7 Trail Running Myths Debunked

So, you’re skeptical about trying out trail running? Maybe you’ve wanted to try it. You’ve heard about the health benefits—how it’s easier on the joints than pavement pounding and how the exposure to nature has all sorts of mental health perks.

Yet, still, you just can’t get over that fear of snakes or spiderwebs or the movie Deliverance. Or maybe you have an inferiority complex due to all those van-life vagabonds who somehow crank out 100 milers every other week while subsisting solely on energy gels and cowboy coffee.

Whatever your hesitation, the truth is that trail running doesn’t have to be some terrifying expedition deep into the backcountry. If you can run, you can trail run. Here, we debunk seven of trail running’s most notorious myths.

You’ll Trip Over Every Rock and Root

Here’s the thing: this myth is, er, rooted in some truth. Sometimes you’ll trip. Sometimes you’ll fall. Sometimes you’ll sprain an ankle or eat a face-full of dirt for lunch. But one of the greatest things about trail running is the moment when you realize the human body is far more resilient than you ever gave it credit for. You learn that your foot bones and ankle ligaments are able to bend and sprawl and wrap around rocks with more dexterity than a Harlem Globetrotter. Your brain switches on and begins firing on all its subconscious cylinders. Your eyes rapidly scan the surroundings for mini obstacles in every direction. Almost magically, your legs follow suit, and your feet land in all the right places in a quickfire dance of instinctual energy. It’s this dance that makes trail running so addicting.

The Scenery Is Always Incredible

An overview shot of leaves and sticks on the ground(Opens in a new window) A typical “view” while trail running. Photo by Arleen Wiese

Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but due to point number one, the scenery thing plays a far less prominent role than anyone would realistically wish for. It’d be great if, somewhere out there, there was a smooth all-weather Tartan track atop a 10,000-foot peak, where runners could do lap after unobstructed lap while overlooking sweeping views of mountains and valleys in every direction. But that’s more of a runner’s pipe dream than catching a ‘third wind’. Trail running is trail running precisely because of the roots and the rocks and the creek-crossings and the overgrown shrubs that appear out of nowhere and smack you in the face like an over-enthusiastic nun with a ruler. And because of these obstacles, the simple truth is that your eyes are peeled to the ground below you about 95% of the time. The upside? This type of concentration is almost refreshingly meditative.

There Are Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My

Wildlife encounters are real. They can happen, and it would be a mistake to suggest they don’t. It’s important to take the necessary precautions. Don’t wear headphones while running in mountain lion country. Bring along bear spray in grizzly land. Watch your feet placement as best as possible in the snake-infested Southeast and Southwest. But also don’t let the possibility of wildlife run-ins dissuade you from—well—getting your run in… so to speak. More often than not, wildlife knows you’re around long before you’re aware of their presence, and they’re normally quite keen on avoiding an encounter just as much as you are.

You Need All the High-Tech Gear

A person running through a grassy hill atop a mountain(Opens in a new window) Repeat after us: minimalism is okay. Photo by Alessio Soggetti

High-tech running shoes, technicolor sunglasses, moisture-wicking trucker hats, energy gels. These are things you simply can’t live without as a trail runner, right? Of course not. While bells and whistles can certainly improve your trail running experience (looking at you, hydration vests!) the truth is, most trail running excursions can be done with surprisingly little gear. Depending on the distance, the terrain, and the weather, sometimes all you’ll need is a pair of shoes and the clothes on your back.

It’s All Uphill

Two people running along a dirt trail nestled in the mountains(Opens in a new window) The Grand Canyon’s Rim-to-Rim is definitive proof that what goes up must come down. Photo by Brian Erickson

Despite what people say about some trails being uphill both ways, Isaac Newton would probably have to disagree. And he was a pretty smart guy. Yes, most trail running is synonymous with “mountain running”, and there’s certainly a fair share of uphill slogging as a result. But as with road running, what goes up, must come down. So, there’s just as much uphill as there is downhill. Which leads to the next myth...

Downhills Are Easy

Coming down can be quite demanding. Your knee joints don’t know strain until they’ve embarked on a non-stop 5-mile, 5,000-foot-elevation descent. By the end of it, your joints will be creaking like a hardwood floor from the 1800s. And the teardrop muscles in your quads will be burning like a Johnny Cash song (...and it burns, burns, burns…).

You’re Always Running

A woman standing with her hands on her hips at an overlook(Opens in a new window) By all means, stop and take a breather. Photo by Morgan Sarkissian

The thing trail runners don’t want road runners to know is that on trail, the word “run” becomes a pretty loose term. Especially for longer distances. Walking the uphills is not only acceptable, it’s actually a smart tactic used by even the most elite trail runners. The simple logic behind walking is that it allows you to conserve energy and pick and choose your battles. Like when you’re driving a car on the highway. You could go 80 miles per hour instead of 70. But you run the risk of either getting a speeding ticket or damaging the car long-term, and you typically only reach your final destination a few minutes faster anyway. So, sometimes, it’s best to follow the advice of the tortoise and slow down a little.

At the end of the day, trail running offers a great way to mix up your running routine. For road runners, it can be the softer-ground lifeline they need to prevent overuse injuries and repair their bodies. For non-runners (and run-haters), it can operate as a sort of “dog pill covered in peanut butter” solution, where the running feels less like a grueling chore and more like an exploratory jaunt in the woods. Whatever your motive for picking it up, it’s sure to be a worthwhile time. Happy trails!


Featured image provided by Greg Rosenke(Opens in a new window)