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Seven ways to overcome challenging trail runs


Runner going up a mountain

By Henry Howard


I’ve written about how to get started with trail running, provided tips and explored why it’s so amazing in previous posts. (Here’s the one on how to get started and a Q&A about trail running shoes.)


But one topic I have not addressed yet is how to overcome the mental aspect when encountering a challenging trail run. To be clear, trail running allows me to boost my mental health. At the same time, the physical aspect can be a grind. That’s where preparing yourself in several ways, including having a strong mental game, can turn a rough trail run into a rad adventure.


Here are seven ways to make sure your trail adventures are positive experiences.


1. Exude confidence. Even lesser-experienced runners have proven they have the physical strength to push through hard times. Know that when you encounter a challenging part of the trail or other issues, by continuing to push through you will come out of the run even stronger. And that will, in turn, build your confidence for the next trail adventure. (Note: this does not mean pushing through injury. Listen to your body for cues that the issue is related to pain in your body, not negative thoughts in your mind.)


2. Prepare with resources. It can be helpful before starting out on a run in a new area to reference a map digital or otherwise. State and national parks usually have print and digital maps available at the entrance. For adventures in local parks or other areas, runners can research them on an app beforehand, or seek out a printed map. It’s wise to have completed research beforehand or brought a map with you just in case you run into trouble or take a wrong turn.


3. Smile every mile. This goes for road runs, too (but it’s easier when in nature). It’s scientifically proven that smiling uplifts your soul. When you smile, you release hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, brightening your day and run.

winter trail running is better with a friend

4. Get a running buddy. There is strength in numbers, especially when your running partner is familiar with the trails. Not only will it boost your confidence and reduce stress having someone to share the experience with is a great boost. In addition to have someone to talk with, a buddy who knows the area can offer tips to maximize your effort and make your outing more pleasurable.

5. Fuel your runs. Oftentimes when our mind starts toying with us during a hard effort, it’s actually conveying a message from our belly that we need some calories. While it’s more common for this to occur during endurance events like a marathon, ultra or long-distance cycling event, it can also happen during a training run. You will likely burn more calories on a trail run that during a road run of a similar mileage so be prepared to fuel to compensate for the calories (and electrolytes) you’ll losing during the adventure.


sunset over a mountain trail run

6. Take stock of yourself. If you encounter a tough stretch, take a moment to assess how you are feeling. If you have had a recent injury or pain, pause to reflect on how that feels now. Take a deep breath and consider how your effort level is feeling. Review your running form and make sure that your posture is good, nothing is clenched and you are running relaxed. These tricks help reset your mind and can also help you correct an issue.


7. Soak in the nature around you. Similar to doing a self-check, pausing for a moment (or longer) to experience the environment around you can bring you mental clarity. Trail running brings you a higher degree of sensory experience than road running. Make sure you consciously indulge your senses on your run to set aside negative mental chatter and make your experience richer and more rewarding.


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