21 Quick Trail Running Tips

Q: One of my resolutions this year is to start trail running.  Do you have any tips for getting started? ~Vanessa

What a fantastic resolution and one that will lead you happily off the beaten path this season. Although trail running is similar to running on the roads, there are some differences that are important to take note of before you hit the trailhead. 

Here’s a quick list of tips that will guide you to the trail and beyond.  Enjoy…

  1. No single trail is the same. One of the many things I love about trail running is that every trail has its own unique terrain and challenge. There are groomed trails that are often even in surface, wide and are limestone-based that offer a great introduction to running off the road. There are narrow trails that are commonly called “single track” that include a variety of obstacles including tree roots, rocks, sand, hills, mud and more. Single track trails tend to be more challenging in nature and offer a dynamic running experience.
  2. Leave your ego at home. Running off road can be exhausting at first, and it may take you up to twice as long as your normal run, especially in the early stages of training. It’s wise to leave your ego at home, slow your pace and focus on finding a new rhythm. In a matter of weeks, you’ll be running up hills you used to walk, and you’ll develop a sense of being one with the terrain.
  3. Keep it safe. When heading out to the trails, make sure to run with your buddies or dog, tell someone where you are going and which trail and take a cell phone with you for safety.  Leave a note with your planned course and bring fuel and fluids. If possible, take a trail map, cell phone, ID, with you and keep track of where you are along the trail as you go.  If you’re run alone, wear pepper spray, download one of these safety apps for your phone and always be mindful of what’s going on around you.
  4. Know the rules of the trail. Yield to other trail users (equestrian, hikers, Mt Bikers) and uphill runners make sure to yield to downhill runners.  Stay on marked trails and run through puddles, not around them (making the trail wider). Leave no trace and don’t litter. 
  5. Keep Your Eyes on the Trail. It can be tempting to look at the nature around you, but doing so can quickly lead you to trip and fall. If you want to enjoy a site, walk it out or stop, otherwise, focus on looking about 3-4 feet ahead and create a line of travel, or where you are going to step for the next few strides. This keeps you focused and in the moment – one of the true gifts of trail running. You will begin to instinctively know where to that line is as you become more comfortable running on the trails.
  6. Slow down and smell the roses. Running on trails can be a lot more demanding than the roads, especially if it is technical single track with roots, rocks and other fun obstacles. It is best to avoid comparing your pace as you will be slower than your normal road running pace. Instead, slow your pace and develop a tempo within the trail and run by your effort level, by your heart rate and by the tune of your body. For runners, that may mean walking the hills and running the downhills and flats.  
  7. Be mindful of your time. Because the trails are more demanding, it’s wise to run by time at first to gain a sense of your trail pacing versus heading out for a 6-miler that takes you 40 minutes longer than expected. Running an out and back course is a great way to get to know your pace and develop your trail running confidence. From there, you can develop loops and routes to fit your needs.
  8. Change gears. Adjust your pace (walk if you need to) according to the terrain, and maintain a consistent effort level as you climb uphill. When in doubt, walk. Running over downed trees or through mud and sand takes some time getting used to, and it’s best to progress slowly. Tackling obstacles will get easier as your body gets stronger and more seasoned on trails.
  9. Trail shoes. If you’re going to weave trail running regularly in your life, it’s wise to invest in a pair of trail running shoes. They differ than road running shoes in that they are lower profile (lower to the ground), which reduces the chance of ankle rolls with a high heel. The rugged tread offers better traction on muddy, wet trails. They should fit snug in the heel but have room in the toe-box. 
  10. Take care of your trail shoes. Remove the insoles, wash off the mud and stuff with newspaper or paper towel to dry. 
  11. Accessorize. Although many trails provide shaded routes, it’s still wise to wear sunscreen.  Sunglasses, dark or light will protect your eyes from tree branches and bushes. Wearing a hat and bug spray will help prevent insect bites and ticks and make sure to purchase some cute gaiters as they will keep the dirt out of your shoes and give you a little style on the trail.
