How to Transition from Thru-Hiking to Trail Running

and I avoided trail running for years because I hated running uphill. I didn’t discover until much later that pretty much all trail runners, even the professionals, walk/power-hike at least some of the uphills. Once I embraced my pace, I learned to truly love the sport and the distances I can cover with my feet.

The trail running mentality is almost diametrically opposed to that of thru-hiking. During a thru-hike, you chip away bit by bit at one large goal over an extremely long period of time. Conversely, many big trail-running objectives take place over a short period of time yet cover a massive distance.

Despite these differences, these two sports complement each other in a multitude of ways. Trail running is an ideal way to train for upcoming thru-hikes and stay connected to the outdoor community.

Before I had access to trails (at a time when I still nursed a slight disdain for trail running), I prepared for backpacking trips with long hikes and weighted treadmill workouts. These were certainly helpful but didn’t quite replicate the demands of being on my feet for eight-plus hours a day over varied terrain with a heavy pack.

When I moved to Utah, I started trail running with a group of local gals actually started by a former PCT and AT thru-hiker. Without overtly trying, as soon as summer rolled around, I was crushing backpacking trips. With no specific training other than trail running, my hiking partner and I crushed the Uinta Highline Trail in four days (20+ mile days at ~10,000 feet elevation). I still go through ebbs and flows with the sport and remind myself that time away from anything is healthy.

The following tips all helped immensely when I first started trail running, and I still lean on these principles when I need an extra boost.

How to Make the Leap from Thru-Hiking to Trail Running

Keep an Eye on Your Heart Rate

You’re going to move slower on trails than you do on the road. There are more obstacles in the way, and varying elevation grades make maintaining your road pace on trails a lot more difficult. As someone who is very goal- and data-oriented, it was frustrating at first to see how much “slower” I was. Even on flat trails, it took a significant amount of work to run at the same pace as I can on pavement. However, the body doesn’t know pace and mileage. Our bodies only know effort as it relates to training and recovery.

So, to keep my brain from doing mean things, I set my watch to the heart rate screen and make sure it doesn’t get above a certain zone. Unless I’m doing a speed workout, I try to maintain a conversational pace. For my age, this means my heart rate is between 140 and 155 bpm. These slower, endurance-focused miles really help build a solid aerobic base.

My favorite heart rate monitor watches for running are the Garmin Forerunner series. I have the 955 and I love it because it has an altimeter and maps on the watch face. However, both the 255 and 55 perform all the basic functions of tracking heart rate, pace, distance, sleep, etc. for a much lower cost. If you’re looking for a product to simply track heart rate, you can get a chest strap like this one from Poler for less than $100.

Sign Up for a Race or Set a Goal

There’s nothing more magical than a post-race beer with friends. Pictured after the Crested Butte 55k this last October.

I really started to dedicate myself to the sport after announcing online that I was going to attempt the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim in a day. About ten weeks before my hopeful date (my 24th birthday), I realized I needed to up my training. Having a tangible goal to look forward to is vital to jump-starting any new fitness routine. For instance, getting in thru-hiking shape is a perfect end goal of a new trail running routine. I love to use Strava, where I can set weekly distance and/or elevation gain goals that reflect what I’m working towards.

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Seek Out Community

When I moved to Utah, I found a group of female trail runners to inspire me. We’re one of many local groups that host weekly meet-ups and organize race crews together. Facebook, Instagram, and Strava are all tools I’ve personally used to find friends with similar interests. I use Strava to see what kind of routes people are running in my area and keep an eye on trail conditions.

With few exceptions, I’ve found the trail running community extremely welcoming, friendly, and helpful. When planning a run with someone new, I’m upfront about my expected pace. This helps to ease any anxiety about “keeping up” with others.

You Probably Have Gear You Can Use

thru-hiking trail running

This is the same Melanzana fleece dress and Arc’teryx headband I wore three years ago on the John Muir Trail. Quality layers last a very long time.

Trail running does not have to be an expensive sport. It requires minimal gear, much of which you’ll already have in your thru-hiking kit. In fact, it’s a great opportunity to test out potential gear picks for an upcoming thru-hike. Shoes, mid, and base layers are all important pieces to the base weight puzzle. Trail running, especially in the winter, is the perfect time to see how these items work in action.

