How to Prepare for a Trail Run

A group of trail runners runs through the woods

Trail running is an exciting way to switch up your training, add some spice back into your running or just check out the views. But it also takes a little more preparation than running through the neighborhood park.

Running on trails comes with more variables than running on pavement: trail conditions, steep elevation changes, unpredictable weather and even wildlife can all affect your run. So properly preparing to hit the trails is important.

Professional ultrarunner Darcy Piceau says it’s important to figure everything out before you set off to make sure you have the best run possible.

“When you first start planning and preparing for a long trail running adventure, some of the things to think about are having a plan, being prepared, knowing what route you’re going on, and also maybe telling someone at home where you’re going,” says Piceu, a HOKA ONE ONE-sponsored runner.

A runner on a trail run through the woods

Know the Trail

Your safety is your top priority when you’re going off road, so you should never take it lightly.

Make sure you know the area and the route before you set off.

If you’ve never been on a specific trail before, spend some time studying maps of the route online and consider asking around local running stores for any insights about the area. If you’re running in a national or state park, call or visit the park ranger’s office to get the inside scoop about the trail. Rangers will know trail conditions, wildlife activity and the best places to stop and enjoy the views.

And whether you’re running, hiking or backpacking, always tell a friend or family member where you’re going and when you plan to be back. If you get lost and don’t check in around the time you planned to be done, your people can try to contact you or call for help.

How to Carry Water on a Trail Run

Because of the varied terrain of many trails, it takes longer to cover the same distance you would on a paved road. A moderate trail can add on about a minute or two per mile to your normal road running pace; a more technical or steep trail could add more than four or five minutes to your typical pace. So, you need to plan how you’re going to stay hydrated.

Your hydration solution is more than just your water, though.

“You want to be prepared with something to drink as well as something to eat,” says Sage Canaday, another HOKA-sponsored ultrarunner.

A hydration vest or belt with a pouch is a great way to carry everything you need. Hydration vests slip on over your shoulders and either carry water bottles or bladders, depending on your preference. Belts clip on around your waist and usually have places to store a bottle or two.

Whether it’s a vest or a belt, Canaday says to look for something that has zippered pockets. A pocket that zips shut lets you securely carry energy gels, extra food or snacks, your car keys, phone and identification. Zip it up, and you won’t have to worry about losing all your important stuff.

The heel of the Nike Terra Kiger 5 trail running shoe

Get Good Trail Running Shoes

Nothing will ruin a good run faster than face-planting because your foot slipped out from under you.

“The most important piece of gear in trail running, of course, is going to be your shoes,” Canaday says.

The biggest difference between trail running shoes and road running shoes is the outsole. Trail shoes deploy more aggressive rubber lugs on the outsole to help you find purchase on soft dirt, snow or whatever else you might find out there.

Some trail running shoes also use stickier rubber compounds that give you more traction on wet rocks or logs than their road-running counterparts.

Designers also give some trail shoes reinforcements over the toes to increase the shoe’s durability and add rock plates into the midsole to protect your feet against jagged rocks and roots. Other shoes get waterproof membranes to keep you from getting soaked during stream crossings or heavy rain.

Add Hiking Poles for Extra Power, Stability

Trails can turn into climbs in a hurry. When the going gets steep, consider grabbing a pair of hiking or running poles to give yourself an edge.

“I will tend to use poles when I know the terrain is going to be technical and steep,” Piceu says. “For me, poles are really helpful on uphills.”

Instead of just relying on your legs, a set of poles will let you pull yourself up and then push off with your arms to add more power to your climbs.

But don’t just buy a pair of poles the day before your race and expect everything to go smoothly. Piceu says it’s important to practice. Trail running with poles requires a certain rhythm, so get a pair of poles and practice well before race day.

And it’s not just rhythm—poles also require solid upper body strength.

“(Running with poles) requires a lot of upper body and arm strength,” Piceu says. “It’s very important to have maybe two to three days a week, some kind of strength routine. It can be fairly simple, but something that you incorporate into your schedule through the week that helps you stay strong on the trails.”

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