How to Start Trail Running

Trail running has gained popularity over the years, primarily due to the recent pandemic and society’s insatiable desire to spend more time outdoors. And it’s not hard to see why. Real trail junkies enjoy it for the adrenaline rush and primal experience it offers, running wild like our ancestors. It’s dirty and gritty and people love it!

Plus, it has many health benefits, too. Compared to road running, trail running has many advantages. A softer terrain reduces the impact on your joints and injuries overall. Trail running also strengthens core muscles and tests endurance and agility, keeping you on your toes. Not to mention you get out in nature, which offers countless benefits to your mental health.

Essential Trail Running Gear

Many trail runners enjoy a tech-free experience. It offers absolute freedom that amplifies running wild through the woods. That being said, the choice to carry a heart rate monitor, Bluetooth earbuds or a GPS device is entirely up to you. However minimal you plan to be along the trail, there are still essentials you need.

  • Proper clothing – If you already own technical apparel for road running, this will work just as well. Just expect to get it dirty or torn as you dodge puddles and branches. Longer sleeves and pants can also protect you from scratches.
  • Trail shoes – Avoid wearing standard running shoes. Instead, get yourself to an outdoor rec store to try and test out some trail shoes. Trail shoes offer different features, such as stronger soles with greater stability.
  • Water bottle – Choose a durable, vacuum insulated stainless steel water bottle to stay hydrated along shorter trails. But for longer trails, you may need to consider a hydration vest.
  • Insect repellent – You never know what the bug situation might be along the trail, especially after a day or two of heavy downpours. Carry a small spray bottle just in case!
  • Headlamp – An LED headlamp allows you to keep your hands free, in case you take a tumble. Plus, unlike road running, a headlamp will enable you to run safely at night.
  • Towel and spare clothes – If you plan on a long trail run, make sure to bring along a towel and dry, clean clothes to change into.

Steps and Tips for Your First Trail Run

trail running essentials

Find a Trail

As a beginner learning how to start trail running, find a local group through the American Trail Running Association, which offers a free directory of U.S. and international trails. From this site, you can search and connect with trail junkies and tag along as they run the best trails in the area. A trail junkie buddy can help you along the way, too.

If you choose to go it alone, know the difference between non-technical and technical trails. Non-technical trails are great for novice trail runners and are often paved, gravel or dirt roads that are easy to run on. On the flip side, a technical trail is more challenging with an obstacle-packed, narrow path. When first starting out, try out a non-technical path first and graduate to technical. Also, learn how to read a topographic map so you can gauge your running trails’ elevation and terrain.

Change Your Gait

Trail running requires a different gait than running on roads. Steep hills and obstacles make trail running slower and need short, quick strides. If you’re accustomed to road running, you’ll essentially have to retrain your brain. However, a trail running gait improves your core strength and overall agility and endurance. Shorten your stride in a way that places your weight over your feet.

Walk Hills

How do you tell an experienced trail runner from a newbie? They run the hills. (Many road runners are guilty of this!) Instead, conserve your energy on steep hills and make up time on the way back down. Knowing when to walk doesn’t make you less of a trail runner.

Scan the Ground Ahead

As you run, make sure to scan the ground ahead of you. Scan and survey about five to 10 feet ahead so that you can mind your footing and dodge obstacles like rocks, roots or even other runners. Pick up those feet and don’t get lazy! Many trail runners have tumbled from even minor misjudgments.

As you scan your surroundings, be mindful of slippery roots and rocks. Avoid the temptation of jumping off fallen tree trunks or large rocks – they’re more slippery than they appear! This even goes for rivers and creeks. While tiptoeing across the rocks keeps you dry, it’s safer to walk through the stream. After all, getting muddy and wet is what trail running is all about.

Distance Yourself

Make sure to give yourself some distance – about 10 feet is adequate – from other runners along the trail. Runners frequently change their pace, often without warning, so give each other some space and you’ll avoid some embarrassing and potentially dangerous fender benders.

Stay Safe

Trail running out in the wilderness does present its own set of challenges. You could injure yourself or even happen upon a skunk and get sprayed – crazier things have happened! If possible, run with a friend. If you are alone, bring pepper spray and a cell phone for emergencies. Pack the Ten Essentials, complete with extra food and, if you can, always bring a map! Get familiar with the type of wildlife there might be and if there’s game, when and where hunting begins.

Other than that, enjoy the trail!

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