A Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running

A Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running

Switching from road to trail can be exciting, yet intimidating. Here’s what beginners need to know about trail running.

Trail running is freedom — freedom from the distractions of city roads and freedom to explore the beauty of nature and a different style of movement. Trails offer the promise of adventure with their variety and challenge. There is nothing like tucking into the woods and getting lost in the thicket. As John Muir said, “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”

If this sounds like heaven to you, you aren’t alone. Interest and participation in trail running have grown by an average of 12% per year for a decade with an estimated 20 million trail runners worldwide, according to an August 2021 report from the International Trail Running Association. If you’ve recently started running trails or are curious about the sport, this beginner’s guide is for you. 

Understanding Trail Running Terrain 

The most obvious difference as you transition from road to trail is that the ground is different! Trails offer the best dirt therapy around, and you will find differences in terrain based on the type of trail, elevation changes, and surface type. Understanding these differences — and the terms used to describe them — can help you select trails that are appropriate for your ability level. 

Types of Trails

Types of trails range on a continuum from groomed to technical, and from singletrack to wide/road. Groomed trails are smooth with packed dirt or gravel, with limited to no roots, rocks, or exposure. The more a trail moves along the continuum toward technical, the more obstacles you’ll face that add to the challenge, such as roots, varying types of rocks, mud, mountainous exposure, and the like. 

Trails can also be described as fire or land management roads, single track or double track. Any of these types of trails can range along the continuum from groomed to technical. Single-track trails are wide enough for one person to run. Double-track trails are a bit wider, with enough room for about two people side by side. Fire or land management roads (or jeep roads) are open dirt roads that are passable by all-terrain vehicles. Despite the fact that ATVs can traverse, don’t assume they will be groomed! In some cases, while wider than single or double track, these roads can have challenging components, such as rocks and elevation gain. 

Elevation Gain

The terms “flat” and “hilly” are often used differently in trail running than in road running. For example, veteran trail runners may refer to a trail as “flat”, but a road runner may consider that same trail as rolling or hilly. 

To give you a sense of this difference, Ultrarunner magazine classifies elevation gain as follows: 

  • Rolling terrain: up to 50 feet per mile (road races might classify this range as hilly to very hilly)
  • Hilly: 50-150 feet per mile
  • Very hilly: 150-250 feet per mile
  • Mountainous: 250+ feet per mile

These ranges can help prepare you for what to expect for races or specific trails.

Surface

Trail surfaces include dirt, grass, gravel, sand, mud, roots, rocks, and, in many cases, a combination of all of the above. Any of these surfaces can be combined with the previous categories, which makes trail running quite a fun adventure. The more varied the surface, the more technical the terrain becomes, necessitating changes in technique and effort. 

Trail Running Technique

A groomed trail likely won’t result in many changes to your run technique, but as you move across that continuum toward increasingly more technical trails, there may be some changes in stride and approach to hills. Generally, trail runners employ a shorter, quicker stride than road runners, which allows them to hop rocks or skip to get over roots. 

Hills

Hills are a key part of the fun and adventure of trail running. Work on quick, short strides for both uphill and downhill running, and use your upper body to assist with stability and drive. The uphill is a particularly invigorating challenge — you really know you are ALIVE as your lungs beat the drum. 

Uphill running requires a strong leg drive and you need to pump your arms to assist with this. On very steep or technical uphill grades, it is often more efficient to power hike. You can control your effort by switching between hiking and running, which allows you to run as soon as the grade lessens or as you crest over the top of the hill. Work on transitioning from running to hiking and from hiking back to running. This will take practice — be patient and have fun with it! 

If you are planning on very hilly or mountainous trail running, practice with poles. If the terrain is a super steep gradient, toe in to get traction rather than hiking with a flat foot or heel first. Use your poles to help with the lift. 

The downhills, while tricky at first, can leave you feeling like you are flying through the woods. Stay relaxed, and don’t lean too far back, as this will force heel striking and increase your risk of injury. Rather, focus on quick steps, using your arms like rudders for balance and steering. More technical downhills may require a stair-stepping motion. To start, go at the speed you feel comfortable with. This will improve with experience. Many trail runners find that downhill running is often more challenging than uphill! 

Given the variability in terrain, it is important to stay alert. Look down the trail several feet in front of you — not straight down at your feet — so you can pick a line and run through it. Rocks and small stumps can trip you up, especially if covered by leaves. 

Trail Running Training Tips for Beginners

Measure Your Effort

If you are a road runner that is used to training by pace, trail running will open a new opportunity for you. Generally speaking, pace is not a useful metric for trail runners for a few reasons. 

First, we are generally slower on trails for the same effort as compared to the road. The variability of the terrain means that pace will not be a very helpful metric to determine intensity and performance. For example, imagine you are running on a somewhat rocky trail, with undulating terrain. Your usual pace is going to be a heck of a lot harder in those conditions than it might be on a groomed trail or road. 

Second, the pace from your watch is most likely wrong, as GPS signals are notoriously inaccurate on trails. I’ve run right next to training buddies, and at the end, we all come out with different estimates, sometimes by several miles! 

While pace is a finicky friend, you can use your typical training zones for RPE (rating of perceived exertion) and heart rate. Your aerobic HR zone for the road will translate to an aerobic effort on the trail.  

