11 Essential Trail Running Tips for Beginners
When most runners “hit the trail”, they head to their local running track or run the sidewalks of their hometowns. Maybe they’re just getting on a treadmill.
For trail runners, the phrase is literal.
Nothing beats running outdoor trails, surrounded by nature, breathing in the fresh air, and enjoying a break from modern-day life.
If you’ve grown tired of the same old, same old in your running regimen, trail running will definitely mix things up. You may even become one of those runners who really means it the next time you “hit the trail.”
11 Trail-Running Tips for Beginners
Whether you’re a veteran road runner or brand new to the trails, if you’re ready to try trail running, you should follow these 11 easy tips to ensure you have a great time and return safe (if not a little sore).
1. Get a Pair of Trail-Running Shoes
Your first step (no pun intended) should be to find some trail-running shoes as they’ll offer some welcomed advantages over the traditional versions.
Trail-running shoes provide special protection and traction for trails. Typical running shoes will wear away quicker under the duress of trail running, leaving your feet vulnerable to roots, rocks, and sticks that often inhabit outdoor trails.
Because trail-running shoes fit a bit differently than standard running shoes or sneakers, you’ll want to find a shoe that not only fits snugly around your midfoot or arch but also conforms to your heel to prevent any movement or slipping on uneven terrains.
If you’re worried about the cushion level in your shoes, fear not. Trail-running shoes come in a variety of cushion levels, so depending on the types of trails you run and how much you want to feel the trail beneath your feet, you’ll find plenty of shoes that match the level of softness you prefer.
And if you have a pretty good idea of where and what type of terrain you’ll be running on, you can pinpoint the type of traction and sole design you’ll need.
For instance, if you’ll be running on loose dirt, gravel, or wet terrains, opt for a shoe with knobby lugs on the outsole. On the other hand (or foot), if you’ll be running on boulders and rocks, find a shoe with a sticky rubber outsole.
2. Dress for the Trail
Once you’ve equipped yourself with the proper trail running shoes, you’ll need to focus on the appropriate attire.
While it’s important that you’re familiar with the types of runs you’ll take and the types of weather in which you’ll be running, it’s just as important that you dress for practicality and comfort.
Consider these tips to make your trail running a bit more pleasant.
Trail running by its very nature generates considerable heat and perspiration, so generally speaking, try to avoid cotton, as it dries slowly and retains moisture on your body.
Instead, wear shirts, shorts, and socks made of moisture-wicking wool or some sort of synthetic.
Avoid wearing anything that creates an impenetrable barrier at all costs. Instead, choose options like shirts with zippers at their necks that will help release heat and moisture.
Check the Weather
While it may seem counterintuitive, try to avoid a fully waterproof jacket if you’re running in cool or rainy/misty weather. Despite providing some breathability, waterproof jackets also become wet on the inside, making for a more uncomfortable run.
Rather, opt for a quick-drying, breathable synthetic jacket with wool layers or some sort of soft-shell jacket.
Of course, if you’re running in a torrential downpour, you can throw on the waterproof jacket, but otherwise, choose something lighter and more breathable.
If you plan on running in cold weather during the winter, then you'll want to consider layers (more on that next), gloves, and ear warmers.
Oh, and if the forecast calls for sun, we have some fantastic trail-running sunglasses you’ll love. A nice running hat can be helpful, too. In fact, there are many benefits to wearing a running hat on the trail.
Dress in Layers
If you know you’ll be running a longer distance, dressing in layers is not only more practical but also more comfortable.
For example, if you begin your trail run in the cooler morning temperatures, you can shed a layer or two as the temperature heats up.
After a particularly grueling stretch, you can always remove a layer to cool off for a bit and put it back on later if you get cold.
Many runners have also discovered the benefits of wearing a comfortable pair of leggings under their shorts. If you can find privacy on the trail, you can always remove your leggings once you warm up, but you may also discover that the two items provide the perfect combination of warmth and coolness during runs.
3. Know Your Trail
Knowing the trail you’ll be running will definitely help with deciding what to wear.
But more importantly, taking the time to review the trails you’ll be running will help you map out the logistics (and safety) of your run.
That’s why one of my most important trail running tips for beginners is to look up your trail ahead of time. You don’t want to be several miles into your run before you realize you may have bitten off more than you can chew.
Not all trails are full loops, either. Again, you don’t want to realize this once it’s too late and you now have to double the length of your run just to get back to your entry point.
AllTrails is a great tool for this.
You can search all the trails in your city and sort them by:
- Elevation Gain
- Route Type
Fellow runners also provide feedback about each trail, giving you an even better idea of what to expect before you leave your house.
4. Bug. Spray.
Beyond dealing with the potential safety threats of shin splints, stomach stitches, and even chafing, trail runners can find themselves preoccupied with a pesky party of bugs and insects.
