Dirt over a white background

The Dirt with Jeff Browning


Whether you're a pavement-pounding road runner or a dirt-digging trail runner, achange of scenery can infuse some stoke factor into your running regime. As a hardcore trail runner, Altra Elite Athlete Jeff Browning always coaches athletes to search for soft surfaces. Even if you solely run road races all runners should be seeking out some weekly dirt to help mobility and longevity. 

Soft surfaces can help stave off overuse injury and force your lower half to work on increasing mobility and decrease pounding force. Whether you’re running on a smooth, improved gravel pathway in the city or legit mountain terrain, remember Jeff's saying:Dirt don’t hurt.

Ready to dig up some dirt, kick up some dust, and sift through the soil? Let’sget started!



Jeff Browning running in the Rocky Mountains


Sometimes the daily running routine can feel pretty uninspiring. Slogging the same scenes day in, day out; the monotony can put a dark cloud over your running motivation. What you need is a solid change of scenery with a twist of adventure.  

Neuroscience shows that you can build new neural pathways by simply challenging yourself to a new experience. That challenge can be mental or physical, and might include making difficult decisions, reading a map to navigate a new locale, or running a new trail.

It’s simple: Embracing new circumstances can make you smarter.

And a trail-running vacation with just the right combination of good food, good vibes, and inspiring trails may be just what you need to breathe new life into your running routine.  


Define the Destination 

First, define your parameters. What kind of scene are you searching for? Big vert, gnarly terrain, or buff single track? Start with the kind of terrain you want to run and that will help narrow down the location. Then, do you want an Airbnb and dinner out every night, or dirtbag adventure camping in the wild? Figure out the what and you can better decide the where.  



Dirtbag trips are simple. You need a national forest to set up basecamp near accessible trailheads, and a cooler full of food and drink. If you don’t want to fully abandon your urban life, the list of possible destinations narrows quickly. Many runners like to eat, drink, and be merry. If this is part of the goal, start by researching breweries, coffee shops, and eateries. I personally like to know the whereabouts of a good coffee shop, burger joint, and breakfast cafe.  


Pick a Season 

Defining a weather window with trail running is a big one. Are you looking for big views, big alpine terrain, or sunny desert running? Most good trail running destinations have mountains, and most mountains have a distinct season. Know how long the snow lingers in the spring. For example, the Cascades and the Northern Rockies can have snow piles lingering on northern slopes until July or August. Are you okay with post-holing through snow, climbing over downed trees, and navigating raging snowmelt rivers? Also, look at the average weather for the month you want to visit. I look at average daily highs, lows, and precipitation. Locations like Northern Arizona or Southwestern Colorado have a distinct monsoon season and getting started at first light is paramount to safe outings.  


Shot of the mountains in Asheville, NC



Research Routes 

Time to find the actual routes you want to run. Dust off those 6th grade geography skills. No Siri or Google Maps in the backcountry. You need to be able to read a map, use a compass, and use a GPS app on your phone. I use my phone as a GPS for route finding and safe navigation in the woods. If I’m doing a big single day outing, I carry a paper map and compass as a back-up.  

Start by searching free services online, like Trail Run Project. This is user-entered data, so not everything will be there. But the classics will serve as a starting point. After narrowing it down, go to a mapping service like Gaia GPS, AllTrails or CalTopo. As a premier subscriber to Gaia, I’m able to download maps from their layered database. I can then click on routes to find the mileage and elevation gain of specific loops or routes. I do a majority of my research on my laptop with a big monitor, then sync the routes and notes onto my phone for offline download. This allows me to use my phone as the GPS to map and navigate in the field (while in airplane mode to save battery).  

Once you decide on your routes, it’s time to order your paper map. Opt for a topographic USGS map, or something similar. The paper map is your backup should technology fail in the field (and it sometimes does). As a bonus, the paper map serves as memorabilia after your trail-running trip.  




Fun Tip: 

Highlight the trails you run with a highlighter. When you pull that map out 10 years later, you’ll be able to recall the routes you ran. It will be a trip down memory lane.  




Top 5 Destinations for a Trail Runcation 


Here’s a handful of trail-running towns with a solid mix of dirt trails and just enough urban flair to satisfy any hipster looking for a night out on the town. Namely, good coffee, good brews, and good food. 


Flagstaff, Arizona 

Boasting amazing trails right next to town and an opportunity to summit the highest peak in Arizona (Mount Humpreys), Flagstaff is a solid choice. With a lot of flat, rolling terrain at 7,000 feet, it’s easy to see why many elite track and road runners have called it home. As an added bonus: Tack on a day trip to the Grand Canyon for Rim2Rim2Rim or a nice run down into the canyon.  

Prime season: April-October  

Coffee and Restaurant picks: Lux Coffee and Proper Meats + Provisions 


Bozeman, Montana 

Surrounded by big terrain, Bozeman is a mountain running mecca. With the Bridger Range to the northeast and the Spanish Peaks to the south, the options are endless. Come prepared, as this terrain is wild, wonderful, and full of wildlife. Don’t forget to pack your bear spray!  

Prime season: July-September 

Coffee and restaurant picks: Ghost Town Coffee Roasters and Backcountry Burger Bar 


Bend, Oregon 

Nestled just east of the Ring of Fire of five volcanoes and the Three Sisters Wilderness, Bend sits on the banks of the Deschutes River at 3,600 feet. The Three Sisters Wilderness is connected by a plethora of trails that tumble all the way to town. You’ll find all varieties of trails from rolling, flowy singletrack along the banks of the Deschutes, to steep, rocky terrain around the volcanoes.  

Prime season: June-October 

Coffee and restaurant picks: Backporch Coffee Roasters and Jackson’s Corner 


Durango, Colorado 

Seated along the banks of the Animas River, Durango is the southern terminus of the Colorado Trail. It’s also the launch point to the gigantic terrain of Silverton, Telluride and Ouray, home turf of the Wild and Tough Hardrock 100 Endurance Run. Come prepared for big terrain, big views, and gnarly afternoon thunderstorms. Get started early, as the gorgeous bluebird mornings quickly turn into electrically-charged, wet afternoons.  

Prime season: June-September 

Coffee and restaurant picks: Durango Coffee Company and Steamworks Brewing Company 


Asheville, North Carolina 

Asheville boasts over 500 miles of trails within a 30-minute drive of town. The city is surrounded by the rugged mountain terrain of Pisgah National Forest, ranging from 1,400 to 6,700 feet. With access to the Appalachian Trail, Mountain-to-Sea Trail, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Asheville is the trail running mecca of the East Coast. 

Prime season: Year-round 

Coffee and restaurant picks: High Five Coffee and Burial Beer Company


When you start to feel like running is a chore, it may be time to take a running vacation. Hopefully these tips and a change of scenery can help you infuse some new stoke into your training. 





About the Author

Jeff Browning is a veteran ultrarunner and ultra-endurance coach. As a masters athlete, he has embraced both mobility and strength consistently in his training to slow down aging and to prepare his body for the rigors of up to five 100-milers per season—some just weeks apart. You can learn more about him, his adventures, and his coaching at GoBroncoBilly.com or on Instagram: @GoBroncoBilly.