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How to Start Trail Running

Running on the road is the most convenient thing for most of us. Get out the door and get running – that’s all there is to it.

But road running comes with all the things that, well, roads come with: traffic, noise, intersections. Many of us, even those in cities, are blessed to have ample outdoor space available to us as well. And those outdoor spaces more likely than not have trails meant just for people like you and me.

Welcome to the world of trail running, road running’s ugly, gnarly, root-and-rock-strewn, off-beat cousin. If you haven’t tried trail running yet, we encourage you to find some trails, get out there, and get yourself a little dirty.

This post gets into the basic info you need to start running on trails. While some things do carry over from the road, there are some nuances, and some big differences, you’ll want to know about.

We’ll discuss why you should get into trail running in the first place, how to run on trails, and things to keep in mind for safety and gear. If you’re looking for an alternative to road running, trail running is definitely a great option to mix it up.

Why Should I Start Trail Running?

If you love running, you might wonder if running on a new surface will really make that big of a difference. The answer is yes, it really could. Trails are softer surfaces than road. The dirt, mud, and grass common on trails are more forgiving surfaces.

Trail running allows for less force and impact on your legs, knees, ankles, and your body as a whole. It’s a good option if you are an older runner or if you just don’t want your body to take as much of a beating. Because trail running is different from road running, doing both can be beneficial for you.

Trail running is also great just because you are getting out into nature. A trail run removes you from the hustle, bustle, and sound of modern life. If the past few years haven’t made you want to sprint into the woods, then you are a stronger person than I am. It’s so nice to lose yourself on a trail run deep in the woods, and find yourself in a different kind of running flow than is possible out on the roads.

Don’t get too zonked out on your nature high, though. Trail running has more obstacles, and it requires you to run in a more concentrated way. It’s perfect for long, slow runs and recovery runs. Because of how technical trail running can be, expect to be roughly 10-20 percent slower than your average road running pace. And even at that slower pace, you’ll get a better workout.

Finally, since no single trail is the same, they offer great variety for runners looking to change up their running routine. Even small parks can have a surprisingly large amount of trail miles. And since trails are natural, they offer a great chance for runners to see natural beauty and get fresh air.

What are Some Tips for Beginners?

Someone interested in learning about trail running might find some videos on YouTube, and be instantly terrified by images of elite athletes bouncing deftly across razor-thin mountain ridges at vertiginous heights. Do not be afraid: it is not all like this.

If you are just starting with trail running, it’s important that you take it slow and gradually built up trail mileage and difficulty. Instead of jumping right into rocky single-track, you should start on less technical trails to increase your confidence and build endurance.

You’ll want to figure out what kind of trails you’re comfortable running on, so start simple and build up. You’ll also want to learn how to navigate single track, so you know how to follow the trail.

Instead of focusing on your pace, you should run by effort and time. A trail run is not the time to get in speedwork. Trail running is perfect for long runs where you can enjoy the scenery around you and just need to get the miles in, not necessarily meet a certain time.

You will naturally be slower at the beginning, and that is okay. As your body gets more used to being on the trail, you will gradually get faster. Plus, there is something awesome about getting a bit dirty and muddy because it makes you feel primal and visceral. Yes, you will fall trail running. The thing you trip over will be the size of your thumb, not the size of a boulder.

Still nervous about making the jump? Look in your area for a trail running group. Even if there are no organized groups, trail running groups on social media can connect you to experienced trail runners. Have them show you the ropes; they are evangelical about the sport by nature.

Finally, a huge must is taking a cell phone with you for safety when you run trails, especially if you are running alone as a female. I personally use Nathan’s SaferRun Waistpak when I’m offroad. It’s extremely comfortable and doesn’t bounce much when you cinch it tight.

How to Decide Where to Go

It is pretty easy to hop on the road without planning a route ahead of time, but trail running is a bit different. While you might be okay running with a Fitbit on the road, you’ll really want a high-end GPS watch for trail running.

What do we mean by high-end? One with navigation aids. Tracking speed and distance are all well and good, but being able to upload a GPS track of the trails you are running can give you peace of mind that you aren’t getting lost in the wilderness. The more you run on trails, and the more you run in unfamiliar places, the more important this is.

If you’re running in a park, you should take the time to look up trail maps. They will often tell you the distance as well as what difficulty the trail is. This will help you know if that particular trail is a good fit for you at your current level.

You can also find routes/courses/segments on a variety of apps like MapMyRun, Trails.com, Alltrails.com Trailrunproject.com, and Trailrunner.com. Even common fitness apps like Strava and Connect have ample off-road resources. If you’re part of a running community, consider asking your friends where they go trail running.

How to Work on Your Technique

Running—it’s all the same no matter where you’re running, right? Actually, not quite. When you’re running on the trail, you’ll want to take short, quick steps. Trail and ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek says that, when running trails, if you’re trying to decide whether you need one or two steps to get around an obstacle, take three. It’s a big contrast to road running where longer (and consistent) strides are fine. Have a fast turnover with your feet – don’t overstride.

Stay light on your feet to maintain your balance on rocky and rooty terrain. This will also help you to adjust if (when!) you hit something the wrong way. If you are overstriding, you might faceplant.

The key skill here is called proprioception. It’s a $20 word meaning you are aware of where your body is. You’ve seen that rock coming up the trail for the last 50 feet. Now, without looking down specifically at it, you have to make sure you don’t trip over it. This is the constant flow state of trail running.

