Are you ready to start trail running, but not quite sure where or how to begin?
Then you’ve come to the right place.
Trail running can open up a whole new world beyond the paved surfaces of a city.
But taking the first few steps can be quite challenging—that’s why many beginner runners avoid it.
Worry no more.
Trail Running For Beginners – The Plan You Need
In today’s post, I’m sharing with you a complete guide to trail running to help make a smooth and easy transition to the off-beaten path.
By the end of this article, you’ll know:
- How to start trail running with confidence
- How to find trails near you
- How to develop proper trail running form
- How to stay safe when trail running
- The exact trail running gear you need
- And so much more…
Let’s lace up and dig in.
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
Here’s what you stand to gain:
Less Risk of injury. Trail running offers surfaces that are typically more merciful on your running muscles and joints, especially in contrast with pavement.
More challenge. Trail running offers a broad range of challenges, including steep hills to climb (or hike), technical terrain to negotiate, etc.
This helps you improve your running game like nothing else.
Burns more calories. According to research, trail running can burn up roughly 10 percent more calories than road running.
Ten percent might not seem as much, but it does add up.
Improves balance and coordination. Running on the unpredictable terrains engages the smaller, intrinsic “helper” muscle groups—especially in the hips and core.
Gets you into nature. Trail running will get you out there far away from civilization, fully experiencing the beauty of nature.
What’s not to like!
The Bad News
Tackling the wilderness comes with a lot of obstacles, such as steep ascents and descents, jagged terrains, shifty spots in the sands, branches sticking out of the ground, low hanging trees, jarring rocks, and roots.
But luckily there are many measures you can take to reduce your risk, some of which I’m sharing in today’s article.
Keep on reading.
How To Find a Trail Near You?
Picking the right trial can either make or break your trail running routine.
Start out right, and you’ll have a lot of fun.
Choose the wrong trail, and you might end up injured, bummed out, and disappointed.
Begin by choosing an easy, short, and relatively flat route to start your trail running routine, and as you get stronger, up the ante by expanding your trail adventures into longer, more technical terrains.
Even if you live in an urban area, it’s not that hard to find nearby local trails.
Reserves and parks are a great venue to get started.
Here are a few tips:
- Check the local network of gravel roads and dirt trails that many towns and cities
- Get in touch with local running clubs, running stores, events, or opt for a service like Sunnto Heat Maps to help map out new places to venture into.
- Use Google and Google earth, or online resources like Trail Run Project.
Do your research on the specific nature of your chosen trail, including obstacles, hazards, pit stops, and of course, wildlife, such as mountain lions, bears, spiders, snakes, as well as poisonous plants.
Get the Right Trail Running Shoes
Road shoes can still work for short trail runs.
But when it comes to regular trail running, you’ll, sooner or later, need a pair of good trail shoes.
Proper trail shoes help protect
your feet from all sorts of trouble, including stubbed toes, bruised feet, slippery falls, sprained ankles, and overuse injury.
Trail shoes tend to be lower profile—meaning lower to the ground—which can cut your risks of ankle twists and sprains.
These are also designed with rugged treads that offer more traction on slippery, muddy trails.
here’s how to make your shoes last longer.
Get the Right Trail Running Gear
trail shoes are the most important equipment but not the only one.
You ‘ll also need a few basic essentials for trail running.
Here they are:
- For clothing, choose the same technical clothing you wear on your daily runs. This should consist of clothing made from synthetic, moisture-wicking fabric.
- Some sort of insect repellent, such as a bug spray, to protect against insect bites and ticks. This, of course, is dependent on where and when you are running.
- A pair pair of gaiters to guard your feet and shoes against the elements.
- A headlamp or a flashlight, especially if you’re planning to any sort of trail running when it’s dark—whether at dawn or late in the evening.
Other trail running items include:
- A hat
- Running Sunglasses
- Lip balm
- A hydration system,
- Pepper spray,
- Gels, and
- An old-fashion map.
Additional resource – Trail Running First Aid Kit
Your first trail runs are likely going to feel like the first time you went running, and it’ll probably suck.
