Use this beginner’s guide to trail running to safely go off road with your fitness.
Endurance sports, especially running, are more popular now than ever. Did you know that since 1995, the number of runners who complete marathons annually has more than doubled? As the roads and races become more crowded with runners, more of us are turning to the trails and the solitude, challenges, adventures and benefits that come with them.
If you’re new to trail running, keep in mind that for the most part, trail running is just like road running only on different terrain. There are a few major differences, and several best practices to address before hitting the trail.
Before you lace up
Trail running is defined as running on any non-paved surface. That could mean rugged mountain singletrack, or it could simply be a crushed gravel path, a smooth dirt road or a wide horse trail. By broadening the definition, most runners are able to find trails near their homes and embrace smoother, less intimidating options to get started.
Trail running offers a number of physical benefits — most notably, injury prevention. Running injuries are caused by the repetitive strain of muscles from repeating the exact same stride, or gait, mile after mile. Terrain found on trails is less predictable and more uneven than that on the road. Even the slightest bump or divot in the trail forces an adjustment to your stride. Those adjustments strengthen new muscles, reduce the repetitiveness and protect against many common running injuries.
Do you need new gear?
The first thing you need to know about trail-running gear is that you don’t need specific gear to get started. If trail running becomes a big part of your training, however, new gear will prove to be useful.
Your main piece of gear should be a running shoe designed for more rugged terrain. Trail shoes have more aggressive lugs on the bottom, to grip the dirt, mud and slick rocks, and a tougher upper to withstand those same elements. Many also feature a layer of flexible rock plate beneath the insole to protect your feet against sharp rocks or sticks.
Other gear commonly used by trail runners are hydration packs or handheld water bottles.
When it comes to how you run on trails vs. the road, the biggest adjustment you should make is to slow down. Run for time, not mileage.
For example, if you have a five-mile road run planned, which typically takes you 45 minutes, run the trails for 45 minutes, regardless of the distance. Maybe you will only cover four miles, and that’s perfectly acceptable.
The terrain dictates the pace, and no trail is equal to the next. The best way to accommodate this variation in the beginning is to set mileage completely aside. The workout benefits will be similar.
Adjust your stride
Just as the terrain dictates the pace, it should also dictate your stride. On a smoothly paved surface, runners are free to lock in long, even strides. Do that on a technical, or rugged trail, and you risk tripping, twisting an ankle, or seriously injuring yourself.
When running trails, shorten your stride to quick, choppy steps. Lift the knees higher than you would normally, and focus on landing on your midfoot. This limits the risk of tripping, and when you do catch your toe, another foot will be right there to keep you from crashing to the ground.
Roads are designed for cars, which automatically limits their degree of steepness. There are no such limits on the trail. Hills are often steeper and more frequent on a trail.
Attack hills with caution, even power-hiking your way up the steepest parts if needed. Believe it or not, power hiking is often more efficient and better in the long run than running — a lesson most new trail runners learn the hard way.
When running downhill, focus on staying light on your feet and leaning forward, and let gravity do the work. Quick leg turnover and light foot placements will keep you stable and upright. Let your arms float out and flap slowly for extra balance.
As with running on other surfaces, trail runners should put safety first. Hands down, the best thing you can do is to run with someone else. The buddy system never fails.
If you’re unable to find someone to spend a few miles in the woods with you, here are a few things you should keep in mind:
- Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return.
- Always know where you’re going, or bring the appropriate maps to lead the way.
- Carry a cell phone in case something happens or you get lost.
- Bring a little extra water or nutrition than you think you will need, just in case.
Don’t let fear hold you back
It’s no secret that the differences and unknowns of trail running often hold runners back from hitting the dirt. Start small — in a local park, with a friend, or along a well-used hiking trail — and embrace the differences as part of the excitement.
Trail running is thrilling. It’s a never-ending adventure that opens doors to new races, new locations and new challenges, and it’s also a great way to get a unique workout.
View a list of scenic trails that are worth checking out here.
Doug Hay is a trail and ultra runner, coach and the founder of the training site Rock Creek Runner.