Trail Running 101: A Complete Guide for Beginner Runners

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Beginner Runner
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David Dack

Ready to ditch the city streets and venture into the wild world of trail running? You’re in the right spot!

If you’ve been pondering the idea of hitting the trails but aren’t quite sure where to begin, don’t fret. Many new runners face the same dilemma. The world of trail running offers a refreshing escape from the concrete jungle, but those first steps can be intimidating.

But hey, there’s no need to worry any longer! In this article, we’re about to embark on a journey—a complete guide to trail running that’ll turn you from a city slicker to a trail-blazing pro. By the time you finish reading, you’ll have all the knowledge you need to:

  • Start trail running with confidence
  • Discover fantastic trails near you
  • Stay safe and sound during your trail adventures
  • Pick the perfect trail running gear

Excited? Good! So, let’s lace up those shoes, embrace the great outdoors, and dive into the exciting world of trail running.

Trail Running Explained

So, what’s trail running all about?

In layman’s terms, trail running involves running on anything that is unpaved and/or natural, mostly taking place on softer, more cushioned surfaces like dirt paths and grass.

In general, a good trail surface should:

(1) Offer natural obstacles (think roots and rocks),

(2) Be unpaved (preferably natural),

(3) Provide great scenery (away from the hustle and bustle of the city) and

(4) Involve elevation gain (lots of ascents and descents).

The Benefits of Trail Running

Let’s uncover the treasure trove of benefits that await you in the world of trail running. It’s not just a run; it’s a journey filled with advantages you won’t want to miss out on.

  • Less Risk of injury. Trail running is your body’s best friend. Why? Because it’s a kinder, gentler alternative to the relentless pounding of pavement. The surfaces beneath your feet are forgiving, like a plush carpet for your muscles and joints.
  • More challenge. Trail running serves up a smorgasbord of obstacles. You’ll conquer steep hills that leave your lungs gasping for air, navigate technical terrain that demands quick thinking and nimble footwork, and power through mud, rocks, and roots.
  • Burns more calories. Research shows that trail running can torch around 10 percent more calories than road running. Sure, 10 percent might not sound like a lot, but it adds up over time. So, if you’re looking to shed those extra pounds while enjoying nature’s beauty, trail running is key.
  • Improves balance and coordination.  As you navigate the unpredictable terrain, your body engages those smaller, intrinsic “helper” muscles, especially in the hips and core. These muscles work in harmony to keep you upright, helping you develop a rock-solid foundation and agility.
  • Gets you into nature. The off-beaten path whisks you away from the hustle and bustle of city life, immersing you in the tranquility of the wilderness. Picture yourself running alongside glistening streams, weaving through ancient forests, and breathing in the pure, untamed air.

What’s not to like!

The Bad News

Now, before you dive headfirst into the thrilling world of trail running, let’s address the elephant on the trail: the challenges. Here a few:

  • The Rugged Terrain: Mother Nature doesn’t always lay out a red carpet for trail runners. You’ll encounter steep ascents and descents that feel like scaling a mini-mountain, jagged terrains that test your footing, and sneaky spots in the sand that can throw off your balance. But guess what? These challenges are what makes trail running an epic adventure.
  • Nature’s Little Surprises: Picture this: branches seemingly conspiring to trip you up, low-hanging trees that demand you to duck and dive, and rocks and roots that play hide-and-seek with your feet. It’s a wilderness out there, and these surprises are all part of the game.
  • Risky Business: Yes, there’s an element of risk when you’re out in the wild. But fear not; I’m about to arm you with tips and tricks to keep those risks in check.

How To Find a Trail Near You?

Finding the perfect trail is like discovering a hidden gem, and it can make or break your trail running experience.

Here are a few tips on how to locate the best trails around you.

Urban Trails Exist:

Living in a bustling urban area doesn’t mean you’re miles away from trails. You’d be surprised at how many hidden pockets of nature you can find. Look for local reserves, parks, or even the network of gravel roads and dirt trails that many towns and cities offer. These can be your starting point for off-road running adventures.

