Trail runners wearing banana costumes before a race

15 things I wish I knew before I started trail running

Thinking of joining the wonderful world of trail running? We say go for it – for so many reasons. To start you off on the right foot, we chatted with MEC staffers and Ambassadors for this list of down and dirty tips they’ve uncovered on the trails.

1. You don’t have to run the whole time

Trail running’s deep dark secret: walking is totally cool, especially on the uphills. In fact, walking is so okay that trail runners give it a badass name: powerhiking. It’s like walking with a bit more oomph.

“On steep hills, hiking can actually be faster than running,” says Nick Elson, MEC Trail Running Ambassador. “I often see trail runners trying to run uphill until they can’t run any more and then resort to a slow, exhausted walk. Instead, hike with purpose and maintain the same effort you had while running up to that point.”

2. You get to eat delicious food

Eating tasty stuff is deeply embedded in trail running culture. Aid stations at trail races can be smorgasbords of watermelon slices, gummy bears, pretzels, chips, salted potatoes or chocolate. At ultras, there can even be quesadillas, avocados and bacon! After all, you can only suck back so many energy gels before you need something different… and running with a pack means trail runners can bring fun food along even if they’re not at a race. Post-race beer is often a thing too.

3. You don’t need to do ultras to be a trail runner

Trail running and ultras (an ultra is any race longer than a marathon distance of 42.2km) go together like dates and peanut butter (trust us, that’s a delicious combo). But that doesn’t mean that you have to run that distance to be a trail runner. Run as far or as short as you like – if you’re running on the trails, you’re a trail runner. Period.

4. Weird things become normal

Running in a backpack? It’ll become the new normal. Peeing behind a bush (in a Leave No Trace friendly way, of course)? It’ll become the new normal. Things that may have once seemed weird, like naming trees or dressing up in a banana costume to cheer on your friend at a race, will become part of your run life.

5. Invest in a cool hat

Not only does a cool hat protect you from sun or rain, it also looks rad in your forest photos. “I’ve had my adventure hat for 4 seasons now and it’s getting a little funky, but I love it!” says MEC staffer Dennis. “My dog gets excited when he sees me put it on because he knows something fun is about to happen.”

6. The community is rad…

Trail runners will welcome you with open, sweaty arms. Run crews and clinics are a great way for newbies to join in. They’re nice folks.

Post-work trail run at Powderface Creek Trail! #mecstaffer

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7. … and the races are super fun

“The first time I did a trail race,” MEC staffer Dennis said, “I was blown away by how many racers took time – and used valuable oxygen – to cheer me on. Gary Robbins once passed me while I struggled up a hill, and yelled, ‘Looking good, you got this!’ as he zoomed past. Gary Robbins! Whether you’re pushing the pace or at the back of the pack everyone seems to have the same goal: have an awesome time outside on the trails. That’s why I love this sport and this community so much.” Well put.

When your crew is stoked 🤸🏾‍♀️ #mecraceseries

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8. Things can get messy

The usual kind-of-gross stuff that runners know – blisters, black toenails, poorly launched snot rockets – can reach new levels of messiness on the trails. Dirty socks, sweaty run packs, slightly mushed bananas in your backpack, no bathrooms within an hour, ankle deep mud, bailing in ankle deep mud… yes, trail running can be messy. But those extra challenges give you hilarious stories to share with your fellow run buddies, and in a crazy way it adds to the fun of it all.

9. Races are usually cheaper

Since trail races don’t involve closing city streets, they’re usually cheaper than road races. Plus when you volunteer for races, sometimes they’ll offer up a free or discounted entry to a future race as a thank you.

10. Always bring your camera

Cute trail dogs! Mystical looking trees! Jumping photos! You’ll want to keep your phone handy to capture whatever trail magic appears.

11. It’s all about “time on feet”

Instead of saying you’re heading out for a 12K run, you’ll hear people say they’re doing 2 hours on the trails. Since trails can vary so much in terms of terrain and elevation, distance gets a little muddled. Lots of runners aim for a certain length of time over a specific distance (until race day, of course).

As for pace? “Speed on the roads provides a solid foundation,” says Nick Elson, “but it won’t necessarily translate immediately to the trails, especially if there’s a lot of elevation gain and loss involved.”

12. Your mother was right

Be prepared before you leave the house. Learn from those (i.e., me) who once spent an anxious 25 minutes racing the sunset in rapidly deteriorating light. Darkness falls in the forest sooner than on roads, and there are no streetlights. Lesson learned: even if you’re “just going out for a quickie,” be prepared with the trail running basics, including a headlamp.

13. Things can get deep

Maybe it’s the natural setting, maybe it’s due to fewer people and no stoplights, but trail running seems to be a time when deep conversations about big things happen (between laughing and singing, of course).

I often get asked where my mind goes during long runs. And I find it's a tough question to answer, because it can literally change from one minute to the next. Do I enjoy every step? Do I always stay in the moment? No and no. Sometimes, often in fact, I find myself wondering why I'm doing it, or wishing I was elsewhere. But eventually it always comes back to the same thing. How can you really know who you are if you've never been willing to push your limits? I've come to peace with the fact that I may fail. Too often it's that fear that holds us back. And I won't be held back anymore. This is my life. And I want to see how much I can see. And how far I can go. #marathon2marathon #MECambassador #cieleathletics #hokaoneone #ottawamarathon #canadianrunning #irun 📷 @charlesmacmurchy

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14. Trail shoes make a difference

Road running shoes did the trick for the first few trail runs. But after one sloppy, slippery trail run, I decided to up my grip-factor with trail running shoes. That was the second-best trail running decision I made (the first was bringing salted boiled potatoes to eat on a long, hot run).

15. Road running might *gasp* feel boring

While the convenience of road running can’t be beat, there is something special about laughing in the forest with your running buddies. So be warned: sidewalks may not have the same allure after you discover trail running – but the trade-off is worth it.

Trail running is so much more invigorating and relaxing at the same time. But the best thing about the trails is the places they’ll take you… you’ll never get the same views on a road as you can in the trees and the mountains.

Karen Benson

Editor, trail runner, nature nerd. Lauded for leading cheer squads everywhere, she’s also an outspoken advocate for eating burritos daily.