The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Trail Running

You want to try the trails, eh? For an avid runner like myself, I thought, running is running. I strapped on my shoes and headed to the hiking trails. That day I learned that running is not trail running and with trail running you have to take each mile with stride.

See what I did there?

I’m not going to let you make the same mistakes that I did. If you’re looking to blaze the trails, make sure to read through the hints below before you head out to conquer the dirt and gravel.

You’ll thank us later.

Things to know before you hit the trail

1. Don’t compare your road pace to your trail pace.

That’s just a nice way of saying slow down. Since runners don’t like to hear that, I sugar coated it. Don’t pace yourself with time, use your heart rate and your breathing to pace yourself. Trail runs have unpredictable obstacles, slants and uneven ground. If you attempt to run a trail at your road pace, you’ll risk injury. Let it be known that when trail running, walking is acceptable, even expected. You’ll need to save your legs.

2. Suit up.

Trail running shoes are a must have. They are lower profile and make running on the uneven terrain easier on your joints and muscles. Make sure to wash and air dry those trail shoes. Take some extra fuel, for when you encounter steep hills that you wouldn’t normally see on road courses.

3. Plan and be safe.

Plan out your route using a map, take the map with you if you can. Tell someone where you are going and if possible take your cellphone. A nice trail run can turn into a survival nightmare if you get lost and didn’t take proper precautions. Leave a copy of your planned routed in your car or with a loved one. It’s easier to find a needle in a haystack if you know what haystack it’s in.

Training for the trails

Trails provide challenging routes but require some additional training to get your legs, muscles, agility and endurance ready for these beautiful beastly treks.

Agility training

Implement strength and balance training into your regimen about twice per week. Work on your core stability, lunges on a bosu ball and some single leg squats or deadlifts. It’s best to add these in after your short runs. Don’t let this interfere with your rest days. Those are for, well, rest.

Hill Training

Choose a hill with the appropriate grade incline for your skill level. Whatever level you think you can run effectively, half it. Trust me. I learned the hard way. Run hard up the selected hill for 60 seconds and walk back down. Repeat this 4 to 6 times. This will increase your leg strength and enable you to tackle any hill you come up on. Work up to higher grade inclines. Make sure to do a 10 minute warm up and cool down run.

Downhill Training

After a 20 minute warm up run, choose a small decline and run hard for 2 to 3 minutes before you turn around and jog back to the starting point. Repeat this 2 to 4 times. Follow it up with a 10-minute cool down and some serious water.

Stride Training

For this you want to select a flat section of a trail. Warm up for 10 minutes and then sprint that section hard for 30 seconds. Do this 6 to 8 times before you cool down for another 10 minutes. We aren’t running for time here though; we are running for stride strength. This is similar to stride training for the road, but don’t skip it. The trail is brutal when you aren’t properly prepared.

Obstacle training

On the trail you may encounter a section that has many roots and puddles. It may even have rocks and other debris in the trail. Choose that section for your obstacle training. After warming up for 10 minutes tackle that obstacle section, as slow as you need to at first. Repeat this 4 to 6 times and try to increase your speed each time. You’ll be cat like agile in a couple months.

Now that you’ve got your trail shoes (if you haven’t yet picked a pair up, checkout our best trail running shoes guide) map and some serious leg strength you’re ready to head out for your very first, long, scenic trail run. Don’t be scared. This experience will be one of a lifetime. Each trail you hit will remind you of this first run. That first time you saw nature it all its glory while pushing yourself to forge on. It’s the most exhilarating burn I’ve ever felt.

But before you strap on your new, clean, trail shoes, there are some things to remember so you can be sure to have a successful run.

Helpful Hints

  • Know the rules of the trail. Always yield to other trail users who are moving faster than you. Stay on marked trails. Leave no trace, and don’t litter.
  • Carry fluids. Bringing hydration with you on a trail run is a must. You never know how long it will take you even if you are running a trail that you have run many times before.
  • Use your arms. Widen your elbows to improve your balance when you run.
  • Look 5 to 10 in front of you while running. This prepares you for what is ahead and prevents you from tripping on tree roots.
  • When in doubt, walk. Walking isn’t a bad thing in trail running. Do it when you need to, or when the lake is too beautiful and you need to gaze at it longer.
  • Enjoy the view. Trails are majestic and running freely through them is even more tranquil. Take a camera and snap some incredible shots while walking. Shots while running are generally pretty blurry. I hear.

With all of this preparation, you’re sure to have a successful, beautiful and challenging trail run. Trail running can strengthen your ability as a runner and improve your agility and endurance. Trail running can even help improve your road running time, supposing you ever decide to road run again. If you are still apprehensive about going trail running alone, join a group in your local area. If you train correctly, listen to your body and open your eyes to experience what is in front of you, you’ll run with a vigor you never knew you had.

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