Trail running is simply any kind of running done off-road, whether that’s on urban trails, fields, single tracks, lush forests, big mountains or anything in between.
The routes you can take will vary from the technical to the mild, and usually include a fair share of dirt and spectacular views.
Getting into trail running is easy (as simple as going out and running on a trail), but if you’re still unsure here’s a handy guide to take you through your trail running start.
HOW TO START TRAIL RUNNING
- Start slow – no matter how seasoned an athlete you might be, you’ll need to get your body used to the stressors of trail running.
Trail running involves uneven ground and, while softer than tarmac or asphalt, you’ll have to account for roots, rocks and the natural dips and raises of the ground. The uneven surface will tax muscles and joints you’ve most likely not trained – even experienced road runners will have to be careful to start with – and it’s better to start slow to avoid injury.
- Stay safe – many trail running locations can be isolated, which means you’re less likely to find help should you need it (e.g. if you trip up or slide). Unlike cities, where you’re likely to run into humans often, you might not be within earshot of anyone when trail running.
This isn’t a bad thing at all – in fact, it’s the very reason many people enjoy trail running – but it does mean you should take more precautions when trail running. It’s a good idea to run with a friend who knows the area and/or have your phone with you, as well as carrying water just in case you’re unexpectedly delayed (or get lost).
In essence, you won’t need much more information to start trail running. Of course, there’s always more advice and knowledge to be had, but ultimately running is a simple act and too much information can seem daunting and put people off trying. However, here’s some other useful tips for your trail running beginnings.
Other useful things to know when you start trail running
- Find a route – many trails are a web of turns, path splits and confusion. It’s easy to get lost in a forest, park or mountain (which can be fun as you might discover new, better trails), but it’s always best to find a route before you go out or run with someone who knows the area for a more relaxed introduction to the sport.
- It’s okay to walk – many times, when trail running, your pace will be dictated by the terrain more than by your level of fitness. Some sections of trail might be too technical to run in, some might be so steep it’s smarter to conserve energy and walk than trying to run up them, and sometimes you might just want a break.
It’s perfectly fine to walk when out trail running (or running anywhere for that matter) so don’t feel like you have to go non-stop throughout. Conserve your energy for when you need it and enjoy the run.
- The right gear helps – solid trail running shoes might be the difference between slipping away in the mud or running strong on slippery terrain. It’s not impossible to run trails on road shoes, but it can be pretty unpleasant. Find out what terrain you’ll be running in and consider getting a pair of shoes that’s best suited for it (e.g. shoes with long lugs for muddy forest trails, as they’ll provide better grip, or a pair with a sturdier sole for rocky mountain trails for better support).
- Be prepared for the unexpected – as always when you head to the outdoors, make sure you’re prepared. There are a few variables you should consider before heading out: weather, time of day, length of the run, route, terrain.
The weather can always turn quickly in the mountains, so ensure you’re carrying an extra layer if running there. If you’re heading out closer to the evening, taking a headlamp with you might be a good shout in case your run lasts longer than expected and the sun sets on you.
If you’re heading out for a longer run, consider taking water and maybe a snack with you. As your energy systems start to dwindle, you’ll be happy to have the energy supply on remote trails. Make sure you have access to a map or know the area well enough to get to your finishing point safe and sound.
- Don’t litter – It’s unacceptable to throw rubbish away on the trails (this includes apple cores and banana peels). Trail runners appreciate nature and their surroundings, so please always be respectful of the trails and don’t litter.
- Run with someone – I think the easiest way to get into trail running is by running with someone who first, knows the area, and second, knows what they’re doing. Any trail runner will be happy to share their knowledge with you and running with them is a great way to start exploring and getting to know your local trails with confidence.
Go out and give trail running a try – you’ll learn more as you progress.
HOW TO TRAIN FOR TRAIL RUNNING
- Effort is what matters – unlike road running, where many athletes focus heavily on their pace, trail running is measured by individual effort. Don’t worry too much about time and pace and instead measure your runs based on effort.
- Train uphill and downhill running – most trails involve hills, so learning how to efficiently move uphill and run the downs will make you a better trail runner. For uphill running, lean into the ground and use your forward momentum, otherwise, power hike strategically.
Learning how to run steep downhills will take time, as you’ll have to build the confidence and (ankle) strength to do so. When training, commit to the downhill, relax and start with short strides.
- Look ahead – ‘where the eyes go the body follows’ is a common saying in mountain biking, and can be applied to trail running too. Don’t focus too much on the obstacles right under your feet; instead, keep your look slightly ahead and your brain will decodify the steps to get over the roots or rocks puzzle underneath your feet.
- Use your arms – your arms will provide needed balance when trail running on technical terrain. As you manoeuvre round the technical terrain, you might have to do longer or shorter steps, jump or lift your legs higher, or quickly get out of the way of a tree branch. Your arms will help you maintain balance and momentum.