This can happen even when you’re an already established road runner.
According to the Trail Running magazine, expect to run 10 to 20 percent slower on trails than when running on flat surfaces.
For example, if a 5-mile run on pavement usually takes you, say, 50 minutes, the same distance on the trails might take you more than an hour to complete.
That’s why you shouldn’t lose sleep over a slow pace on the trails.
Instead, focus on finding your trail running rhythm.
On your first few runs, aim for 60 to 70 percent of your usual pace, paying attention to landmarks, and watching for obstacles along your way.
As you get savvier, work your way up to 100 percent effort.
A complete beginner?
Try my beginner running plan.
Hydrate All the Time
Proper hydration is key when running.
This is especially the case during trail runs, where you can you find yourself alone in the wilderness far away from urban life.
As a guideline, drink at least 15 to 20 ounces per hour of running, but, of course, drink more if you feel like that you need more.
Consume enough amounts of electrolytes, the electrically-charged minerals, like calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium, that regulate muscle function, water retention, and blood pH—not just during running, but during your everyday life as well.
To make you have water on hand, consider getting a hydration belt or hydration pack to help you carry the fluids you need.
I don’t recommend the handheld option because it’s too distracting for me.
Focus on Proper Trail Running Form
Proper running technique is a game-changer because it can make the difference between making it to your destination or falling hard on your face during a trail workout.
To build and maintain proper form on the uphill, do the following:
- Good posture. Keep your chest open, core engaged, shoulder relaxed and torso tall, and back flat. Don’t hunch forward by looking down at your feet.
- Eyes open. Keep your eyes centered and front and scan the trail 10 to 15 feet in front of obstacles. You’ll have a better reaction time when you’re prepared to handle what’s coming.
- Lean right. Lean forward toward the incline from your ankles while keeping your body straight. This should bring your center of gravity forward. Think ski jumpers position.
- Pick up Your Knees. This is especially the case on super technical terrains littered with roots and rocks. Picking up your knees on the trails helps you avoid roots, rocks, and any other debris that might trip you up.
- Shorten your Stride. Keep your steps short and light over technical terrain so you can easily react and hop without overstriding. Overstriding can put you in a compromised position, especially if your foot lands on an unstable surface.
- Use your arms. For more balance on technical grounds and downhill stretches of the trails, keep your arms a little wider and farther away from your body. Plus, swing your arms back and forth to help you generate forward momentum, especially when climbing up a steep hill.
- Land On Your Midfoot. This may help you maximize balance and protect against injury. It also means that you’re staying over your center of gravity rather than behind or in front of it.
- Breathe right. Keep your breathing, arm swing, and step in equal motion to your cadence. As you run up the hill, use your arms to help propel you, swinging them both forward and back.
On the downhill, your running form will be different but not to a great extent.
Here’s what to pay attention to:
- Step right. Choose your downhill path in advance and pay attention to potentially loose gravel or slimy roots. Look three to five feet ahead of where you’re about to step.
- Avoid overstriding. You’ll be landing hard when you’re reaching out too much in front, which sends lots of shock through your muscles and joints. That’s the last thing you’d want.
- Land on your midfoot. This reduces the load placed on your knees and quads, minimizes the braking effect, and helps to prevent injury, especially blisters. Ensure your feet fall beneath you.
- Keep your arms moving freely. This will allows keeping balance by counterbalancing your legs. Pump your arms back and forth, but not across your body. This will better support your leg movement.
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 a map and a compass —in the event you got lost. Of course, most phones today are equipped with a GPS system, but you should keep in mind there may no signal outside city limits.
- Be identifiable. Bring with you your ID, and a list of emergency contact—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 the 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 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 trails 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 animals.
- Protect yourself. You can always bring with you a 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 headlamp or flashlight if you are planning to run when it’s dark.
- Pay attention to wildlife. Here’s how 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
Yes, the trails have their own etiquette too, and you need to abide by it if you are serious about keeping it safe and civilized.