I also love using trekking poles for trail running. Because I hike the majority of sustained uphill sections, poles help immensely as I’m trying to climb as efficiently as possible. Many runners also use poles when descending. I use lightweight, fixed-length Black Diamond Distance Z poles that easily strap to the side of my trail running vest. However, if you already have telescoping poles, there’s no problem with carrying them when you’re not using them to propel you uphill.

The one dedicated piece of trail running gear I recommend investing in is a lightweight running vest. I love the Salomon ADV 12 and the Black Diamond Distance 15. These vests are also big enough for many day-hiking trips. I also use the Black Diamond vest for running-commuting to and from work. Running vests are specifically designed to carry extra layers, food, and hydration as close to the back and chest as possible to remove any bouncing as you flow through trails.

Experiment with Your Fueling Strategy

This is all the food I brought for the Zion Traverse, which took about 10 hours. I ate almost all of it.

It wasn’t until I started to take my trail running fuel strategy seriously that I realized how much better I could feel thru-hiking by snacking smarter. When I first started trail running, I would maybe pack one or two snacks and didn’t always eat them. After getting absolutely torched on the Rim to Rim to Rim, I decided to try the whole “every 45 minutes” thing.

Sure enough, consuming a variety of different fuels at regular intervals completely transformed my energy levels during long and difficult efforts—whether I’m hiking or running. Because I’m typically not working as hard while backpacking as I am while running, I’ll cut my fueling strategy in half while still making sure to snack consistently. On my most recent trip to the Sawtooth Mountains, I crammed in three days full of hiking and activities and had plenty of energy the entire time.

I’ve also realized how helpful quick calories are. Some of my favorite on-the-go fuel sources are Tailwind Hydration Powder and Spring Energy Gels.

READ NEXT – 5 of the Best Backpacking Trails in the Sawtooth Wilderness

Seek Out a Variety of Terrain Types

I feel so lucky to have plenty of techy terrain to explore in the Wasatch.

I often joke that I don’t need to cross-train because trail running is its own cross-training. While this isn’t strictly true, it does provide a lot more variety than pavement pounding. While trail running, I’m engaging a variety of muscle groups for powering up hills, cruising down, and avoiding obstacles. Hopping between rocks and roots is great mobility work that helps strengthen my ankles, knees, and hips.

I try my best to run on different types of trails weekly. A flat, mellow trail provides a very different workout than a steep and techy adventure. Training on multiple terrain types is extremely helpful come backpacking season, when you’re likely to encounter the full gamut.

Tune Into the Natural Beauty

thru-hiking trail running

It’s hard to have a bad run with scenery like this.

I was a fairly dedicated road runner for a handful of years before I discovered the magic of trails. One of the ways I seek to explain this is that there’s so much more to think about on trails. When I trained for road races, I usually didn’t have much more to focus on than my pace. Nowadays, I find myself hardly looking at my watch as I crane my neck to try and see the views around every corner. I’ll also frequently stop on a nice sitting rock and take a 5-10 minute break. Planning runs around sunrise or sunset and taking long breaks to admire the beauty is also a favorite of mine.

No matter how I feel while running, I’m always appreciative after a trail run. This type of moving meditation is also a great skill to practice for backpacking. Walking for hours can get rather boring. Trail running is a great way to start training your brain for those long days.

Over the last two years, I’ve deeply fallen in love with trail running. It is such a challenging yet simple sport. I can’t wait to continue working towards my goals. In addition to fitness, it’s brought me community. Ultra runners are a funky group of folks who are very similar to thru-hikers. Whether you do it with a running vest or with an ultralight pack, spending days at a time on your feet and alone with your thoughts is pretty kooky.

There’s a huge amount of overlap between trail running and thru-hiking; the two sports complement each other perfectly. Whether you’ve just finished a hike and are wondering what comes next or you’re prepping for next year’s thru-hiking adventures, I encourage you to consider trail running.

Featured image: Photo via Katie Kommer; graphic design by Zack Goldmann.