  12. Carry fluids. Bringing hydration with you on a trail run is a must as you never know how long it is going to take you to complete the workout.  Some days might take longer than others due to mud, water crossings, snow and more. There are three ways to carry fluids on the run; handheld, multi-bottle waist belt and hydration pack. Each has its own pros and cons. I prefer a hydration vest as I can carry fluids and drink easily on the move and carry other essentials. 
  13. Run like MacGyver. For steep, hilly or mountainous trails, consider using trekking poles to boost aid with balance, reduce wear and tear on your body (four legs good, two legs bad) and boost your hill climbing strength. Using poles reduces the total impact on the knees and hips and you’ll burn more calories too!  Plus, you can put rubber pieces on the sticks and use them on the roads too!  I regularly use trekking poles for staged ultra’s like the TransRockies event and others because I find them to be PEG – performance-enhancing gear. 
  14. Be the hill. Take short, quick steps when going up hills and use your arms.  Some hills are meant to be walked, especially on the technical trails. Tell your ego that most ultra runners walk the hills and run the downs and flats – it’s a trail thing and it’s okay to walk (promise)! For gradual downhills on groomed trails, lean into the downhill, open your stride and let the hill pull you down. For technical downhills or steep hills, it’s better to use a stair stepping motion instead; move in a similar motion as you would running down a flight of stairs, keeping your torso tall and letting your legs to do all the work.
  15. Use your arms! Keep your arms (elbows) a little wider for added balance on more technical trails with tree roots and rocks. Your stride is a little different than on the roads because you will need to clear rocks and tree roots and lift your feet a little higher off the ground. You also may need to hop left or right to bypass things on the path like tree branches.
  16. Improve your trail skills. Just as running intervals will improve your speed, running obstacle repeats on the trail will help create new neuro-pathways and boost your technical trail running skills.  For example, run 10-15 minutes to warm up, then find a technical stretch of the trail and run repeats focusing on form and finding your line. Include optimal recovery as you would with a speed interval and start with shorter trail segments (20-60 seconds) and build to longer stretches (1-3 minutes). 
  17. Get strong and balanced. Another way to improve your trail running performance is to include strength and balance exercises into your regimen 2-3 times per week including; lunges on a pad or stability disk, single leg squats, bridge, push-ups and dips, deadlifts, calf raises, and using a wobble board to develop foot and ankle strength and stability.
  18. Moderation and recovery. It can be tempting to hit the trails frequently at first, but it’s wise to allow for adequate recovery as trail running, especially hilly, technical runs will tax your body more than you may feel. When you run hard or long on the roads, you feel it, but when you run hard on the trails, you may not due to the more forgiving terrain. Make sure to weave in trail runs once per week at first and then progress slowly by adding one trail run per week every 2-3 weeks.
  19. Run within your skill level. When in doubt, walk it out. As you gain trail running fitness and skill your ability to navigate more technical terrain or hills will improve, but until then, be cautious and modify with walking as needed.
  20. If you plan to run a trail race aim to build up to running at least twice a week on trails (50 percent of your runs) and the rest on roads. Balancing the two will allow you to adapt to the new demands of the trail while maintaining the ability to run on harder surfaces without soreness. Start with training on groomed trails, and progress to rugged trails once you have more off-road miles under your belt.
  21. Find trails near you. There are a variety of ways to find trails near you and as you travel the world.  Connecting with local running stores, Forest Preserves, National Parks, Strava athletes, trail running apps, social networking and of course, Google. While you’re at it, make sure to ask about the specific nature of the trail including wild animals, hazards, bathrooms, snakes, spiders and anything you may not realize when running in a new area.

Most importantly, have fun on the trails but be careful – you know what they say about trail running – once you get on the dirt, you never want to go back to the roads.  

Happy trails.

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