: Grand Canyon National Park has seen a surge of runners completing the epic “Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim”—a 44-mile double traverse that includes over 10,000 feet of gain and loss—with an increasing number of search-and-rescue calls from distressed runners, many of whom are ill-prepared for the distance, elevation change and heat.


Take-Home Message:

Be prepared for the specific demands of your trail adventure, which will depend upon location, duration and conditions.

Run with others: Avoid traveling into remote or wilderness areas alone.

Share your route: Notify a family member or friend where you are going and for approximately how long. Also, leave a note to the same effect in your vehicle at the trailhead.

Be prepared for any weather conditions: Wear or pack an extra layer, and consider bringing a small survival blanket.

Have a plan for drinking water: While you can live a long time without food or salt, water is essential. Plan your route to include water fill-up points. New technology such as UV sterilization wands can make the dankest water safe to drink. Or kick it old school and pack a few iodine tablets.

Bring a map and compass (and the knowledge to use them): Both are vital, especially when venturing into unknown terrain. Veteran ultrarunner Nick Clark—with dozens of 100-mile trail races to his credit—and I turned an 18-mile run into a nine-hour day when we got lost in Rocky Mountain National Park—Clark’s backyard. While we had a map, the lack of a compass resulted in several hours of dense forest bushwhacking before we fortuitously found the trail.

Beating the Band

For 10 years, an article on a treatment for iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) by podiatrist and competitive runner Brian Fullem has remained one of the most popular on our website. Here Fullem revisits the topic, adding new exercises he’s learned or developed that address the underlying issues better than ever.

ITBS remains one of the main causes of knee pain in runners. The IT band, or ITB, as it is commonly known, can become so painful that a runner is unable to train at all.

Mark Fadil, now director of Sports Medicine Institute International (SMI) in Palo Alto, California, knows this injury personally and professionally. As a high school senior in 1991, Fadil won the New York state 3200m championship in 9:10. After one successful collegiate year, Fadil developed pain on the outside of his knee on the fourth day of his sophomore season.

He was diagnosed with ITBS and, even though he was receiving regular treatment–including NSAIDs, ultrasound, stretching and two cortisone injections–the pain progressed to the point that he could not even run a mile. Nine months later, he turned to renowned Irish physiotherapist Gerard Hartmann, and after 11 days of deep-tissue massage, stretching and strengthening, he was able to train again, finishing his career at Stanford University as a team captain with an 8:50 best in the 3,000m steeplechase.

“You need to address both the cause and the symptom,” Fadil says. Fortunately, we now know more about the causes, and hopefully runners can prevent the problem earlier.


The ilitotibial band is a fibrous structure that assists the stability of the leg during the stance phase of the stride, works with the hip muscles in abduction (outward movement) of the thigh, and helps to resist torsional movements around the knee joint. The ITB begins in the hip as the tensor fasciae latae muscle and ends below the knee joint, inserting into the tibia at a bump known as Gerdy’s tubercle.

When the ITB becomes stressed through repetitive overuse, runners most commonly feel pain in the lateral (outside) portion of the knee, above where the ITB crosses the joint. This condition is sometimes accompanied by a clicking sensation, caused by the ITB snapping across the joint. The pain usually occurs just after heel contact and gets progressively worse as the run goes on. Downhill and long, slow running tend to cause an increase in symptoms.

ITBS typically starts with tightness on the run and often advances to the point where the pain is debilitating. While the ITB will become tighter when it is injured or overstressed from excessive training, this tightness is not the root of the problem. The cause of this injury lies in the function of the ITB and weakness surrounding it.

The ITB is not a strong structure; any weakness in the surrounding muscles can lead to injury. Runners are notoriously weak in their hip and core muscles, particularly if they haven’t done any strength training or participated in sports that involve side-to-side movement.

In 2000, Michael Fredericson, a doctor at Stanford University, discovered that weakness of the hip abductor muscles (mainly the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius) was the leading cause of ITBS. Research in the interim has only served to prove that Fredericson was correct in his original assumptions. In 2007, Brian Noehren, Irene Davis and Joseph Hamill reported in the journal Clinical Biomechanics that studying 3D kinematics of female runners revealed those who develop ITBS have an increased hip abduction motion, along with greater knee internal rotation, both likely caused by weakness in the hip abductors.