A good tip is to use some sort of insect repellent and even pack some for the trail in case you find yourself especially popular one day.
If you don’t have issues with skin sensitivity, consider using a stronger repellent with DEET (active ingredient in many repellent products) to repel biting insects like mosquitoes and ticks. You can find products with DEET in liquids, lotions, sprays, and even towelettes or roll-ons.
Remember to apply the repellent on both your skin and your clothing, as spraying your shirts and pants reduces the risk of a tick or other bugs taking hold of your clothes.
However, if you’re the type of person who struggles with suntan lotion or bug spray, consider some natural spray or other eco-friendly options that will not harm your skin or the environment.
5. Stay Safe
Trail-running beginners should understand that this type of running is not like running down crowded streets or in familiar neighborhoods.
Because you will most likely be running in a secluded area for a prolonged period of time, you’ll want to be as prepared as possible for any potential safety risks.
As I’ve noted, one of the advantages of doing a little bit of research before you run a trail is noting any potential threats to your physical safety.
For one, you can keep your feet safe by deciding which shoe to go with once you’ve analyzed the type of terrain ahead of time.
But more importantly, you can check for negative reviews that mention safety. A quick tip is to Google the name of a trail with, “Is [trail’s name] safe?” for more insights.
Ideally, you should run with a partner, but if that’s not impossible, remember these few tips:
- Take your phone with you and always let someone know where you’re running. Consider an app like Strava, which has a feature called Beacon that will let you share your progress in real-time with friends or family
- Bring fluids and a snack just in case if you’re running a trail that’s especially remote
- If you don’t have a regular partner, a great alternative is running with a dog.
Above all, stay aware at all times. You should enjoy your run, but take note of your surroundings so you can adjust or react quickly if needed.
6. Prepare Yourself for a Challenge
While trail running is usually easier on your body than road running, it’ll still present you with other challenges.
For one, you may have to change the running cadence you’ve become accustomed to while running roads or tracks. Trail running will require a side-to-side running style that allows you to move to avoid natural obstacles.
You will also want to run on your forefeet and shorten your stride as you approach technical areas full of natural debris.
These small changes to how you run will help your legs and your body’s core provide some additional stabilization. This, in turn, reduces the pressure put on muscles mainly used for moving forward.
So, expect to use a variety of new muscles in a variety of new ways when you start running trails.
Of course, that means you should also expect some brand-new soreness for a while. I’ll give you some advice for handling that in just a moment, though.
7. Pay Close Attention to Foot Placement
Another reason you’ll be recruiting new muscles is that you’ll be running on uneven ground.
This might seem obvious, but it’s one of those changes many experienced runners often underestimate until they’re on mile two or three of a trail and realize how much of a toll this difference can take.
That’s why you need to pay special attention to your foot placement when running trails.
First and foremost, a stable core will ensure your acclimation to the new terrain goes more smoothly. I’ll go over some exercises to help with that next.
Second, because you’ll be moving and adjusting to natural obstacles along the way, you’ll have to respond to the terrain quickly and decisively.
While you may feel some initial uneasiness about where to place your feet or even about potentially falling, you will begin to intuitively spot these potential pitfalls as you gain more experience. Until then, take it slow, keep your eyes up, and scan the trail ahead, so you can make quick decisions about where to place your feet.
There’s no need to look down directly at the ground. Rather, focus two meters ahead of you to plan your next foot placement.
When you’re running uphill, take smaller steps to drive yourself up and forward. Your legs have a natural elasticity, so avoid over-striding and increase your cadence to give your gait a more natural spring.
Think about driving a car: you don’t need to have your eyes focused directly on the road right in front of your car to avoid obstacles and operate the vehicle safely.
If you’re scanning the path ahead and keeping your eyes on where you’re going, you’ll be fine.
8. Do Strength Training for Trail Running
Since you’ll encounter a variety of uneven surfaces — like hills, sticks, and dirt mounds — your foot placement will vary and fluctuate with each step.
For instance, your feet will work harder to adjust to bouncing on rocks and sticks, restabilizing on uneven surfaces, and even adapting to quick changes in cadence.
As such, it is imperative that you train appropriately to ensure your muscles are prepared for these new challenges.
For starters, any runner, whether road running or trail running, can help prevent injury, increase mobility, and improve their speed by lifting weights.
But trail runners should consider these additional tips to work on a strength routine three to four times per week to help avoid potential fitness issues:
- Hips: Focus on bodyweight movements, dynamic warmups, plyometrics, and band work
- Core: Focus on body movements to strengthen lower back, holding planks, and lying on your back with no arch to complete dead bugs for abs
- Upper Body: Focus on multiple muscles at once with curls and do push-ups
Above all, remember to work on mobility and stability each day so you’re prepared for any and all surfaces, natural debris, and elevation changes.
9. Stretch. Stretch. Stretch.
To help with these mobility and stability activities, new trail runners need to take stretching very seriously.