Train by Duration

Because there can be significant differences in how long a certain mileage takes on different trails (for reasons just explained), I generally recommend training by duration. Estimate time on feet for your ultimate goal event, and train to be prepared for that duration. 

When transitioning from road running, gradually build your trail time. For example, if you regularly run three to four hours per week on the road, start with one of your shorter runs on the trail and build from there. Trail running will leave you sore and tired when you first start, even for a shorter run! Too much too soon can greatly increase your risk of injury. 

Train for Your Race

In order to prepare for your goal race or trail event, you need to train specifically. In addition to hitting duration targets, run on terrain that is specific to your event. Think in terms of the variations discussed in the previous terrain section, including terrain type, elevation, and surface. A note on elevation: make sure you understand the elevation profile and how the climbing is organized. For example, is there one long climb or is there a series of shorter but steeper climbs? 

Don’t Forget Strength Training

Incorporate a regular strength routine into your training plan to include movements that work your body laterally and challenge your overall stability. A BOSU or balance board is a great investment for this purpose. Also, don’t forget your upper body! You will be surprised at how much you use your upper body in trail running. 

Learn to be Self-Sufficient

Bring plenty of water and calories to support the duration of your run. If you don’t have a hydration system, you need to get one. Depending on where and how long you will be running, you should also consider bringing a headlamp, additional clothes for emergency weather changes (which is especially important in the mountains), and some basic first aid. The extra weight is worth it if you get jammed up!

Trail Running Gear for Beginners

Some trail running gear basics include: 

  • Shoes 
  • Hydration vest/pack
  • Headlamp
  • Poles (for very hilly or mountainous trail)

Like all sports, you can add more items to the list, but this will cover the basics for most introductions to trail running. I’m also assuming that you already have basic running gear, such as cold or wet weather clothing, lube, blister care, and the like. If you don’t, add that to your list, too. 

Trail Running Shoes for Beginners

Of the above gear list, shoes are most necessary, so let’s focus on them. If you are planning to run mostly groomed trails, you can very likely get away with your road shoes. But, if you will venture onto trails with technical features that make them slippery, rooty, and rocky, consider a trail-specific pair of shoes. Trail shoes vary from road shoes based on grip/traction, foot protection, and durability.

Trail shoes have two sole features that allow them to have more grip: lugs and a rubber coating to make them more sticky. In some cases, the coating is less durable on pavement, so it is good practice to save your trail shoes for dirt. 

Trail shoes also offer additional protection around the toes so when you inevitably stub your toe on a root or a rock, it doesn’t hurt quite as badly. Some shoes will also offer rock plates, which protect the bottoms of the feet from roots and rocks that might poke into the soles. Trail shoes have differing levels of water protection as well. Lastly, trail shoes use upper materials that provide greater durability to accommodate for the rougher style of running.

There is no one brand that is superior to all others. Your best trail running shoe is based on the trails you’ll be running, the specific stability or support you need as a runner, the width of your foot, and your desired ramp. Your best bet is to visit your local run specialty shop to try on different pairs that match your needs. 

Trail Running Etiquette

Trail running provides a unique community, filled with fun and friendly people who want to enjoy the adventure of the great outdoors. As such, it is imperative as trail runners that we protect the lands we are so fortunate to run. 

Leave No Trace

Protecting the land is accomplished by following the leave no trace principles. Some of the key principles include packing out whatever you take with you, traveling only on durable surfaces, and avoiding areas where you may cause further erosion. If you need to pass or are passed on singletrack, do not continue to run off-trail. Respect wildlife by leaving them be. Do not feed wildlife or encourage them to engage with you in any way. If we all act as stewards of the trails, we’ll have the privilege to use them forever!

Right of way

Generally speaking, you should yield to horses and uphill runners (when you are going downhill), and, depending on the trail, you may need to yield to mountain bikers. If you need to pass someone, let them know. A simple “on your left” or “is it okay to pass?” will do the trick. Remember to read the signs to know the appropriate etiquette for any given trail. When in doubt, just let the other person pass — good karma is always welcome!

Trail Running Safety

We run trails to get away from the hustle and bustle of the world — that is part of their charm! But, trail running also has its risks. Keep your overall safety in mind. Bring a pocket knife, trail map, some basic first aid (falls are very common in trail running!), and a cell phone. However, be forewarned: some of the best trails have no reception, so it’s a good idea to share your plans with someone and to give them an estimate of when you expect to return.

Depending on where you live, you will want to protect against tick-borne illnesses. If you are heading into a heavily wooded area where Lyme ticks are prevalent, be sure to wear tall socks and spray your clothing with strong tick repellent. Check yourself for ticks when you finish. 

Finding Trails and Trail Races

There are a variety of resources to help you locate trails and trail races. For races, start with the race calendars that are available on TrailRunnermag.com, Ultrasignup.com, and Ultrarunning.com. Despite the “ultra” in the last two, they include races of all distances. 

If you are looking for trails to run in your area or while traveling, consult the apps Trail Run Project or All Trails. Both have free plans that give you plenty of options to find trails near you. And, once you have your map, you can still see it even if you lose reception. 

Trail running poses different challenges than the road, so be patient and embrace the process of learning a new sport. Enjoy trail running for the unique experience it is. Embrace nature and listen to its sounds. Enjoy the feel of the dirt under your feet.

If you are thinking about taking your trail running to the ultra-distance, click here for an article I wrote previously with some pointers for making the transition to ultrarunning.

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