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How To Get Started Mountain Running

Author: Alison Naney

September 10, 2019

You might feel inspired this time of year if you’re watching results of the big, famous trail running races like Western States or the UTMB. The idea of galloping over wild, remote terrain certainly has its appeal. And if you haven’t done much mountain running, now’s a good time to try it before snow flies up high. But if you’re newer to trail running—or haven’t run much in the alpine—here are a few tips to keep in mind before venturing out.

Study maps. It’s tempting to follow where your favorite Instagram star goes, but I recommend consulting good old fashioned maps, at least after you know the area you want to go. Maps show you where you can refill water, how steep the climbs and descents will be, and give you an overview of what you can expect in terms of the landscape: will you be on a gradual trail in the trees, or an exposed scree field? Depending on your strengths and location, you can make a route of any distance and variety. One word of caution, though: make sure you know the scale of the map, so you don’t end up putting together too long of a run!

Rethink mileage. Mileage in the mountains can feel like a different space and time continuum, and your ten-mile jaunt very likely will take longer than you think. Plan for your pace to be slower. There could be obstacles such as downed trees, creek crossings, navigational challenges, or simply great views (or dips in lakes) that you’ll encounter, so bring more snacks and water than you might think to give yourself time. Racing through the mountains has its own appeal, but especially as you start out, taking your time will both increase your enjoyment, and reduce your chance of falling, or missing a trail marker.

Prepare. While one of the best things about running is its simplicity, make sure you’re prepared for conditions you may encounter. This goes along with studying maps, but in a more general sense, being further away from civilization means you’re further away from help. Being self-sufficient, knowledgeable about the potential risks, and prepared for mishaps not only keeps you safe and able to adapt to changing conditions, but also allows you to continue going out for more adventures. A simple first aid kit, a water filter, a lightweight jacket, map (or an app that you know how to use like Gaia), and a headlamp don’t take up too much space in a pack, but can make a world of difference if something happens and you have to stay out longer than intended. As the days shorten, I also bring a hat and gloves.

Enjoy yourself. I work with many people new to trail and mountain running, and one thing people are continually surprised, then relieved to hear is that you don’t need to run every step! If you’re excited about a route but nervous about your ability to run it, don’t fret. You’re likely at a higher elevation in the alpine than you’re used to running, and that alone will make it more difficult. Throw in six-mile climbs, and suddenly this “mountain run” feels like a terrible idea you never want to do again. I encourage folks to think of it as a hike with running thrown in. Run when you can and hike when you need a breather. If you are going up a steep section, trying to run will gain you little speed, but has a high energy cost, not to mention can feel demoralizing and soul-sucking. Instead, take the opportunity to slow down a bit, eat a snack, and enjoy the views, because really, why else are you out there?

Alison Naney

Alison is an endurance coach, licensed massage therapist, ultra runner, mom to two wild girls, and OR grassroots athlete based in Mazama, WA (or North Cascades). When not coaching through Uphill Athlete, she’s probably running for hours with him and their huskies in the nearby Cascades. You can reach Alison at alison@uphillathlete.com.