2 "Skills" Trail Runners Don't Practice Enough

There is a lot that goes into training for long-distance running. Whether you are a competitive runner that enjoys participating in sanctioned races or are a recreational runner that likes to just get out in the woods for a nice, long run you have a full plate when it comes to training. In addition to the typical physical training of being on your feet and running for hours on end, long-distance trail runners also have to train themselves on nutrition, hydration, gear choices and usage, hiking versus running, and maybe even some night time trail running. The list could go on and on with things trail runners must train ourselves to master. But are we developing all of the skills necessary to be an effective trail runner?

I have spent the last several years deeply entrenched in the trail running and ultramarathon scene. I’ve seen some amazing feats of physical and psychological endurance. I’ve also seen some amazing failures. While all runners work hard to develop their trail running skills, there are two “skills” that I don’t think trail runners practice enough.


I really believe that navigation is a skill. Some people have a better developed skill at navigating than others. We all know that person that cannot find their way out of a paper bag. We also know that person that seems to know every back road and shortcut within 300 miles. Some of those navigating skills come from experience, but we all know people in our lives who just don’t have that navigational gene for whatever reason.

Navigation is a critical skill in long distance trail running that I don’t think people practice enough. And, yes, I think it can be practiced. It is a skill that needs to be honed and mastered. Being able to effectively navigate a trail system in unfamiliar woods or plan a route for yourself is essential to ensuring that you can safely train and have an enjoyable time at races (if races are your thing).

Map Reading

I’m always amazed at how many people will go out for a long trail run or sign up for an ultramarathon race without ever looking at a map. Trail runners love elevation profiles. They print them. They share them. They gush over them. However, an elevation profile only shows you one aspect of a route: the elevation. It doesn’t show you where the roads are versus the trails. It doesn’t show you where the water crossings are. It doesn’t show you where the route intersects with other trails. It doesn’t show you where you’ll be running under tree cover versus exposed areas.

Elevation profiles are great tools to have in the trail running toolkit, but they really don’t give you a lot of information. You can get the same elevation information PLUS a whole lot more from a topographical map. Runners should really be spending more time in their training and run preparations looking over detailed topographical maps. Topo maps will give you all the detail you need to see including the elevation of any portion of a route.

Can you identify this Next Opportunity Events race site from the topo map?

CalTopo (www.caltopo.com) is a great online tool for viewing maps of trail systems and other landmarks. This online mapping system will allow you to view a number of maps from Google Maps, Google Satellite, U.S. Forest Service official maps. USGS, and many more. You can even upload GPS files of routes to overlay onto a map so you can see your route on top of the map. I highly recommend using this as a resource for route planning and simply honing your map reading skills.

Do you have a race on the schedule? Another great way to practice your map reading is to get a detailed map from CalTopo or a printed map (National Geographic Trail Illustrated has some great maps you can purchase online) and look over the race route on the map. Look for roads versus trails. Use the map legend to figure out how to distinguish between different kinds of roads (highways versus forest roads and pavement versus gravel) and different kinds of trails (hiking trails versus shared use). Next, try to find all of the water crossings. Finally, take that elevation profile you love so much and try to match up all of the climbs and descents from the profile with sections of the route on your topo map.

General Directional Awareness

Another navigational skill is simply being aware of what direction you are going. Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that most of us have a fully functional compass with us at all times in the form of modern smartphones. Let’s just focus for now on the ability to discern the direction you are running from your surroundings and the location of the sun in the sky. When heading out for a run you should know - for example - that you are running an out and back route that starts northbound, turns around and finishes southbound. You should be aware of where the sun is at any given point in the day and know when you are generally running in the wrong direction for a long period of time. I’ve seen countless trail runners in race settings run for miles in the wrong direction, and they never bothered to look up to see that they’ve been running east instead of south for the last two hours!

Trail Awareness

The second “skill” I would like to see more trail runners “practice” is trail awareness. Yes, I think this is a skill. And yes, I think it can be practiced. By trail awareness, I am referring to the general ability to see and sense what is around you, what is ahead of you, and what is under your feet while you are running along a trail. Do you know that person that seems to always fall every single time they get out on a trail? He or she always comes back from a run with new scrapes and bruises. In my opinion, this is often due to a runner’s inability to effectively be aware of the total trail conditions.

Eye Movement

Trail awareness starts and ends with eye movement. I’ve joked with my running buddies that there are two kinds of trail runners: those who only look at their feet and those who never look at their feet. Ok, it’s not a very funny joke; but hopefully, you get the point. The former is that runner who is so preoccupied with trying to prevent a fall that they become laser-focused on what they are stepping on at any given moment. Their heads are down, and they are watching like a hawk to make sure they don’t step on a sharp object, clip a root with their toe, or twist an ankle on a fist-sized rock. These runners are often successful at preventing falls. Instead, they’ll come back from a run with a bruise on their foreheads from a branch they didn’t see that whacked them in the head or a scratch on the cheek from a twig that scratched their face as they race past.

The trail marking here along the Big Turtle 50 Miler course is easy to miss if your eyes aren't moving along the trail.

The head down runner - in my experience as a race director - is also the runner who gets lost. With the eyes down and the mind focused on watching the feet, the head down runner usually plods aimlessly forward often missing critical turns and trail intersections. I nearly concussed myself in 2016 during the Georgia Death Race while hiking up a hill. With my hands on my knees and head down as we hiked up the side of a mountain in northern Georgia, I didn't see the downed tree across the trail that everyone else was ducking under. As I power hiked up the trail the top of my head slammed into the trunk of a large oak that lay diagonally across the trail. My head was throbbing for the next several hours!

Then there are the runners who never look at their feet. They are intent on not getting lost. They are intent on seeing where they are going. These are the runners who come home from a run with blood trickling down the shin and staining those new technical socks. You can spot them in the winter by the telltale holes on the palm of their gloves earned from trying to stop themselves during a fall. The head-up-never-down runner sees the forest ahead but often misses critical obstacles underfoot.

The solution is eye and head movement. One of the worst things a trail runner can do in my opinion is to keep their eyes in one spot for more than a second. A trail runner’s eyes should constantly be sweeping back and forth and up and down along the trail. We should be able to know what we are about to step on and what is ahead of us at the same time. I try to keep a constant sweeping motion going with my eyes where I let my eyes drift back and forth from my feet to a spot roughly 20 feet ahead of me at all times. Back and forth. This lets me see what is coming up ahead and be fully aware of what I am stepping on at the same time.

A great way to practice your trail awareness - especially if you are a runner who has a tendency to get laser-focused on one thing or another - is to plan a run that is specifically designed to train your eye movement. Go into the run with that as the goal. Pick a route you are NOT well familiar with, and go for a short run where you practice sweeping those eyes up and down the trail as you go. You might find that you need to slow down at first until you get the hang of this new type of running. In my experience as a runner, however, this approach leads to a much more enjoyable run with fewer falls and more opportunity to take in the forest around you.

Michael WhismanComment