Eat Fat, Be Fit

Runners like to follow the rules. And for decades, nutrition rules put a strict limit on saturated fat. After all, as far back as the 1960s, experts have decreed that eating foods high in saturated fat, such as eggs, red meat, and full-fat dairy, will increase your risk of heart disease. So runners took heed, all but banishing those foods from their diets.

But a string of news-making studies has flipped that idea on its head. One of those headline-catchers, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine early last year, reviewed 76 existing studies and found no association between saturated fat and heart disease. Another earlier study review published in 2010 came to a similar conclusion. The new emerging thought: “Saturated fat may not be the demon that it was made out to be,” says Jeff Volek, Ph.D., R.D., associate professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut.

Before you go celebrate this news with a round of bacon cheeseburgers, there’s a catch. Just because these study reviews didn’t find an association doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Many of these studies were observational–meaning, they were not designed to find direct cause and effect. They also rely on participants to self-report their diets, and often, these reports can be inaccurate.

What researchers do know through randomized, controlled clinical studies–the gold standard of research methods–is this: “Saturated fat raises LDL levels,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State University. Because LDL can contribute to plaque deposits in arteries, “it is one of the two major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.” Kris-Etherton goes on to explain that when you substitute “good” polyunsaturated fats (found in fish and vegetable oils, such as canola) for saturated fat, LDL levels go down and so do incidences of heart disease. The evidence for this is found in study after study.

There are other reasons to avoid going hog-wild on saturated fat: High-fat diets have been linked to some cancers, and processed meats like bacon and sausage may increase diabetes risk. That’s why the American Heart Association recently updated its guidelines–the group recommends limiting saturated fat to five or six percent (down from its previous target of seven percent) of total calories–or about 11 to 13 grams a day on a 2,000-calorie diet.

While all that might seem to squash any hope of welcoming butter back into your diet, it’s not all bad news. Saturated fat actually boasts some benefits. For example, certain medium-chain saturated fats, like lauric acid (plentiful in coconut oil), have the potential to be immediately burned for energy rather than stored. Besides, taking out saturated fat has a strange effect: It lowers levels of the so-called “good cholesterol,” HDL, which sweeps LDL out of the bloodstream. “What the research comes down to is that all foods fit into a healthy diet–in moderation,” says sports dietitian Heather Fink, R.D. “Runners are active and health conscious, so they’re prone to restricting those foods. They don’t have to,” she says. It’s about looking at the total food versus a single nutrient. Some foods higher in saturated fat are really nutritious–and excluding them means you miss out. For example, red meat contains iron, zinc, and protein. Whole milk is an excellent source of bone-building calcium and vitamin D, two nutrients many runners fall short on. Grass-fed beef and dairy also provide conjugated linoleic acids, which have been linked to weight loss. Besides, there’s a “yumminess” factor (and yes, that counts for something). Full-fat foods are more flavorful and satisfying, which can reduce your appetite, says Volek.

A varied diet that incorporates natural whole foods–including some sources of saturated fat–can supply a range of nutrients that keep you in top running form and health. So go ahead. Enjoy that chicken thigh with the skin. Spread some butter (the real stuff!) on your toast. Add a slice of cheddar to your sandwich. As long as you’re first reaching for plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein, you’ll be doing your body–and your running–good.

Saturated-Fat Superstars

Eggs: They’re rich in choline, a nutrient that plays a key role in memory. (2 g sat. fat per egg)

Chicken thigh: Dark meat is high in immune-boosting zinc. (3 g sat. fat per thigh)

Macadamia nuts: One ounce has 60 percent of your daily quota for manganese. (3 g sat. fat per ounce)

Red meat: It’s a good source of energy-supplying B12. (3 g sat. fat per 3.5 ounces)

Whole-milk yogurt: It’s full of probiotics linked to weight loss. (5 g sat. fat per cup)

Cheddar cheese: A slice packs 20 percent of daily calcium needs. (6 g sat. fat per ounce)

Coconut oil: It contains fat that has the potential to be burned quickly. (12 g sat. fat per tablespoon)

The (Supposed) Dangers of Running Too Much

My goodness, is it February already? It’s been several months since the last round of articles warning that running too much will kill you–must be time for another one. What’s that? No new data to publish? That’s no problem, we’ll just republish the same data. The media never bothers to check these things, and always reports it as if it were brand new.