It’s best to keep your eyes down, scanning the trail 10 to 15 feet in front of you. You will be tempted to bring your gaze up and admire the scenery. You’ll also be tempted to stare at your feet. Both are bad ideas. Keep focus on that short-distance to navigate obstacles. Make sure you notice anything uneven about the trail just ahead.

Finally, pick the most sure-footed route. If one part of the trail seems straighter and flatter than another, go for that option. It’s important to be aware of the trial and your surroundings.

What to Do About Hills

Road runners who think they know a thing or two about the steep hills in the neighborhood might be in for a rude awakening on trails. Gary Brown, leader of Philadelphia running group Chasing Trail, explains: “We have a section of road in the neighborhood called The Wall. It’s as steep as streets get in the city, a 17% grade. But there’s a section of trail nearby called Mother. It maxes out at 35%. It’s demoralizing. We run it as often as possible. It’s great.”

Although you’ll definitely run hills when you’re running on the road, those stretches are still designed for car safety, and rarely exceed a 10% grade. Trail hills are an entirely different beast. Two sub-disciplines of trail running is known as mountain running and sky running, and we’ll just let you imagine what that’s all about. Leaving the Alps and the Rockies as they may be, even in your local park you might find steep punchy climbs. Just shorten your stride and be prepared to pump your arms to get up the hill.

When you’re running uphill, avoid the temptation to lean forward, as this can reduce your ability to breathe effectively. Just make sure to stay steady and consistent as you stride up the hills.

If it’s really steep, then it’s probably a good idea – and entirely normal, even at the highest level of the sport – to hike those steep parts. You don’t want to find yourself tripping and/or sliding down the hill. When in doubt, hike. And if you aren’t ready to run hills yet, just walk up them—no shame.

How to Find the Right Shoes

All running shoes are not the same, and trail-running shoes are different from what you’d typically wear on the road. Generally, they are beefier than road-running shoes and emphasize traction and protecting your feet. Think road bike tires versus mountain bike tires.

My trail shoes have small studs to improve my ability to grip the ground and have a tongue that is sewed so that debris doesn’t get in. There are also toe protect tips to give you a little extra protection if you hit a stick or a stone.

Finally, you do have some options even in trail shoes. You can choose from a stripped-down minimalist shoe to a more cushioned shoe. Some trail shoes, like the Saucony Peregrines or Brooks Cascadias, have a similar feel to road shoes, only with more grip. They’re great for light trail use on minimally technical terrain. Other shoes, like Salomon Speedcross Varios, are virtually boot-like, and are meant for ultra-rugged running in the high mountains. Altras are legendary zero-drop, minimalist shoes. Hoka One One is the maximalist counterpoint, with extra cushioning for long runs.

Will I Burn More Calories?

If you have started running to get healthier and lose a couple extra pounds, trail running just might help you reach that goal faster. When you run on uneven terrain, your thigh muscles in particular have to work harder, meaning that you burn more energy and more calories.

Additionally, because it’s more enjoyable to run in a natural environment, you might even find yourself spending more time running outside because of the beautiful weather. And that too will burn more calories.

Trail running’s dirty little secret is that it is the gateway to the world of ultrarunning. Your road friends are all talking about running 26.2 miles. Spend enough time with your outdoor running friends and you’ll find yourself in a group of people who have completed 50k, 50 mile, 100k, or even 100 mile and beyond races. You burn calories doing these things. Lots and lots of calories.

Be Prepared (and Enjoy)

While it’s easy to dash out the door and hit the road, you need to be more prepared for running on the trail. It might be fine if you forgo hydration when running in the neighborhood, but you’ll definitely want to bring water with you for the trail.

For longer runs, you should consider bringing extra water or sports drink. Large waistpacks or a running hydration pack are great ways to carry more water. If you know for sure that the trail is a loop, you can always leave water in your car too.

While it’s always good to wear tech gear when running, this is especially important for trail running. Clothing should be made of moisture-wicking merino wool or synthetics. Make sure to remember that it can be colder in the trees where it is shadier, so wear enough clothing, especially in the winter.

After you’ve taken the time to prepare, make sure that you really take the time to enjoy the experience. Instead of dodging other runners and walkers, avoiding cars, and being surrounded by pollution, you can actually enjoy nature. It’s very peaceful.

Stay Safe

While it’s great to get away and be one with nature on the trail, it does mean that you’re in a more vulnerable position than closer to other people. It’s incredibly important that you tell someone where, when, how far, and how long you’ll be gone.

It’s even better if you can get someone to run with you so that there are two people in any emergency situation. The likelihood of being accosted on the trail, by either human or beast, is very small. And yet it happens. But trail running itself is just inherently more dangerous, and slips, falls, and other mishaps are far more common for trail runners than someone on the local track.

You’ll also want to bring a map of the trail you’re running on. It’s okay to put it on your phone, but it’s better if you have a paper map in case your phone dies. Since it’s easy to get lost quickly, it’s good to have a map to know where to go. If you’re really going into the backcountry, navigation devices like a compass, or at least a GPS watch with an expedition mode are extra measures well worth considering.

Finally, keep your runs short until you feel comfortable on trails. You may even prefer to always run with someone when you hit the trails—I know that I do—or at least do longer runs with other people or your dog. Do whatever makes you feel comfortable.

Final Thoughts

Although I love running in general, trail running is a special treat, so I’m excited that you’re thinking about incorporating more trail running into your routine. It’s always great to be able to get away from everything and enjoy nature.

Plus, it will give you a great workout that will help you become a stronger and more versatile runner. And you get an excuse to see some great sunrises and sunsets. As long as you have the proper gear and safety tools, you’ll be sure to enjoy all of your trail runs too!

The Wired Runner