Here are a few helpful hints to help you develop good trail etiquette (and not look like a complete a$$hole):
- Be conscious of other trail users. Loudly call out “Passing on your right (or left)” when approaching them from behind to avoid startling them and/or taking them off guard. Plus, make way if you hear someone is coming up behind on a narrow, single track.
- Keep distance. Maintain a healthy distance of at least 10 feet from other runners if you are running with a group. This is going to help you better see the ground ahead of you.
- Be friendly. This is what good etiquette is all about. Smile, be of help and be happy about being able to share the great outdoors with other outdoor junkies.
- Keep it positive. Try to contribute to the trail community and expand it, even if it’s just with a smile, a node, or a few short friendly words.
Exercises To Improve Your Trail Running Experience
The best way to get good at trails is to run more and more of them.
Practice, after all, makes perfect.
But don’t dismiss strength training.
Making your muscles strong improves your power output and reduces your risk of injury for both overuse and traumatic injuries.
The best part?
You don’t need a gym to perform the majority of these exercises.
1. Single-Leg Deadlifts
Single leg deadlifts target the hamstrings, glutes, and hips.
They can help counter quad dominance, which is a common muscular imbalance in runners.
Stand with knees slightly bent, feet hip-width apart and arms at your sides while holding two dumbbells against your thighs.
While maintaining a neutral spine, lift one foot off the ground, and hinge at the hip, bringing your back leg up.
Then lower the weight down your legs until it reaches just below the knees.
Hold for a second, then slowly press back up to starting position.
You should feel a slight pull build up in the glutes and hamstring before pushing back to starting position.
2. Single-Leg Forward Jumps
This is a fantastic exercise for building power and strength in the calves, quads, glutes, and the entire core.
It also improves ankle strength and coordination, which guards against sprains.
Begin by standing on your right foot with your core engaged, back flat, and arms by your sides.
While using your arms to propel you upward, jump forward as far as possible and land softly on your right foot.
The goal is balance, not height, so jump gently.
Keep it under control.
Repeat on the other leg.
Once this exercise gets easier, do it with your eyes closed.
Additional resource – How to choose trail running gaiters
3. Box Jumps
Box jumps improve leg and hip explosiveness and drive— both key for strong trail running.
They also build knee stability and power.
Begin by standing with feet hip-width part behind a step, a box, or a height-adjustable study platform.
While bracing your core and keeping your back straight, bend at the hips, swings your arms back, and jump up and forward, propelling yourself onto the box.
Make sure to land on the box with both feet, and your knees bent at a 45-degree angle.
Keep your shoulders, neck, and head relaxed throughout the jump.
Jump back down to starting posting and immediately repeat.
Add more reps and height as your power improves.
4. Bulgarian Split Squat
A powerful quadriceps shaker. Bulgarian Split Squats also activate a lot of stabilizer muscles, which are key for coordination and balance.
While holding a pair of dumbbells or Kettlebells, assume a lunge position with the toes of your rear foot resting on a one-to-two foot box, bench, or other slightly raised surface.
While keeping your core engaged and your back flat, lower your torso by bending your front knee, keeping your knee behind your toes throughout.
Once your thigh is parallel to the floor, hold for a moment, then slowly extend back to starting position.
Remember to squeeze your glutes hard as you drive back up
How To Overcome Your Trail Running Fears
Thinking about starting trail running, but your fears kept you away?
Trail running can be a real transformative and amazing adventure, but it can also be intimidating for newbies
But, trying something new, especially trail running, can be intimidating.
How do you tackle technical terrains, how to stay safe and not get lost, handle the wildlife around, etc.
Quite scary sometimes, but enjoy the roll. Here are some common trail running fears and also a number of safety precautions for a comfortable and risk-free experience.
Additional Resource – Here’s how to protect yourself from dogs
Fear # One: Falling While Trail Running
The scariest thing about solo trail running is that fact you might fall, break your knee or hit your head, have no network, and be helpless until night falls and you get mauled by an animal. This is a legitimate fear for everyone, runners, or non-runners.
Here’s the truth.
