Want to get moving out on the trails in this glorious fall weather? We have you covered, whether you are new to the sport or a veteran looking to up the mileage.
I’d never run—or even hiked—13,223-foot Mt. Audubon in the Indian Peaks Wilderness before. But, with its high-elevation start near Brainard Lake, switchbacks through the pines,
and a few miles above treeline adding up to a 7.8-mile round trip, the route looked appealing as I scanned my trail map, seeking a weekend adventure run.
That’s the beauty of trail running—pick a trail, start running. It can be that simple. Sure, the Mt. Audubon run required a little planning, and some banked fitness from a summer of running, but it wasn’t epic. I recruited a friend to join me, packed about 50 ounces of water, some gels and such, the map, and a lightweight windshell and gloves in a small pack. I checked the weather to make sure a storm wouldn’t require us to start so early that I’d be wrecked the rest of the weekend. And there was the drive, a little over an hour.
Running a lap on Sanitas down the street from my house in Boulder would have been more convenient, definitely easier. But running the Mt. Audubon trail, which proved to be quite rocky for most of it, requiring more hiking than I’d anticipated, made for a Colorado adventure—with stunning views, marmot encounters, wildflowers and bluebird skies—worth the effort.
For Body and Mind
Running on the non-pavement, non-concrete surfaces of trails has undeniable physical benefits. Studies have proven that soft surfaces are easier on joints and increase strength. The varied terrain of trails requires your body to recruit core muscles while strengthening connective tissues to make a body more durable overall.
All that strength not only makes a person a better trail runner, but it crosses back over into road running and any other sports you do. By running trails, you’re building up your cardiovascular engine, getting stronger overall, and becoming more agile as you navigate trail obstacles like rocks and roots (a skill that improves the more you do it).
And the mental benefits of trail running are just as compelling, if not more so. Studies have proven that exercising in nature helps combat depression. And sports psychologists have said running on a technical trail, where you have to think about foot placement, can be a mental break for people struggling with anxiety.
But if you’re someone who likes to just zone out while running and not worry about twisting and ankle, running a smooth dirt, gravel, wood-chipped or grassy path counts as a trail run, too.
With that in mind, here’s how to find a trail run that’s right for whatever fitness, experience level, or mood you’re in on any given day…and what you need to know to get the most out of it.
30- to 45-minutes
Where to go: Head to a trail you can run out-and-back that lets you control the time and distance you’re out. Or, try a short loop, knowing your trail miles will be slower than your road miles. If you’re looking for something flat and mellow, consider dirt and crushed gravel paths and trails good for dog walkers, naturalists and baby joggers. If you’re looking to gain elevation, consider trails popular for hikers.
What to bring: Unless it’s blazing hot, you’re probably okay without water. If you’re starting your run dehydrated or know you need fluids for a 30- to 45-minute workout, carry them in a small handheld bottle or minimalist waistpack (bonus if it fits a phone). Don’t bog yourself down with an over-the-shoulder hydration pack on a short run.
What to know: If you run uphill from the start, count on the descent being faster (so aim to run or run/walk a few minutes longer on the way out than the return). And if you’re just starting out on any kind of trail, try a run/walk combo, starting out walking and then running for a minute or two for every five minutes.
Try these trails:
>> Bobolink Trail, Boulder. Flat, smooth and mellow, alongside South Boulder Creek.
>> Boulder Valley Ranch, Boulder. Flat to rolling, mostly smooth with occassional ruts, big open meadows.
>> Devil’s Thumb Ranch Trails, Fraser. Wide dirt and grass paths through meadows and up (and down) rolling hills.
>> North Tenmile Creek Trail, Frisco. Gradual incline, right off I-70, somewhat rocky, scenic.
45- to 90-minutes
Where to go: Choose longer trails that either let you run at least 30 minutes in one direction before turning around, or bigger loops. Longer trail runs often deliver bigger rewards—better views, fewer crowds, etc.
What to bring: Carry fluids in either a handheld bottle (but switch hands often to avoid muscle imbalances), or a waistpack with small bottles distributing the weight evenly and not bouncing around as happens with one large bottle. If you do wear an over-the-shoulder pack, make sure it’s small and light and doesn’t bounce too much. (Jog in place in the store while trying on any of these items). Bring easily digestible fuel you’d eat on a long road run, think energy gels or chews. And bring your phone, but know that it might not get service where you’re running (so don’t rely on it too much).
What to know: Remember that the very nature of trails—varied terrain, uphill and downhill, softer surfaces—means that your road running splits will not translate to the miles you run on trails. With that in mind, run for time, not distance. If a five-mile trail run takes you 75 minutes, feel good that you ran and got stronger for 75 minutes. Don’t do the math to figure out your mile splits, because it doesn’t matter.
Try these trails:
>> Mount Sanitas, Boulder. Major elevation gain in a short distance. Very rocky and steep in parts.
>> Mesa Trail, Boulder. Rolling, rocky, tree-covered, paralleling the base of the Flatirons.
>> Burro Trail, Breckenridge. Gradual incline from the base of Breckenridge ski resort heading south. Rocky, tree-covered.
>> Hunter Creek Trail, Aspen. Wooden bridges through flittering aspen trees, gradual to steep incline. Ideal for fall.
Where to go: Connecting multiple trails for a major loop, or choosing a destination run (like the summit of Mount Audubon) can make for an epic adventure. Getting a trail map of your local area can open up a world of possibilities. Choose a trail, then research the route online. There’s a lot of info on hikes and mountain bike routes (which you can make into runs) online.
What to bring: A waistpack with enough storage and bottle carriers for at least 30 ounces of fluids (more if it’s hot, you have a high sweat rate or you’re running longer than 90 minutes), or an over-the-shoulder pack with a hydration bladder. Either can be paired with a handheld bottle—carry electrolyte fluids in the bottle, plain water in your pack, for instance. Enough energy food to get you through, a thin jacket or long-sleeve top if running in the mountains. Consider basic first aid, and bring your phone.
What to know: These types of runs only require fitness that anyone can build up to, and a good attitude that will increase with the more trail running you do. Embrace long runs like an adventure, enjoying a long day or couple hours out enjoying the beauty of the Rocky Mountain wilds, either in the Front Range or up in the high country.
Try these trails:
>> Hessie/Fourth of July Trailhead, Nederland. Climb gradually into the Indian Peaks Wilderness, alpine lakes and all.
>> Mount Audubon, Ward. Mostly above treeline, rocky trail to the summit of this Thirteener, with outstanding views.
>> Maroon Bells, Aspen. Run out and back as long as you like in the stunning Maroon Bells Wilderness, knowing that ultrarunners tackle the 28-mile “Four Passes Loop” in a day.
>> North Vail Trail #1896, Vail. Multiple access points, climbing into the White River National Forest off the frontage road in Vail.