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Running Mountain Trails 101

Running Mountain Trails 101

By Leslie St. Louis (Team Strength Runner Athlete)


Leslie is a mountain-loving trail lover and mom of two mud-loving girls in Morrison, Colorado. She is also ranked 9th in the Spartan World Points Series and the founder of a local obstacle group and resource, Colorado Obstacle Racers. 


If you are looking for a fun, active way to vacation, heading to higher elevations for some mountain trail running can provide both a relaxing escape AND  athletic gains, especially if you are looking for improvement in your next obstacle event.  If you live close to the mountains, this should become part of your weekly routine. Otherwise, I highly recommend picking your next vacation based on the mountains available there, or even better – an obstacle event in or near the mountains!


Runners’s World perfectly summed up the advantages of trail running in a recent article.*  


The benefits of trail running span the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual areas of your life. And doesn’t that cover pretty much all of it?”  


As a Colorado resident with more than two decades of experience trail running, including working as an outdoor guidebelow is some advice for anyone wanting to get started in the mountains, running at higher altitudes or just seeking some Rocky-Mountain-inspired training


Tip One: Just Do It. 

I lived in Colorado for three years before I really started running the mountain trails. On my very first run at my home in Morrison, I stepped out of my doowith two very different choices:

I could head left and onto paved sidewalks.

I could head right, onto a mountain trail. 

I choose the mountain trail and nearly 20 years later I have never regretted that choice. It led to me working as an outdoor adventure guide for nearly 8 years. It has allowed me to pass people in obstacle events, even if they have faster road PRs than me. Today, I am still running some of those same trails and it not only keeps me fit, but mentally healthy and strong too. 

Trail running was something my spirit and my gut drew me to try, but besides getting out the door that day, that first trail run wasn’t anything to brag about. In fact, I didn’t even make it to the official trail. I simply circled the tiny reservoir at the bottom a few times. Yet each day I came back and got further and further and further up that mountain. Eventually, I was running the almost eight-mile, nearly 2000-feet-of-elevation-change loop daily!

Even if you live in the city, there is usually some kind of way to seek out elevation, so just DO it!


Tip Two: Just Keep Going

Besides committing to start, keeping your feet moving up ismost important. 

I mentioned that my first trail run wasn’t some Earth shattering, record breaking moment. I probably spent longer getting ready to run than actually running! So believe me when I say, the biggest “trick” to running up a mountain is just continuing to move forward and to try it again and again and again very soon. 

When I first started running trails, I didn’t pick a destination, I ran for a set amount of time and my feet “ran” up the mountain that entire time. For instance, 40 minutes up the mountain and 20 minutes down to fill up an hour. I could tell I was improving because over days and weeks and months I started getting further up the trail.

Besides returning to the mountain, you need to keep your feet moving in a running motion up the mountain at all timesWhen you are going DOWN the mountain, walking is okay, but when you are going UP, try to hold yourself to always running. Do not stop. Do not hike. Keep your feet in that running motion, even if it is in the same spot. I only suggest this when training, not racing, but if you can just commit to “running” up, no matter how sloweventually it gets easier. Is it an efficient use of energy in general? No, not really. Hiking up extremely steep portions of a mountain is usually suggested, but if it’s not a race, who cares. If your goal is to actually run a mountain, than that is what you should practice.


Tip Three: Remember it’s a Trail

This is not the consistent pavement of a street or the steady rubber of a treadmill. There are rocks, living things, trees, roots, dirt, mud, possibly snow. A long, loping stride will only get you injured. Staying aware of the trail below your feet and ahead of you is a necessity. You will be ready for anything if you use short strides and a soft, light step

Uphill, you will actually move faster that way. Downhill, you will remain in control and keep from twisting ankles or worse. It’s never a bad idea to walk (or even booty-scoot) down a steep portion of a hill that looks sketchy, either.


Tip Three: Respect the Mountain

When you run a mountain, you are a guest.  Stay on the designated trails and don’t veer off the marked trails, especially if it is wet or muddy. Run over obstacles, not around them. 

Also, just in general don’t be a jerk. Pick up any trash and befriendly by letting people know you are passing and by yielding to bikes, horses or anyone or anything that it makes sense to stop and let pass.  

I feel like I am in a relationship with the mountain trails I run.Part of the joy of running trails is taking time to marvel at the beauty and give thanks. In fact, each of my trail runs is almost like a prayernever think I am conquering a mountain and that is just my mindset ALWAYS when running trails. When you are conquering something, you aren’t appreciating or respecting it.  


Tip Four: Be Safe 

There’s no reason to be scared of mountain trails or to bring a million supplies with you, but you should come prepared. Knowledge of what to do and what watch out for will be your best way to stay safe. Some specific things to be aware of:

• Tell someone where you are running and approximately how long you’ll be gone. 
• Be noisy and bring friends at dawn and dusk. These are prime times for bears and mountain lions in my area. I try to avoid being on empty trails or running alone at those times. If I do, I plan to make noise by bringing a bell or I’ve even run while singing to myself! Also, dark trails can be prime times for unpleasant human encounters, too.
• Listen and know that at any time on the trail you may encounter animals or unusual things. It’s alwaysimportant to be alert, so no headphones and besides keeping track of your feet, always scan the trail ahead. There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of startling a wild turkey or just narrowly jumping over a snakeRead up on the animals and plants in your area and some basic first aid on how to best protect and treat yourself, if needed. 
• Plan for afternoon storms in the summer. The climate can change in a matter of minutes in the mountains, so depending on the length of run, dress in appropriate layers.
• Avoid lightening. Lightning storms typically happen in the afternoon, so plan to run in the morning, if possible. Take lightening seriously and read up on lighting in the mountains, so you can avoid and be prepared in an emergency.
• Know HAPE and HACE, the symptoms of each, and how to avoid it. As a former outdoor guide, it’s impossible for me not to mention to any Colorado or mountain visitor the dangers of going quickly from low to high altitudes. This link is just one of many explaining HAPE and HACE, which are two serious forms of altitude sickness. It is a must read for any low altitude visitor, especially anyone planning to run mountains.

Tip Five: Give Yourself Time

This last tip is literal for low altitude runners going into higher altitudes. Seriously, plan a week at minimum to get use to the altitude, if possible. 

In general, taking your time is a good philosophy for trail running. Take time to enjoy the experience, to feel your body working, to just BE in that place at that moment. Even if you have personal records to beat or goals to meet, take time to notice that the same trail and the same mountain are actually never the same twice.

You know you are trail running the “right” way if you discover this: you not only become a better athlete for venturing onto a mountain, but a better person, too. 

Happy trails!