The holidays are here. Is your wish list complete? For those of you who may be new to ultrarunning or are transitioning from a road background to the off-road scene, there are a few items that can help make the shift easier. Let’s see what you might want to add to your wish list so that you can hit the trail like a pro.
First, trail shoes are not just a marketing ploy, they’re one of the most important pieces to consider investing in. While there are way too many options to wade through in this discussion, the difference between a road shoe and trail shoe are significant. A road model is built for a solid surface like asphalt, track or concrete. Taken onto a trail, most road shoes won’t offer adequate traction. You’ll be more likely to slip and possibly sustain an acute injury (think ankle strain or sprain). The lugs on the outsole of a trail shoe will enhance the grip between trail surfaces and your shoe so that your landing will be more stable and predictable. Trail shoes typically offer more cushion and the soles are built with a stiffness to protect your feet from rocks, roots and other obstacles. These enhancements tend to add a few ounces to each shoe compared to their road counterparts, but they serve a variety of meaningful purposes. As one of the single-most critical pieces of trail running equipment, it’s best to experiment with a variety of brands to figure out what works best for your feet.
Beyond shoes, it’s a good idea to consider how you want to carry nutrition and extra gear. Because ultrarunning typically takes us to more remote areas, you’ll want to be more self-sufficient. The most basic considerations are a hydration system and the ability to carry some nutrition. While you may not start out planning all-day or multi-day adventures, don’t constrain your ambitions because of a limited ability to carry liquid and adequate food. The most common apparatus ultrarunners use is a hydration vest or belt. The former can be race-oriented, meaning it will carry up to a single liter of water, enough food to get you between aid stations, and possibly a phone and a warm layer. Running vests range in capacity from racing versions to sizes that will sustain an athlete for multi-day adventures. As you again experience, you may find your vest is too bulky for a 50k, or it may burst some seams when trying to stuff it with a sleep system for an overnighter. That’s when you may need to consider having a variety of sizes. However, a vest with moderate capacity should initially meet most of your needs.
Running belts are another option for storing gear, snacks and fluids. These typically have a smaller capacity but are light and dissipate heat more readily compared to a hydration vest. For shorter training runs and races, a running belt is a system that can work efficiently. Lastly, a handheld water bottle is a good option for shorter distances. Some systems allow you to carry up to 20 ounces and a little food, but be aware that even this seemingly small amount of weight is a lot on your shoulder(s). Work up to this stress via shorter workouts and switch hands frequently.
The last major gear consideration are trekking poles. These are especially helpful for steeper terrain. If you don’t live in an area with grades over 15% and don’t plan to venture into mountainous terrain, you probably don’t need to add them to your arsenal. But, at grades of about 20% and steeper, poles can be a terrific asset and will improve your overall efficiency. If you do opt for trekking poles, those that collapse will be easier to carry on your pack. The collapsible aspect adds a little weight, but if you expect to use them intermittently, it’s a penalty worthwhile. For adventures in which you expect to find yourself on constant grades (poles are helpful for both steep inclines and descents) of >20%, a lighter, non-folding option may be the better choice.
The above recommendations are not all inclusive. There are other additions including hats, layering systems, gaiters and metric-capturing devices that are worth discussing. However, trail shoes, a hydration system and trekking poles are the key pieces to get you started. Add these items to your holiday wish list and you’ll be well prepared to begin exploring the trails.