The new article is published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, analyzing data from the Copenhagen City Heart Study. (And here, on cue, is one of the requisite newspaper articles: “Fast running is as deadly as sitting on the couch, scientists find.”) The exact same data was published back in 2012 in the American Journal of Epidemiology. This time the authors are the same, but with the addition of James O’Keefe, who has been an author on pretty much every single one of the “running will kill you” studies.

As far as I can tell, the only new thing in the study (aside from the fact that a few more people have died) is that in addition to looking at hours of jogging per week, number of jogging days per week, and self-reported pace, they added a fourth category that combines the other three for an overall rating of “light,” “moderate,” or “vigorous” jogger.

So what do the numbers tell us? If you’re interested in an overall take on the current status of research into the potential cardiac dangers of too much exercise, I suggest you check out my comprehensive post from last year, which includes a discussion of the Copenhagen data. I’ll add a few more detailed thoughts here.

First of all, I want to reiterate that the study is worth paying attention to, and we should take the results seriously if and when the data reaches any reasonable threshold of statistical significance. At this point, though, they’re nowhere near that threshold. The main problem is that sample sizes are large in the “less exercise” groups, which means they have a statistically significant reduction in mortality, but they are tiny in the “more exercise” groups, which means they don’t have a statistically significant reduction in mortality. This allows the authors to make the shamefully disingenuous argument that “strenuous joggers have a mortality rate not statistically different from that of the sedentary group”–which is almost a foregone conclusion, given that the sample size is less than a tenth as large.

The simplest and most objective way to make this point is simply to show the raw data. Here are the number of participants in each group, along with the number who died (of any cause) during the follow-up period:


  • Sedentary: 413 / 128
  • < 1 hour/week: 640 / 20
  • 1-2.4 hours: 286 / 4
  • 2.5-4 hours: 122 / 3
  • > 4 hours: 50 / 1


  • Sedentary: 413 / 128
  • < 1 time/week: 323 / 5
  • 2-3 times: 474 / 7
  • >3 times: 84 / 5


  • Sedentary: 413 / 128
  • Slow: 178 / 7
  • Average: 704 / 15
  • Fast: 201 / 6

Now, you can search through those numbers looking for patterns. Does your risk really go up if you run more than 2.5 hours, but then go down again if you run more than four hours? Of course not. These are not real patterns, because we’re talking about one, two, three, or at most five or six deaths. No matter how interesting or important the question is, you can’t torture these numbers enough to force them to reveal the answers. They’re simply not there.

What about the combined metric of “light, moderate, or strenuous” jogger? Here’s a look at those numbers:

  • Sedentary: 413 / 128
  • Light: 576 / 7
  • Moderate: 262 / 8
  • Strenuous: 40 / 2

Yes, the conclusion of the study (that “strenuous” jogging is as bad as being sedentary) is based on two deaths over more than a decade of follow-up. (Thank goodness a third person didn’t die, or public health authorities would be banning jogging.)

In reality, of course, the statistical challenges are even more complex than what’s shown here. For example, the sedentary control group had an average age of 61.3, whereas the various running groups had an average age in their late 30s and 40s. So the comparison of death rates has to rely on imperfect statistical adjustment. You’ll notice that 31 percent of the sedentary subjects died during the decade or so of follow-up, compared to 5 percent of the strenuous joggers, who had an average age of just 37.0 at the start of the study. The researchers argue that this means the “hazard ratio” is about the same, but that requires an awful lot of assumptions about why people die in their 30s or 40s versus why they die in their 60s and 70s. Of course, with only two deaths in the strenuous group, it’s impossible to perform any sub-analysis on different causes of death. Did the joggers die of heart disease, as the paper suggests they should, or were they hit by a car or struck down by cancer? We have no idea.

The same issue arises with gender: 43.1 percent of the sedentary group was male, and 49.1 percent of the light joggers, but 80.0 percent of the strenuous joggers. Again, the researchers “adjust” for gender, but it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, especially since the groups are so dramatically different in several traits.

Seriously, to publish this data once was legitimate. (In the original paper, researchers didn’t make all sorts of claims based on the sub-analysis of jogging dose.) To publish the same data a second time, this time making stronger claims about a “U-shaped” curve based on two (TWO!!!) deaths, is… well, you can make up your own mind. The data is right there.