While stretching is important for all runners, trail runners who do not stretch enough will quickly discover how those elevation changes can wreak havoc on their muscles.
If you’re someone who sometimes lets their stretching habit slip, consider these four stretching tips to keep you healthy, flexible, and at the top of your game
- Quadriceps: Your quads are going to be working overtime to take you up and down the different elevations of running trails, so be sure you give them plenty of attention when stretching. A simple quad stretch that will prepare them for the work ahead is to stand straight on one leg while you bend the other knee and grab the corresponding ankle. Pull it close to your glutes while being careful not to bend at your hips. You should feel a nice deep stretch going down the front of your quads.
- Calves: I’ve already touched on this a few times, but trail running means a lot of new terrain, which you’ll really feel in your calves.
- Gluteus Medius: Before you take to the trails, stand about three feet from a stationary object (e.g., a wall, tree, the side of your car, etc.), place your hands on it so they’re just below your shoulder level, and then step back with one foot. Keep the knee straight and that heel on the ground. Then, bend your other knee (the one closest to the stationary object), and push forward with your hands. It should look like you’re leaning into the object trying to actually move it. The real result should be a nice stretch in your calf muscle.
- Hip Flexors: Changes in elevation will also tax your hip flexors, which will be tasked with pulling up on your legs whenever the trail starts to rise. To stretch them out, stand straight with one leg a step behind your body. Keeping that back knee straight, bend the other knee just a bit and slowly lunge forward. Your pelvis should stay straight, so that the deeper you’re able to bend, the deeper you can feel the stretch in your hips.
Pulling a muscle during a run is never fun. Pulling one when you’re on a trail miles from your car (or where an Uber can come to pick you up) is the worst. Take the time to stretch properly or expect a trail to eventually get the best of you.
10. Learn Trail-Running Etiquette
As is the case with every sport, there are certain unwritten rules to trail running. So, while it will often feel like you’re completely alone in nature (and that’s part of the fun), take the time to learn trail-running etiquette or you’ll have a hard time joining the local community.
First, if anyone is slower than you, yield them the right of way. Take a step off the trail to let these other slower runners pass.
Depending on where you live, some of your local trails may be popular with equestrians. In that case, definitely yield to them, as horses may spook and cause harm to themselves or others.
If you find yourself approaching other runners, always stay to the right, but, if necessary, pass them on the left. A simple verbalized “On your left” as you approach someone to pass is sufficient.
Next, stay on the trail as much as you can. Besides the risk of creating a separate unintentional trail, you may also destroy habitats of the natural elements. It’s best to stick to the path already carved out.
Once again, pay attention to your surroundings. If you have chosen a popular running spot, chances are you will encounter groups of runners or even bikers. Keep that in mind, so you don’t accidentally commit a faux pas because you didn’t notice them nearby.
In general, be careful not to get too lost in smelling the fresh air and hearing the birdsong along the way. Enjoy yourself, but be considerate of others. This is also important so that you don’t miss a stone or branch ahead of you that might catch your foot.
And, as always, follow all laws by not discarding any litter. Even if unintentional, many people leave behind energy bar wrappers or water bottles, so just be cautious to dispose of any trash in a bin.
11. Get Ready for Hills
Trails mean hills – often, lots of hills.
This is usually a big change for anyone accustomed to running streets or straight paths, even if they do include a hill or two of their own. Most trails feature a lot of changes in elevation along the way. Aside from actual hills, this can also mean slight changes in elevation that are so subtle you don’t even notice them until you start struggling.
When reviewing potential trails, keep these elevation changes in mind. Start with more forgiving trails first before you try tackling ones with lots of hills — or you could pull one of those underutilized muscles.
Again, AllTrails makes this easy.
A great tip for any beginner at trail running: Don’t let your ego get the best of you. Slower and more technical is much safer and more efficient when you’re just getting started.
As I touched on earlier, tackling an uphill climb differs a bit from handling a decline in elevation.
For uphill climbs, it’s best to use your arms for balance and to take short, quick steps. Since some of the more technical trails are meant to be walked, don’t be afraid to slow down your pace and do just that. Even the most experienced trail runners sometimes walk uphill and then sprint downhill or when they’re on a flat surface.
For gradual downhills on groomed trails, let gravity be your friend. If you lean into the run, you can open up your stride and let gravity pull you down the hill.
For more technical downhills or steep hills, use a stair-stepping motion, keeping your torso upright. Your legs should do all the work here as you move in a motion similar to running down a flight of stairs.
Embrace the Fun (and Challenge) of Trail Running
If you’re new to trail running, there’s a lot to look forward to.
It’s a brand-new challenge that will begin rewarding your efforts right away with fresh air, scenic views, and an invigorating break from runs that may have become boring.
Just remember to follow the advice above before you get started and I know you’ll fall in love with running trails.