A Beginner’s Guide To Trail Running
Getting off the road is a great way for any runner to deepen their love of the sport. But taking that first step to the trails can be an intimidating prospect to those who are used to strictly running on roads or paved trails.
Trail running doesn’t have to mean bushwhacking your way to a mountain summit, though. “People don’t realise how accessible trails are,” says adaptive athlete Dan Kosick. “A trail can be the gravel path at the park down the road, just three steps off the sidewalk, or a more secluded, wilderness route.”
And those trails come with benefits: softer terrain that’s more forgiving on the joints than roads, varying surfaces that force you to change speeds and activate different muscle areas, and space to let the mind wander.
“Spending time in nature, engaging my body in movement that connects me with the earth, and doing the thing that makes me feel most human can be really life-altering and affirming,” says Mirna Valerio, an ultrarunner and cross-country coach. “That is what brings me back to trails, every time.”
We asked Kosick and Valerio for their advice to runners who want to confidently and safely start running on trails.
Invest in trail shoes
Kosick advises against simply wearing your road running shoes on technical trails — at least shoes designed for going fast on pavement, with very thin tread. “If you have insufficient traction or protection for your feet, that’s going to make it 10 times harder and create a miserable experience,” he says.
Do your homework
Roads are convenient: lace up, walk out the door, go. Trails require more planning, particularly if you expect to be away from home longer than a typical road run. Check the hourly weather before you leave the house so you don’t get caught unprepared in a storm less than half a kilometre from home, like Valerio once did.
Regarding preparation, Valerio’s other advice is to research and map your route in advance using an app like AllTrails. “Is it a technical trail? Will it be muddy? Will there be scree [loose rocks on the mountainside]?” Those things will affect how you gear up, Valerio says.
Lastly, tell someone your route and your expected return time — if they don’t hear from you, they’ll know when to alert someone and where to send them.
Layer up (or down)
In general, you want to opt for smart, technical layers. A waterproof rain jacket, wind shell, or thermal layer will become staples. For colder weather, wear something like a light vest with some storage space in it.
“On a mountain, weather can change at less than a moment’s notice,” says Valerio. Not having the right gear can be uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst.
“A lot of people don’t realise how hard they’re working, even when they’re just power hiking up a hill, and then they overheat because they don’t have a plan to shed layers,” says Kosick. You should never have that problem — nowadays, you can get outerwear that weighs mere ounces and folds up smaller than a water bottle.
Carry the right stuff
If you plan to climb a lot of hills and mountains, it might be a smart idea to invest in some trekking poles specific to trail running. “On a long run, they can help with leg fatigue by sharing the effort throughout your upper body,” says Valerio.
Heading out of civilisation? Always bring food and water, says Valerio — even if you’re planning on a shorter run. You’ll be thankful for them if you get lost or your route turns out to be longer than anticipated. And unless you’re absolutely sure you won’t be out past dark, bring a headlamp, she adds.
Some road runners prefer to leave their phone at home, but on a trail, it can be your lifeline. If you’re taking an unfamiliar route, make sure to have the map downloaded before you lose service. All of these items are going to make your trail run a less stressful, more enjoyable experience.
This can be tough for road-to-trail transitioners to grasp, but slowing down is okay! On the road, if you want to up the intensity, you push the pace. But on the trails, every run has an inherent intensity — engaging small stabiliser muscles as you steady yourself on undulating terrain, squeezing those glutes on steep uphills, and trashing your quads on those rollercoaster-like downhills.
Plus, there are more potential obstacles. You kind of have to slow down for a fallen tree or family of guinea foul in your path. So don’t beat yourself up if you have to walk uphill, or judge your performance negatively because your trail run paces are slower than on the roads. They are completely different forms of running.
Watch your step
No looking up the road for the next checkpoint here. On trails, you should fix your gaze three to four feet ahead so you can react to whatever rocks and roots come at you. Be ready to skip, weave, and move in different directions without warning to dodge those obstructions, Valerio says. Think light on your feet, like a ballerina.
“The more hesitant or tight you are because you’re afraid of tripping, the more likely that is to happen. The more confident and loose you can be, the easier you’ll flow over the terrain and when you do trip (it’s inevitable), you’ll recover easier.”
The unpredictable nature of trails also makes them a great place to get in tune with your form.“I like to lean into the hill as I ascend,” says Valerio. “When you’re extra tired, aid your legs by pressing down on your thighs as you head uphill.”
Be ready to get dirty
There will be dirt and mud. There will be puddles and streams. So splash!
“Have fun with it and laugh it off, it’s part of the ride,” says Kosick. “I’ve walked on all fours like a gorilla or crawled over many slippery areas, and I use trees and rocks to grab onto or pull myself forward.”
He recommends wearing a pair of light gloves so you’re not afraid to get a little sap on your hands or grab a wet or dirty rock. “Knowing you have that little bit of protection will help you loosen up and build your confidence so you can enjoy yourself instead of holding yourself back.”