Connect with the Community:

Joining local running clubs or visiting running stores is like unlocking a treasure trove of trail knowledge. These seasoned runners can point you in the right direction and even introduce you to fellow trail enthusiasts. It’s a win-win!

Tech-Savvy Solutions:

In this digital age, technology can be your trusty sidekick. Consider using apps like Suunto Heat Maps to discover new trails, or simply rely on Google and Google Earth to scout potential routes. The internet is teeming with resources like Trail Run Project, where you can find valuable trail information and even connect with the trail-running community.

Know Your Terrain:

Before you lace up those trail shoes, do some research on your chosen trail. Understand its unique characteristics, from potential obstacles and hazards to convenient pit stops.

And don’t forget to check for any wildlife encounters you might expect—knowledge is your best friend when it comes to staying safe.

Get the Right Trail Running Shoes

Ah, the age-old debate: road shoes vs. trail shoes. Let’s dive into this footwear conundrum, shall we?

Road Shoes vs. Trail Shoes:

You might wonder if your trusty road shoes can handle the trails. Well, for short trail runs, they can do the job, but hear us out. Regular trail running will eventually call for a pair of dedicated trail shoes. Why, you ask? Let’s break it down:

Protect Those Feet:

Trail shoes are your armor against all sorts of foot-related troubles. From the ever-dreaded stubbed toes to bruised soles and slippery falls, they’ve got you covered. Plus, with those gnarly terrains and uneven surfaces, a sprained ankle might be lurking.

Lower to the Ground:

Here’s a nifty trick that trail shoes bring to the table—they tend to be lower profile, meaning they sit closer to the ground. Why is this important, you wonder? Well, it significantly reduces your risk of those pesky ankle twists and sprains. No one wants to hobble home after a run, right?

Traction Galore:

Ever found yourself sliding around on muddy trails like Bambi on ice? Trail shoes come equipped with rugged treads that offer more grip than a superhero on a mission. Slippery slopes and muddy paths won’t stand a chance.

Get the Right Trail Running Gear

Now, let’s talk gear because hitting the trails isn’t just about the shoes; it’s about being well-prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws your way.

So, gear up, trailblazers!

Trail-Worthy Threads:

Your regular running gear won’t cut it here. Opt for technical clothing made from synthetic, moisture-wicking fabric. It’s like your second skin, keeping you dry and comfortable through mud, rain, or sweat

Battle the Bugs:

Depending on where and when you run, insects might decide you’re their new favorite snack. Arm yourself with insect repellent—your shield against pesky bites and unwelcome tick guests.

Gaiters: The Unsung Heroes:

These might look like oversized socks, but they’re your secret weapon against nature’s little surprises. Gaiters guard your feet and shoes against the elements—think dirt, debris, and pebbles. They’re like a forcefield for your feet.

Shine a Light:

Planning a dawn or dusk adventure? A headlamp or flashlight is your trusty sidekick. Navigating the trails in the dark becomes a breeze, and you’ll avoid those accidental encounters with tree branches. Ouch!

Other trail running items include:

Additional resource – Trail Running First Aid Kit 

Start Slowly

Alright, let’s get real about your first trail runs. Remember that feeling when you first started running? Well, you might just experience it all over again, and yes, it might not be all sunshine and rainbows.

Even if you’re a seasoned road runner, brace yourself for a reality check: trail running can slow you down. In fact, according to Trail Running magazine, expect to be 10 to 20 percent slower on those winding trails compared to your flat-road pace.

Here’s a little math for you: if you usually conquer a 5-mile road run in a cool 50 minutes, that same distance on the trails might stretch into more than an hour. Yep, it’s a whole different ballgame out there.

However, don’t fret about your pace. Instead, focus on finding your trail running groove. Start with about 60 to 70 percent of your usual effort. Take your time, soak in the surroundings, and, most importantly, keep an eagle eye out for those sneaky obstacles Mother Nature throws your way.

