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How to Start Trail Running

If you’ve been running for a little while but haven’t tried trail running yet, then this article is for you! We’ll tell you everything that you need to know about starting to run on trails. While some things do carry over from the road, there are some nuances you’ll want to know about.

We’ll discuss why you might want to consider 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. Because trails are often softer surfaces than road. Dirt, mud, 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, so 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.

In addition, because trail running has more obstacles, it requires you to run in a more concentrated way, so it’s perfect for slow, long runs and recovery runs. Typically, trail running pace is roughly 10-20 percent slower than your average road running pace.

Finally, since no single trail is the same, they offer great variety for runners to change up their running routine so that it doesn’t ever get stale. Similarly, since trails are natural, they offer a great chance for runners to see natural beauty and get fresh air.

And even the same place outside can look different from day-to-day and season-to-day. Obviously, a trail is going to look completely different when the trees are blossoming in the spring versus when the leaves are changing color and falling off in the autumn.

Plus, trail running is a great excuse to get up and see the sunrise or to run after work and see the sunset. If you need a little bit more happiness in your life, there’s nothing like seeing a beautifully colored sunrise or sunset.

What are Some Tips for Beginners?

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 simple tracks 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, but 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.

Finally, a huge must is taking a cell phone with you for safety when you run on the trail, especially if you are running alone as a female. I personally use Nathan’s SaferRun Waistpak when I run on the trail. 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.

Ideally, you’ll want to get a watch that tracks distance and speed and that can be used to help navigate in unfamiliar terrain. This is especially important if you plan to do the majority of your runs on the trail.

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 tracks on a variety of apps like MapMyRun, Trails.com, Trailrunproject.com, and Trailrunner.com. 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. A bit of a contrast to road running where longer 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 you hit something the wrong way. If you are overstriding, you might faceplant.

In addition, keep your eyes down and be sure to scan the trail 10 to 15 feet in front of you for obstacles. You don’t want to stare at your feet; you want to know what is coming ahead of you. 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. Be aware if you’re running in really remote areas, you might encounter wild animals, so you need to be prepared.

What to Do About Hills

Although you can definitely deal with some hills when you’re running on the road, it’s much more common to encounter them on the trail, so you need to be aware. First, you’ll need to 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 to walk those steep parts. You don’t want to find yourself tripping and/or sliding down the hill. When in doubt, walk. 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 is 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. Many trail runners love Hoka One One because they have extra cushioning and are very comfortable on long runs.

Will I Burn More Calories?

If you have started running to get healthier and lose a couple extra pounds, trail running will help you reach that goal faster actually. 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.

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 shader 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. Beyond taking on an attacker, it might be helpful to have a second person just to be able to get help if needed.

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.

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