The best gear for trail runners
Editor’s note: This is the last in my four-part series on trail running for new runners.
In the first three parts of this series, I covered the basics on how to get started with trail running, offered some guidance for when a new trail runner ventures out and detailed some etiquette tips when running on trails. I’ve been actively trail running for the large majority of my nine years of running. I enjoy trails more as I recover quicker from running on them as compared to roads. But there are definitely more choices, considerations and questions when it comes to gear. For example, trail shoes have all sorts of options and specific attributes — some are for highly technical trails, some are meant for short, fast runs on moderate trails, others have superior cushioning.
So with that said, let’s examine some key gear choices to consider when heading out for a trail run.
It’s gotta be the shoes
As mentioned previously, shoes are arguably the biggest difference for runners when they transition from the roads to the trails. It can be challenging to know exactly what shoes will be the best for your trail running.
I’ve been fortunate to be a reviewer for RunningShoesGuru.com for a few years. What separates RunningShoesGuru from other online shoe reviews is that the owner of the company pays for the shoes, then distributes them to his team of reviewers.
After running in a pair for at least 50 miles, we submit our honest review. Unlike other reviewers who receive the shoes directly from the brand, we are under no obligation to heap praise on the shoes. Our reviews are authentic, explain what’s good and what’s not about the shoe, and provide plenty of context for readers to separate the hype from the reality.
Feel free to peruse all the reviews of trail running shoes at RSG and check out the dozens that I have published over the years.
My pre-long run and pre-race routines used to consist of peanut (or nut) butter on a bagel or bread, with Generation Ucan and coffee. I would follow that up with some combination of Honey Stinger waffles, gels and chews to get me through the workout or race.
In the past couple of months, I have eliminated Ucan and noticed a big difference — I have been able to run more efficiently, needed less fuel during the runs and not experienced stomach discomfort, which was fairly common with Ucan. Now, for 12-mile runs and up, I have the peanut/nut butter and bagel/bread with coffee, which is enough to get me off to a good start. During my runs, I regularly use the gluten-free Honey Stinger products and plenty of liquids to get me through.
When heading to the trails, it’s critically important to bring along proper hydration. On roads, runners can find a public drinking fountain, stop at a store or gas station, or most likely return home faster than if they were on trails.
There are many options for trail runners on ways to transport water and other liquids — waist belts, handhelds, packs and vests. And there are even differences among packs and vests — some have pockets where bottles can be easily accessed while others use bladder in a storage compartment on the runner’s back from which they can sip the liquid through an attached straw-like device.
For me, I use a handheld or vest, depending on various factors but most importantly how long I expect to be out on the trails. I have tried vests from at least five different companies but I have found the ones from UltrAspire to work the best for me. The well-designed vests are comfortable, offer easy-to-access storage space and are able to hold all I need.
Of course, water is the best way to hydrate. But for long runs, especially in the heat and humidity of summer, it is also important to have essential amino acids to rebuild muscle during or after intense training. I have found great success with Gnarly Nutrition’s BCAA mix, a vegan branched chain amino acid that is easy to digest before, during or after hard workouts.
For my longer runs, I fill one of my vest’s bottles with water and the other with the BCAA mix. Since making the transition from Ucan, I have found that I require fewer calories, my performance has improved and the stomach issues have disappeared.
As a road runner, the longest I was ever running on roads was between 4 and 4 ½ hours for a marathon. Trail and ultra events can be significantly longer, even for marathons.
Take, for example, the Leadville Marathon, which starts at 10,000 feet of elevation and heads up to 13,000 feet before runners turn around at Mosquito Pass. That 26.2-mile race took me roughly 6:20. Most watches will offer a battery life that can handle that time, even at elevation, with a full charge.
However, as I turned my focus on doing longer races, I wanted a watch with superior battery life. I found it in my Coros Apex. When I did my first 100-miler in the mountains of California, I finished in just over 26 hours. While I was spent, my Coros watch was still going strong with 23 percent battery life remaining.
Beyond the amazing battery life, Coros watches are simple to use, provide reams of meaningful data and sync easily.
On the trails, it is important to be able to hear what’s going on in your surroundings. Animals can convey warnings. Thunder may be the first indication of an approaching storm. Another runner or hiker may be calling for help.
For those who like to listen to podcasts or music while running, Aftershokz has a good solution — its bone-conduction technology means that the earbud does not actually go into the ear. This allows the wearer to be able to enjoy songs or podcasts while staying attuned to hear what else is going on nearby.
Blisters occur when there is a mix of heat, moisture and friction. During runs on trails, it is common to have all three of these factors coalesce.
The moisture can come from sweat, a creek crossing and/or puddles on the trail. And heat does not have to mean a 90-degree day. The constant work your feet are putting into a run is generating heat, as well as creating friction between the toes or perhaps the tiniest of pebbles or dirt that gets trapped in a shoe.
To protect my feet, I use a two-pronged approach: a salve that provides lubricant and socks that have never let me down.
First, I apply Squirrel’s Nut Butter to my toes (as well as other sensitive areas) and then put on one of my pairs of Drymax socks. There are countless times when this combination has worked for me. In fact, I can’t remember ever having a blister during the thousands of miles I’ve run with SNB and Drymax, which include the 100-mile Rio Del Lago. 100 miles. Zero blisters. Protect your eyes
Protecting your eyes from the harmful rays of the sun, not to mention bugs and insects, is important for trail runners. On many trails, there are mixes of sunny areas, shady areas and in between.
Therefore sunglasses need to shield the runner’s eyes without being too dark, making those shady spots difficult to navigate. I have found that the technology in XX2i sunglasses is perfect for running on trails, as well as roads whether I am running or biking on them. There are various options from XX2i but each offer superior protection, comfort and style.
After you complete your runs, it’s time for recovery. The primary goal should be to eat real food to speed your recovery, focusing on healthy carbs, protein and to a lesser degree, fats. It’s also important to eat foods that help reduce inflammation such as cinnamon, all kinds of berries, avocados and nuts.
Additionally, I reach for a couple of products that are designed to help in recovery. I’ve become a believer in CBD salves for healing sore spots.
I’ve tried several different types but Prevail Botanicals works the best for me. I apply it when needed to relieve sore muscles, tendons and other trigger points. And it does not take long to let the healing begin. Prevail also has a full-spectrum CBD oil to help you relax and sleep better at night. It has definitely helped me get more restful nights.
I also take Hammer Nutrition’s Tissue Rejuvenator daily. These capsules help me recover from tough workouts and get me ready for the next day.
Discount deals for you
I have sponsorship agreements with some of the aforementioned companies. Please note that before I enter into any arrangement with a company, I try out its products first. I enjoy using these products and endorse them because I have found success with them. For some of the brands listed here, I have discount code available. Feel free to use them if interested.
I appreciate you reading this and hope it was helpful to you! Feel free to hit me up with any questions you have about running in general, or specific to trails.