Trail Running Tips: How To Start Trail Running & Become A Trail Runner

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If you’ve been running for at least a couple of months, it’s possible you’ve gotten stuck in a rut and are getting bored with your usual route, especially if you do a lot of road running. But have you ever thought of opting for trail running? Or you are not aware of how to start trail running? Well, it’s time to shake up the routine, consider adding a trail run to your weekly running schedule.

Trail running is full of variation and surprise. No matter where you are or where you’re headed, you’re practically guaranteed to find a hill you need to either climb or descend. If you don’t run into one of those, you’ll at least have to navigate around some rocks, tree stumps, a stream, or even some wildlife.

Pro tip: Visit your local running store and pick out a pair of trail running shoes. They are a little bulkier than road running shoes, which helps support your feet and joints when you run off-road.

Read on for our top tips for how to start trail running!

How To Start Trail Running: Find the running trails

First things first when getting started with trail running…you have to know where the trails are! There are several tools you can use to discover the trail network around you. A great place to start is your local running or outdoor adventure store. Chances are they’ll be able to clue you into the popular local trails, and they might even organize weekly or monthly running events with a running club that has a trail-running group that you can take advantage of to meet other trail runners and start off with a group.

Your next best option is to hit the internet! There are some great websites and apps that have a whole catalog of trails where you live, such as AllTrails and Trail Run Project. Both sites allow for the trail user to upload their reviews and photos of the trails, which can help you decide which one to tackle first. If you live near a national park, visit their website to learn about the running trails. 

How To Start Trail Running: Get the gear

Once you find a trail to explore, you might consider adding to your gear stash with some trail-specific equipment. Is trail gear mandatory? Not exactly, but it will likely help make your time our there more enjoyable, especially when you’re just making the switch to the trails. Our list for just getting started:

Shoes:

Trail shoes have more grip built into the soles of the shoe that help you tackle whatever the trail is offering, whether that’s mud, gravel, roots, or slick rocks. They can also be more stable than road shoes on uneven terrain, as well as provide some protection from rocks and bumping your toes on obstacles.

Light:

If you spend any time on the trail before sunrise or nearing sundown, you’d be wise to carry a light source with you. There are many options from headlamps to flashlights to waist lights; it’s just a matter of finding the one that works for you.

Watch:

If you’re a regular road runner, you might already have a watch or other way to track your distance. If not, a GPS device can be a great way to track your mileage, the record just how much elevation you gained going up and down those hills, and some can even point you back to the trailhead if you get turned around mid-run.

Pack or handheld:

Since you won’t be stopping by water fountains on the sidewalk, having a method for keeping some water and a gel or bar with you is important. Whether you spring for a hydration pack or get by with just a handheld bottle, make sure you’ve got a way to carry the water you need for your distance.

Gaiters:

If your trail has lots of sand, pine needles, or other grit that can find its way into your shoe, gaiters are a great investment to provide some extra protection. You won’t have to stop to empty out your shoe once you’ve got a pair snug around your ankles!

Pro-tip: Consider carrying a cell phone, just in case you happen to get lost or get injured on the trail.

How To Start Trail Running: Check your pace and effort

Moving from the road to the trail can alter not only your gear list but also your running form and technique. Whereas the road or sidewalk can be a straight path with good visibility, the trail can hide loose rocks, tree roots, and general variations of ups and downs of the path.

Run Form:

Your best bet to staying upright and moving smoothly is to scan the ground 10-15 feet in front of you so you can pick out a path before you even get there. It can be tempting to look right at your feet, especially on rocky or rooty sections of trail, but that can lead to poor running posture and a lack of awareness of your surroundings. Walking or running uphill can also alter your form to an extent, requiring you to power yourself up with your arms, or to skate down the hill by keeping your feet right under your body.

Effort and Pace:

When considering your first trail distance, it’s best to start out with the mileage you are familiar with, and maybe even go a mile or two less than that. Your typical run is going to take longer on the trails as you slow to navigate hills or uneven terrain or pause to take a picture of the view.

Rather than focusing on time and pace, keep your focus on your effort instead. It’ll be a much more accurate gauge of your run than continually monitoring your GPS or watch. Your pace will change frequently to match the section of trail you’re on, so use your own sense of energy output as your guide. Try walking the hills so you’re ready to pick it back up on the downhill and flat sections.

Recover Wisely

Even if you don’t push the mileage or effort, it’s likely you’ll be a bit sore afterward just based on the terrain and effort of the trails. A great way to finish up your run is to spend some time with your foam roller. We recommend (at least) 10 minutes of post-run mobility to start, especially to hit all those muscles that just supported you on the trails: quads, calves, ankles, and feet. Follow that up with a few quality stretches and you’ll be ready to hit your next run or workout feeling great.

How To Start Trail Running: Fuel and hydrate

Given that your runs on the trail can take more time and effort than being on the road, it’s a good idea to take along some fuel and hydration so you don’t hit empty while out there. Some folks prefer to take along water and gels or real food, while others prefer “liquid nutrition,” which is usually a powder that you mix into your handheld water bottle.

Figuring out what works best for you can take some trial and error, but there’s an option for every runner and every run. Whether it’s water and a banana, liquid nutrition, or a combination of the two, you’ll find what your body prefers to keep you charging up the hills.

How To Start Trail Running: Be courteous

While out there, keep a few general etiquette rules in mind:

“Pack it in, pack it out.” Don’t leave any gel wrappers or TP out on the trail. Keeping the trails in good condition means more people can use them without having to step around or pick up someone else’s junk. Littering is lame!

Yield to whoever is going faster than you. If there’s a runner coming up behind you, scoot over so they can pass you. If a mountain bike is approaching in front of you or from behind, give them enough room to safely pass.

Obey the leash laws of the trail if you like to run with your dog.

How To Start Trail Running: Train for a trail race

Once you get a taste for the trails, you just might become a convert! Though certainly not a requirement, running a trail race can be a great way to stay motivated in training, meet new people, and check out new trails. 

Ultrasignup is a comprehensive site to find races according to location, distance, date, and more. No matter the type of race you’re looking for, you’ll be able to find it here. 

This is also another great opportunity to talk to your local running store to see if they put on any races, or if the staff volunteer at races in the area.

Have fun out there!

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