How to Start Trail Running

A woman wearing a hydration pack holds up her arms in celebration during a trail run

A Beginner's Guide to Trail Running

Trail running is a beautiful thing. It’s a chance to soak up calming forest vibes (Shinrin-yoku in motion), challenge yourself on uneven terrain and expand your running horizons. Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun. Like any new endeavor, it can be intimidating at first. But with the right mindset and preparation, it doesn’t have to be. This is our Beginner’s Guide to hitting the dirt:

Follow trail rules.

Wild places aren’t free for alls and running in them requires respect both for the other trail users and for the land itself. A little etiquette goes a long way:

  • Yield to those moving slower than you. When intersecting with hikers or slower runners, if safe, move aside to let them pass. Same goes for horses. Most of the time, mountain bikers will be moving faster than you, and so should be the ones to yield. Still, be cautious and prepared to move out of the way of a bike careening down a steep incline (sometimes it’s hard to stop!).

  • Stay on the trail. The trail is there for a reason, so use it. Migrating off of it can harm fragile habitats and create unnecessary erosion.

  • Pack it in, pack it out. Don’t litter. Plain and simple. If you eat a gel or snack on your run, carry out the empty packaging. Same goes for toilet paper (just make sure you put it in a sealable bag. Ziplocks work great).

Run by time.

The varying terrain, sharp turns and elevation changes mean that a mile on the trail may take longer than a mile on the road. This means that if six miles usually takes you an hour on the road, prepare for maybe 90 minutes or more (depending on terrain). For beginners, it’s a good idea to run by feel and time rather than the pace and mileage on your GPS watch.

Take quick steps and pay attention to the ground ahead.

It’s easy to fall on the trail, especially if you’re running in a particularly technical section. So, be mindful of your steps and always focus three to four feet ahead so that you can anticipate your upcoming steps and avoid injury.

Wear trail running shoes.

Trail running shoes are specifically designed to handle the challenges of off-road terrain. They come with varying levels of rock protection, grip and cushioning to handle every type of trail terrain out there. Work with a fit expert to find a shoe that’s right for you and the landscape through which you plan to run.

Carry extra gear.

This is especially true if you’re running in a mountainous environment where altitude and exposed terrain may translate to abrupt weather changes. Consider carrying a wind or rain jacket, and extra layer and even a Lifestraw, water pump or water purification tablets.

Make sure you eat enough food before you run. And since you’ll likely be out for longer than your typical road runs, it's a good idea to pack fuel (gels, bars or other quick-energy snacks) and water.

Tell a friend.

Run with friends whenever you can. And, if nothing else, be sure always to tell someone where you’re going and how long you expect to be gone. While this is an excellent trail-running practice, it’s also a good running practice. And, if you’re going to be somewhere remote, consider taking your phone (if you have service) and always carry a Road ID.

Work on balance.

Trail running requires more agility than the roads. That’s because the terrain varies and you'll need to navigate obstacles like rocks, roots and streams. The more you run off-road, the better your balance will become. Still, working to develop vital proprioceptive muscles will help you stave off injury and enjoy even more technical miles.

It's OK to walk.

Adjusting to new terrain is hard. So the first few times you hit the trail, you’re likely going to feel it for several days. So ease into it slowly. If you find yourself facing a steep incline you’ve never run before, remember that it’s OK to walk. In fact, you'll more quickly climb some hills with a steady power walk.