You can pretty much fall and die anywhere, even in your own comfy home.
In fact, the only certain thing about life is that you’re going to die.
Eventually, all trail runners eat dirt.
Falling is unavoidable when running up and down hills and over rocks, scree, and tree roots.
The sooner you accept this fact the better off you’ll be.
How To Overcome
To prevent falling, take quick and small steps, shooting for a cadence of roughly 180 steps a minute.
This helps your feet to land under your center of gravity, offering a stable landing and control.
On technical terrains, pick up your feet to overcome any obstacles on the trails that could trip you up.
Already lost your footing?
The key is to distribute your weight.
Instead of falling straight forward, tuck your chin towards your chest, tighten your core, and roll right over your lead arm to the back of your shoulder.
Check this YouTube Tutorial.
Fear # Two: Wildlife Encounters While Trail Running
I didn’t grow up around animals, so I’ve always felt uneasy with them, including cats and dogs.
That’s why getting attacked by an animal in the trails was a top fear for me.
In fact, I’d bet that wildlife encounters rank among the most common fears for trail runners, and these are pretty common.
So what do you do about it?
How to Overcome?
Lots of runners are terrified of animal encounters, but wildlife is more frightened of you than the other way around.
Most forms of wildlife often nothing to do with you.
In fact, they can often sense your presence and vanish off the trail long before you can spot one.
The best way to avoid an encounter is to make some noise, shout or sing while you’re trail running to let wildlife know your presence.
Instead of trying to outrun wildlife, stay calm, back away slowly, and give them a wide berth.
You may also want to run with a bear mace and a whistle to fend off potential predators.
Number Three: Getting Lost While Trail Running
Getting lost on a trail run is a gut-wrenching experience as it could make you rack up the miles, get really fatigued, and keep you out past dark, but it is also preventable.
How to overcome
First rule, familiarity.
For your first solo run, pick a well-maintained route where there’s no chance of getting lost.
Start with a well-marked path, preferably a looped route that will always bring you right back to your starting point.
Second rule, planning.
Plan your running course on your phone, then follow the path.
Don’t rely blindly on network because batteries can wear out, and tree canopy can weaken a signal.
Get a trail map, a compass, then learn how to read the topography.
I’d also recommend that you go running with a knowledgeable friend or in a group so you can have help to think through things.
Here’s how to stay safe while running.
Fear # Four: Ankle Sprains While Trail Running
Along the trails lie a host of ankle twisters such as rocks, roots, and quick descents.
A lapse in attention is all it takes to compromise your balance and result in an ankle sprain.
Keep in mind, runners with a history of ankle injury are more prone to injury than those who don’t.
How to overcome
Choose smooth, nice, and well-traveled dirt trails instead of incredibly technical, gnarly, or rocky trails.
Power walk through steep or technical trails.
This lets your body adjust to obstacles that you may encounter while hitting the trails.
To avoid tripping, keep your gaze ahead of you instead of looking at what’s underneath you.
Stay light on your feet, too.
Imagine you’re running through an agility ladder, taking small and quick steps the entire time.
Fear # Five – Being Slow While Trail Running
Understand that trail running is not the same as road running—trail miles don’t translate to road miles.
The steep, rooty, and technical terrains of trails is nothing like the flat, smooth ride of a road.
For these reasons, it might take you double the time to complete a mile on the trail than when running in urban areas.
How to overcome it
If you tend to obsess over your running stats, may I suggest leaving your GPS watch (or whatever you’re using to monitor pace) at home.
For example, if you regularly cover 8 miles in 60 minutes on the road, go for no more than 60 minutes on the trail, preferably running an out-and-back route, so you don’t tack on time out of the blue. Take your time and enjoy the breath-taking scenery.
Don’t stress about speed or pace. It’s not an Olympic race.
There you have it.
The above tips and guidelines are all you need to get started with trail running.
Now It’s up to you to take action on what you have just learned.
The rest is just detail.
Please feel free to leave your comments and questions in the section below.
In the meantime, thank you for reading my post.
Keep Running Strong.