A complete beginner?

Try my beginner running plan.

Hydrate All the Time

Hydration is always important when you’re running, but it becomes much more crucial during your trail adventures, especially when you find yourself deep in the wilderness, far from the familiar sights of urban life.

Here’s the golden rule: aim to drink at least 15 to 20 ounces of liquid for every hour you’re out there pounding the trails. But hey, if you feel like your body’s thirsting for more, don’t hold back. Listen to what it’s telling you, and gulp down that refreshing H2O.

Now, it’s not just about chugging water; you’ve got to keep those electrolytes in check. Electrolytes are key for optimal performance – calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium – they’re the ones responsible for muscle function, water retention, and even blood pH levels.

To keep the hydration game strong, think about investing in a trusty hydration belt or pack. Sure, some folks might opt for the handheld water bottle, but let’s be honest, it can be a bit distracting – not to mention it might throw off your trail-running groove.

Trail Running Safety

Like any other outdoor sport, trail running has its dangers, and if you plan to spend any length of time on remote trails, it’s key to know how to stay safe.

To stay safe on the trails, do the following:

  • Say something. Tell someone—a family member, a friend, a neighbor, you name it—where you’re running and let them know when they should expect to hear back from you. Here’s the full guide to safe running.
  • Cell phones & maps. Bring your cell phone, and learn how to use a map and a compass —in the event you get lost. Of course, most phones today are equipped with a GPS system, but you should keep in mind there may be no signal outside city limits.
  • Be identifiable. Bring with you your ID and a list of emergency contacts—in the off chance something bad happens to you, God forbid.
  • Run distraction-free. Leave your headphones at home so you can keep your ears on your surroundings. Remember to enjoy the pristine sights and sounds of the natural world—without letting them distract you from the task at hand.
  • Stay on the mark. Keep your runs on marked trails as often as possible, and don’t be afraid of running right through a stream—getting your feet wet is part and parcel of the trail running experience.
  • Run with others. There is safety in numbers, to do your best to schedule your trail runs with a training buddy or a running group.
  • Beware of animals. Familiarize yourself with the type of wildlife in your area, and know what to do when you come face to face with a bear, a mountain lion, a snake, or any other dangerous animal.
  • Protect yourself. You can always bring with you pepper spray if you are running alone and safety is an issue.
  • Use a Safety app. Download and use safety apps for your phones, such as Road ID and bSafe.
  • Bring energy. For long trail runs, make sure to bring with you water and some food and fuel.
  • Be visible. Put on a headlamp or flashlight if you are planning to run when it’s dark.
  • Pay attention to wildlife. Here’s how to prevent animal attacks while running.
  • Keeps your eyes open. Be mindful of your surroundings. Use common sense. Listen to your gut, and never ignore those ancient gut feelings.

Practice Good Trail Running Etiquette

Trails have their own unspoken code, and if you want to keep the outdoors safe and friendly, it’s time to embrace it. Here are some pearls of wisdom to make you the trail etiquette champ:

  • Mind Your Manners: Always be aware of fellow trail users. Nobody likes surprises, so if you’re coming up from behind, give a friendly heads-up with a hearty “Passing on your right (or left),” especially if you’re about to zoom past them. It avoids startling them and keeps everyone on the same page. And on those narrow single tracks, be ready to yield if needed.
  • Maintain Your Space: If you’re part of a running pack, remember the ten-foot rule – keep a healthy distance from each other. This not only ensures you get a better view of the terrain ahead but also prevents any accidental stumbles or tumbles.
  • Friendly Vibes Only: Embrace your inner trail ambassador. Be the hiker, runner, or walker who smiles, nods, and shares a few friendly words. It’s amazing how a simple “hello” can create a sense of camaraderie on those winding trails.
  • Spread the Love: Remember, it’s not just about following the rules; it’s about contributing to the thriving trail community. Whether it’s a smile, a nod, or a few encouraging words, spread positivity and make the trail a welcoming place for all.

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