Trail Running Tips for Beginners

Looking to shake up your running routine? Connect with nature? Whatever your reason, running on trails has benefits galore for your mind and body.

Starting something new can be intimidating at first. But, with the proper preparation, experience and a positive mindset, you can tackle any trail.

Our guide of tips and tricks will outfit you with the best trail running shoes, useful accessories and help guide you in the best safety and training practices as you start trail running.

Give Yourself Time

Three women smile as they run on a trail together

Trail running often takes longer than the same distance on the road

Navigating hills, uneven surfaces, mud and other obstacles can add time to your run, so if you’re a road runner used to closely monitoring your pace on your Garmin GPS watch, remember you may run several minutes slower per mile on trails, depending on the terrain. Keep this in mind if you’re moving your longer runs to the trails.

New trail runners should try ignoring the pace and distance altogether

Assign yourself an amount of time for which you want to run, and go with the flow. This way, you can better listen to your body and enjoy time in nature. Better yet, if you’re new to trail running, try ignoring your running pace and distance altogether. This approach provides an opportunity to listen to your body and enjoy time in nature.

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Plan Ahead and Stay Safe

To ensure your safety and preparedness as you venture into uncharted territory, take the time to prepare so you can enjoy your time on the trails.

First, fuel your body

As a rule of thumb, if you are going to be out on the trails for over an hour, eat before you head out.

Then, be sure to bring water, a source of calories, and anything you might need to keep your body comfortable over changing elevation, temperature, and weather. Gels, bars or other quick energy snacks can be a great choice on the trail. Hydration packs or hand-held water bottles designed specifically for running make it easy and comfortable to carry water as you go.

Consider your layers

Anything can happen on the trails, especially when you’re running at elevation, through wilderness or out for a prolonged period of time. It’s a good idea to keep a lightweight rain jacket, extra layers or even dry socks with you so you can adjust with the weather.

Know where you’re going and bring a buddy (or share your plan)

Most importantly, prioritize safety. Before you go, tell a friend or family member where you're going and when you plan to be back. Or, even better, find a trail running buddy to explore the great outdoors with and keep each other safe.

Take note of maps and trail guides to keep from getting lost, especially if you are new to the trail. Additional safety gear like light packs or safety alert systems can provide an added layer of security to your trail run.

Wear Trail Running Shoes

S19 Trail 001

This might seem intuitive, but trail running shoes can change your trail running experience. Unlike road shoes, trail shoes are equipped with rugged rubber outsoles and robust lugs to enhance your grip on uneven terrain like loose dirt or mud, and keep you from slipping on slick surfaces or during stream crossings.

Depending on the terrain you plan to run on, you may want a trail running shoe with a rock plate to protect your feet from jagged rocks and roots. Additionally, look for running shoe models with added holes or mesh that drain efficiently after stream crossings or running in wet conditions.

No matter the model you choose, Fleet Feet is dedicated to helping you make the best choice to fit your needs. We have created a guide of the best trail running shoes to help you narrow down your choice. Even if you’re unsure where to begin, our expert Outfitting team uses unique tools like fit id to help you better understand your feet and the shoes that will fit them best.

Learn more about our unique fit process.

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Adjust Your Form

One of the fitness benefits of trail running is that it engages muscle groups that are not normally used in road running. Your body naturally adjusts to variable terrain without much thought (just another amazing thing our bodies can do!). But here are a few tips to make the most of your form on the trails:

  • Take quick steps: Quick steps and a short stride offer numerous benefits on the trails, the biggest being that a quick turnover reduces the impact force on your feet, knees, and hips and can help you avoid injury as your body adjusts to new terrain.
  • Keep your chin up: Pay close attention to changing terrain so you can anticipate your upcoming steps and avoid injury. On flat stretches and even hills, keep your eyes on the trail three to four feet ahead of you. Use side-to-side movements to navigate around large rocks and obstacles without falling.
  • Love the hills: Okay, not everyone loves running uphill. But you can show your body some love while you climb them by adjusting your form. Focus on pushing off from and landing on the balls of your feet. This propels you forward and takes the strain off your ankles.
  • Pump your arms to create momentum to propel you forward. A good trick is to picture that you are holding your favorite chip or cracker between your thumb and forefinger; through magic or, more likely, science, this will keep your arms bent naturally and help you use them more effectively to drive you up the hill.
  • Alternatively, imagine that you’re holding onto a rope. With each arm swing, close your fist (gently) on the imaginary rope and pull it back to your sides. The added visualization might even make the climb feel easier.

It's O.K. To Walk

Whenever you try something new, it’s important to be gentle with yourself. Trail running can be taxing as it works muscle groups that are not usually used during road running. Plus, difficult terrain and hills can really push your body to its limits.

What’s important is that you are exploring a new activity and learning how to use your body on a new terrain. Incorporating walk breaks when you need them is an excellent way to improve your fitness without pushing past your limits.

Always Respect the Trail and Other Trail Users

SWEAT Trail 4193

Mother Nature is queen, and it’s important to treat her as such. If you pack something in, you need to pack it out. Thant means if you bring water bottles, food or anything else that could produce trash with you onto the trail, make sure you carry that trash with you off the trail.

Leaving wrappers behind pollutes the environment and is dangerous to animals living in the area. Trail running is only possible if there are clean, wild environments with trails to run on!

Most trails will state rules and advice for sharing the trail with others. As a new trail runner, it can be intimidating to run alongside mountain bikes, seasoned trail runners and hikers. In general, yielding to those moving slower than you can keep you and those you share the trail with safe.

Make sure to pay attention to your surroundings, stay on marked trails to keep yourself safe and to protect the environment surrounding you. Widening of the trail through off-trail traffic can pose a threat to wildlife in the area around the trail.

By being conscientious of others, you can safely explore and enjoy the trails.