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8 Trail Running Tips: How to get started

Want to get started trail running but are unsure where to begin?  Here are 8 simple tips for beginners and first time trail runners.

You’ve read a few things about trail running and even had a few friends tell you a thing or two about the sport, but you are still apprehensive about giving it a try. A few trail running tips and suggestions may be just what you need to get you to the closest trail head for your first adventure on the trails.

Tip #1: Identify a trail

Check out our Find a Trail tool powered by Trail Run Project to find a trail near you.  You can also consult your local city, municipal, or county parks and recreation department, the U.S. Forest Service, a specialty running store, or a local trail running club for trails in your area. Look for trail race calendars and select a trail race in your area, visit the website, and download the map. Trail races are excellent courses to consider for runs on your own, plus you may like the course so much that you enter the race.

Tip #2: Think time not mileage

Running three miles on the roads may take you 24 minutes while three miles on trails could take you twice as long depending on the elevation changes and the terrain. It is best to plan your run in terms of the amount of time you’re comfortable running, not distance, so that you don’t head out for a run that is beyond your capabilities.

Tip #3: Keep your eyes on the trail underfoot

Most trail running injuries occur when a runner glances upward for a split second and immediately is on the ground with a sprained ankle, twisted knee, or bruised hand. To enjoy the view…stop running and look around you. Unless you are stopped, or the trail is completely void of rocks, gravel, tree roots, leaves, ice, or cactus, watch where you are going. Know what the terrain is like under your footfalls. Pay attention to the trail.

Tip #4: Dress appropriately

Always be prepared for what the conditions are, or what they might become. If you are heading out for a 20 minute run, chances are the conditions will remain similar to those at the start of the run throughout the run. However, if you are venturing out for a run of more than one hour consider what the conditions might become. You may start in the sunshine only to experience a dramatic change in weather 60 minutes into the run. What was once bright sunshine is now a sky covered in clouds with thunder rolling in the distance. Hopefully you have carried a wind jacket, tights, or a cap to keep you warm for the run back to your start point.

Tip #5: Know the route

Either take a map with you on an unfamiliar route, or run with someone who knows the area (a great idea for your first trail run is to run with someone and get tips about technique). Getting lost is certainly a possibility especially if you are in a new area, on a new trail, or trying a different route you’ve never tried before. If you are by yourself, let someone know where you plan to run, or leave a note in your car at the trail head that describes the route you intend to run. Safety in numbers is something to consider and running with a friend not only gives you company, but also provides support should you get injured on a run. If you’re comfortable using technology, consider loading the route into your GPS watch or favorite navigation app for turn-by-turn directions.

Tip #6: Consider the terrain

For your first trail run, start out with a relatively flat to rolling course. Don’t attempt to run up a 14,000-foot peak your first time out the door! Gradually add more elevation, more distance, and more challenge to your run. Challenge can come in terms of footing, steepness of the trail (either ascending or descending), or greater altitude.

When you are running uphill be sure to use your entire foot as opposed to running on your toes. Roll through the ball of your foot. Toe runners often have screaming calves at the summit of an ascent.

On downhill sections avoid using your breaking muscles and slow down in order to save your quadriceps. You can also you a “traversing” technique on very steep downhill sections similar to a novice skier weaving from right to left across the width of the trail.

Tip #7: Think hydration and nutrition

Drink and eat before your run, during your run, and after your run. The amount you eat and drink will vary based on the duration of your run. If you are going out for a run under 90 minutes, a single water bottle may be all you need. However if it is extremely warm, you may need to consider some electrolyte replacement in your water. Anything beyond two hours and you should supplement with some energy bars or gels.

Tip #8: Invest in a good pair of trail running shoes

Your seven ounce racing flats may be the perfect shoe for your 5km road race, but won’t be a good choice for the trails. A shoe with good support, stability, gripping potential, and comfort is essential for the trails. There are numerous trail shoes on the market ranging from light and quick (those that are appropriate for short uphill runs), to mid-weight and reinforced (appropriate for longer runs with more gnarly terrain), to heavy and extremely stable (appropriate for short, rocky, ever-changing terrain).

A good all-purpose trail shoe is one that is a good transition shoe, one that will perform well on short sections of road as well as the trails. There are few people who live right next to a trail head so it is helpful to select a shoe based on where you will be doing most of your trail runs.  Need help selecting which trail running shoe is right for you?  Check out our Research Trail Running Shoes page.

Enjoy yourself and set achievable goals. For more about trail running explore the rest of our website at www.trailrunner.com for events, news, links to other trail running resources and more.