Start Line of a trail running race

Taking off the line at the National High School Trail Championships in Salida, Colorado

From Track to Trails

Track and Cross Country are often the two dynamics of the sport high schoolers are familiar with and if they come from a running family they might be more familiar with marathons and half marathons. There has been a move towards trail running that has started to trickle down with new events popping up that offer both an individual and team dynamic. Athletes can compete individually or score team points just like they’re accustomed to in cross country.

Certainly, trail running is nothing new but seeing it geared specifically towards the young generation is something new. It’s exciting to see because it offers another avenue for a sport that continues to grow in popularity in new corners across distances, surfaces, and ages. For athletes on the outside looking in, it can appear brutal, unforgiving, and masochistic when you look at the extremes of the sport. If you’re a young runner looking to change up your training, get close to nature, and experience something new – transitioning your training to trails might just open doors you didn’t know were there!

Coach Deanna McCurdy running on a golden trail

Coach Dee on a tear in an Xterra Triathlon

The Exchange

Remember your first-day starting practice or your first job? Lots of nerves, some confusion, getting lost, and relying on your skills to get through the day. It’s the same approach to take with transitioning to trails. You’re exchanging some of the comforts of East/ West grids on streets, ovals on the tracks for green tunnels of foliage, views you can’t get to with a car, and a run that will challenge you. You are getting up close and personal with nature, taking away people, cars, and occasionally a cell signal. Remember that getting lost part? It’s very real and if you’re not careful can bite you in the tush. All considered, getting lost is part of the fun and teaches you to think critically, trust yourself, and enjoy the run! Don’t expect to finish trail runs at perfect mile markers, or be completely “runnable”. What makes trail running great is that it provides a challenge that isn’t as much about pace or distance – it requires you to manage what’s happening in front of you in the moment and nothing else. Worrying about that big climb in 2 miles? Try not to trip over that root right in front of you first!

Peak Performance Running - Altitude Camp - Ptarmigan Peak

Ptarmigan Peak – One of many big climbs at camp

K.I.S.S Method…at first

Keep it simple stupid – I can still hear my 5th grade teacher Mr. Worthy telling the class about this method and, it’s the first rule of trail running. Take only the basics. At first, you’ll think you need to look like a G.I. Joe to get out and run. You don’t need anything but food, water, and a sturdy pair of trail shoes. If you’re training for cross country – you likely won’t need to fuel align the way unless you’re planning a long run. If you find that your sense of adventure is fueled by longer efforts in the hills or mountains – then get the appropriate gear. The second tool for any trail runner after the basics is a headlamp and hydration pack. If you’re a high school runner that breaks out your hiking poles for a run on the regular – let’s chat! We might have a spot on Team USA for you (you’ll have to leave your poles at home though!)

Sprint to the Finish at the National High School Trail Championships

Graham Tuohy-Gaydos and Sean Korsmo in the sprint for the finish line.

You won’t lose speed, you’ll gain strength

If your first thought is that you’ll be checking your splits along the way hoping it will be similar to your lunch loop or road run – you’re going to probably see some numbers that you’ll initially be disappointed with. Running trails takes strength and speed to be successful; running fast on trails demands that your legs, ankles, and core are all engaged. Not to mention the mental demand required to stay engaged, moving your body through obstacles, lifting feet for roots, weaving between trees, boulders, or cactus demands that you’re operating at 100%. This focus is easily transferable to road racing because you build your ability to stay engaged with what’s happening in front of you and running the mile you’re in. 

You’ll learn how to pace yourself because the trail demands it and you’ll know where your red line is. Trail running can be demanding but doesn’t have to be a fight. Constantly changing gears, managing your effort on an extended climb, or flying downhill requires a huge aerobic engine, great strength, and tactical speed. It’s why our club Peak Performance Running and schools like Western Colorado University recruit athletes who love to find themselves getting lost in the mountains. You can find numerous examples of athletes like Sage Canady, Max King, and Ashley Brasovan who are dual-threats on the roads and trails. If anything, the tenacity they’ve harvested from trail running puts them a leg up on their road-going compatriots. 

There is joy to be found oon the trails!

New Surfaces = New PRs

There’s something about adding a new PR to the list that makes the effort all worthwhile. Turning to trails opens many new doors and even a new ‘classification’ for you to measure success. Just as you can’t compare a road 5K to your XC 5K PR, you can’t compare it to your new trail 5K PR. There is a parallel beauty to XC for new trail runners as there are “fast” courses and then there are “technical” courses. It’s not always about the speed but rather about the effort you put into the race and what you learned because of it.

Training on trails will teach you to look at training in a new light and see that all that hill training isn’t just pre-speed work for your cross country season, it’s also a skill you can use to succeed in a race. At Peak Performance Running we look forward to hard, technical, and demanding courses as we run on trails year-round and hone our skills at our altitude camp in the summer. This doesn’t mean you can’t run fast on the flat courses, it just means you get to walk to the start line of the course most of your opponents fear with a little extra swagger and confidence.

If you’re looking for a way to diversify your training or just get started, there’s only one thing to do: go out and get on the trail. You don’t even have to have trail shoes to get started. Be prepared to go a little slower, get closer to nature, and finish with some dirt in your hair. Transitioning to trail running this summer is the perfect way to soak up all that summer has to offer.