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October 14, 2021

A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO TRAIL RUNNINGTrail runner (photo: Tara Glaser)

At first, trail running seems to be similar to flat running. There are limbs involved, there’s huffing and puffing, and one generally goes in a forward direction.

However, in many ways it’s a radically different sport. For one, it’s a whole lot less boring. Where running feels like maintenance some days, trail running is an adventure, ideally in a beautiful place, with peace, serenity and exhilaration that just isn’t possible on a treadmill.

Now, while you could throw on some shoes and hit the trail, a few tips will help you avoid unnecessary pain.

True Beginners Start Here

If you’ve never really run before, first check out our post on flat running. Many of the same tips apply here. For true beginners, your goal should be to build a baseline level of fitness. Don’t push it too hard and don’t be afraid to walk when you need to.

At the beginning, don’t worry about mileage. Rather, worry about time.

Try to run in increasingly-longer increments. You’re looking for a slow, steady run that you can keep up. Ideally, you should be able to run and have a conversation. Once you feel you can run for about twenty minutes straight, you’re ready to try jogging an easy trail.

Trail Running Basic Technique

In many ways, trail running is closer to speed hiking than flat running. Conserving your energy is very important. When going uphill, jog in short, steady steps. Downhill, feel free to run (it’s pretty fun, after all), but keep your core tight and your steps controlled. You shouldn’t be hurtling downhill like a madman, windmilling your arms. You should always be watching your step. Plenty of seasoned trailrunners have been taken out by tree roots. There are also snakes, mountain lions, maniacal woodsmen... but really, tree roots are your mortal enemy. When in doubt, downgrade your run to a hike.

Planning Out Your Run

This mostly applies for longer runs, but have an idea of how long you’ll be out in the bush.

As a trailrunner, you don’t have all the little stuff hikers do like emergency gear, down jackets, flashlights or a six-pack of Modelo.

You don’t want to be stuck out after dark.

Calculating how long you will be out can be tricky, though. If it’s an out-and-back trail, one easy way to do it is to keep an eye on when you got on the trail, and allow for the same amount of time to get back. So, if you got on the trail at 9AM, and it’s 11AM, expect to get back at 1PM. This logic applies even if the way back is mostly downhill. You might need to go slow (hello knee pain) or you might injure yourself. It’s good to have leeway, especially in the mountains and especially if you’re rolling solo. This means not getting greedy. That peak is always farther away than you think.

Finally, blisters. They’re best avoided. This can be managed by getting the right shoes and athletic, breathable socks. Additionally, you don’t want to let your feet get too hot. If you need to take a break to let those puppies breathe, do it. Consider bringing medical tape if you’re prone to blisters.

Equipment - Shoes

This is by far your most important decision. All feet are different. La Sportiva and Salomons are often good for narrow feet and Hoka’s for wide feet. But the only way you’ll really know what works is to try them on, ideally with a knowledgeable runner to help you out. Once you have your perfect pair, get them dirty with a break-in hike or long walk. Don’t do a crazy run on them right away unless you want to go to Blister City.

As a regular trail-runner you’re going to go through shoes quickly. They’re your main expense in an otherwise cheap sport. If you find a pair you like, get an extra pair or two when you see a sale. Intense runners replace their shoes several times a year. When your feet start to hurt, you get shin splints or your shoes lose cushioning, it’s time to find a new pair.

Seriously. Don’t go cheap here. Wearing beat-up old shoes will obliterate your knees.

As for what type of shoes, if you’re running on easy dirt trails, you can get away with super lightweight regular running shoes. But, if you’re doing anything even slightly treacherous, it’s worth it to get proper trail-runners. Trail shoes have much better traction than running shoes and are almost as lightweight.

One thing to keep in mind with shoes, is “stack height” or, how thick the shoes’ bottoms are. High stack shoes like Hoka’s are very comfortable with tons of cushioning to protect your feet. However, these shoes can also make rolling your ankle very easy. We find most people like their ankles. However, the comfort is worth the risk for some runners. You won’t really know until you try them.

Some people even run with barefoot shoes, or “minimal” footwear. However, we wouldn’t recommend this without specific training, as most of our feet are used to supportive footwear.

Other Specialty Equipment

The eternal battle of the trailrunner is against weight. This applies to your shoes, water and trekking bag. It’s why “ultralite” gear can get expensive. If you’re doing a short run in familiar terrain, you might be able to get away with nothing but sneakers (and, well, clothes).

For a long-distance mountain jaunt in new terrain, however, you’ll want much of the same things as a hiking expedition: extra water, a snack, sun protection, emergency phone and so on. Remember: you’re basically hiking, just further and faster.

For these longer expeditions, trekking poles are worth it. They’re unavoidably dorky, but being able to walk the next day is very cool indeed. Even one trekking pole will take significant stress off your knees, as long as you don’t trip on it. That said, some hikers and trailrunners never touch them. They’re added weight, after all. Of course, so is a replacement knee.

Water is your greatest source of weight, other than all the beers you’ve had over the last ten years. Knowing how much to bring is a big part of the strategy of this sport. If you don’t know the trail, bring extra. If you know there’s water on the route, you can get away with a small, cheap, handheld water flask. If you’re getting it from rivers or lakes though, you’ll want a water filtration system. Ultralite methods like a Lifestraw (or its equivalents) or iodine tablets are a better option than a heavy pump.

If you find you’re bringing a lot of water and you’re becoming more serious, consider a hydration vest over a backpack to keep the water weight close to your core. Also, work in some electrolytes to give yourself a boost!

Recovery and Social

Everyone’s body reacts to running differently. For example, running gaits vary greatly. Are you a heel or toe striker? What part of your foot hits the ground first when you jog? There are specific disadvantages for each. Toe strikers can aggravate their achilles tendons while heel strikers can damage their knees. Either way, train around it.

On your off days, give your hamstrings, hips, feet and knees some love with yoga and deep stretching. Don’t neglect your core and big muscles, either.

Bodyweight and kettlebell exercises will strengthen your stabilizer muscles, which will ultimately help prevent injury and make you a faster runner... provided you don’t throw your back out immediately.

Finally, consider joining a local trail running group! This is a great way to socialize, learn more about your area and stay safe. Good luck, and get out there!