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Trail Running Tips for Beginners

Three trail runners run together in a forest

Tired of running the same neighborhood loop? Maybe it’s time to run somewhere new.

There are tons of physical reasons why you should trail run, like building strength by recruiting different muscles and reducing stress on your body from the softer terrain. But running on trails isn’t just about challenging your body: By putting yourself in nature, trail running can also give you a mental break from the monotony of city sidewalks.

If you’re new to trail running (or just want to step up your trail game), there are some key things to know to have the best and safest experience. We talked to a pair of professional ultrarunners from HOKA ONE ONE who gave us their advice for transitioning to trails.

A woman running on a trail in New Balance shoes

Give Yourself More Time

Many runners transitioning from road to trail find themselves surprised by how much longer a trail run takes than a road run of the same distance. It simply takes more time to navigate hills, elevation gain and uneven surfaces. Instead of obsessing over numbers, tell yourself to ignore the pace on your watch and focus your attention on the natural surroundings.

Plan Ahead and Prepare

When you are running in a remote area for a longer period of time, prepare accordingly.

If you’ll be out for more than an hour, be sure to bring water, a source of calories, and any items you may need for changing elevation, temperature and weather.

Start with your water. You will likely want a hydration system, which could be a hydration pack with pockets to carry essentials, or a handheld running water bottle. The bottls and packs made specifically for running will make it easier to carry your H2O with you.

If you’re in a place where the weather could change quickly and unexpectedly, make sure you bring extra clothing for warmth or rain protection. Darcy Piceau, a professional runner for HOKA ONE ONE, says to start your run on the cold side but bring an extra layer in your pack. You will likely warm up quickly as you go, especially if you are heading up a mountain, but bringing the extra layer will give you an option if the weather turns.

Depending on how adventurous the course, you may also want a hat, gloves, dry socks and a lightweight emergency blanket. Before you take off, tell a friend where you’re going and when you plan to be back, and bring a map if the course is unfamiliar.

Get Trail Running Shoes

Trail running shoes can make a huge difference for your comfort, protection and ability to handle the changing terrain. The biggest difference between trail running shoes and road running shoes is the lugs on the outsole of the shoe. Those rubber lugs provide improved traction and protection on rocky, wet and uneven surfaces. It’s especially important that your trail running shoes fit well without tight spots since you will need to be more nimble on the run. You also don’t want your toes to slam into the front of the shoes as you run.

Adjust Your Form

Variation in terrain means a different approach for running form. Piceau and fellow HOKA athlete Sage Cannaday say you will naturally change your body position when you’re running on technical terrain, but here’s what you should think about:

  • Maintain a quick turnover to reduce the impact force on your body by landing with your foot under your body rather than out in front.
  • Take short, quick steps to help you reduce the amount of time on each foot.
  • Lean slightly forward or keep your torso perpendicular to the ground to help with the quick turnover and avoid overstriding.
  • When transitioning from smooth ground to rocky surfaces, slightly slowing your pace will help you to conserve energy.
  • Running on trails also requires that you pay close attention and watch every step. Use side to side movements to help get around large rocks or obstacles and avoid falls.
Three people run together on a trail

Learn to Run Uphill

Lean forward slightly from your ankles and land on the ball of your foot. While it’s important to keep an eye on your footing, hold your gaze in front rather than straight down. This helps to keep your chin up and maintain an open airway. Use dynamic arm movements to keep your momentum going. Trekking poles can be useful for particularly steep uphill sections.

Learn to Run Downhill, Too

Maintain that quick turnover and use arms for balance and stability. Keep in mind that different movements and running on more challenging terrain means recruiting different muscles in the body. Transition gradually to harder trails and be intentional about strengthening these muscles to enhance your trail running.

Always Respect the Trail

It’s important to protect the wild places that we love, so stay on the main path when your trail running. If the trail is muddy, go through the mud, get your shoes dirty and wear the dirt with pride. When runners step to the side of a muddy patch, they can trample delicate vegetation and cause unnecessary impact to the area. If too many runners decide to step off the trail, they can widen the path over time, which destroys more of the natural landscape around it.

Be sure to pack out all of your trash. If you take an energy gel on the run, never leave the wrapper or any food waste, like banana peels, on the ground. This goes for races as well. Never assume that a race official will pick up your wrapper unless you are at an aid station with volunteers designated for cleanup.

By Kate Schwartz. Schwartz has been running competitively for 20 years, and she currently runs with the Asheville Running Collective. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her husband, Alex, and their cat, Clementine.

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