Maybe you’re looking for a change. You’re tired of running on asphalt and through man-made structures and vehicles. You want to be at one with the world, with nature. Well, don’t worry, you’ve come to the right place. Here we’re going to detail everything you need to know about trail running for beginners.
Sure, you can slip on your running shoes and head out for the nearest forest. There’s nothing stopping you from doing that.
But that would leave you open to a plethora of newbie errors that are best avoided – some of these errors can result in some pretty serious running injuries.
As you’ll see below, trail running is an entirely different animal from running on a treadmill or on man-managed roads. It takes much more out of your body. Just think about it: if you’re on natural, wild terrain, it means that you’re not on a straight, smooth road. You’re on a winding one with a ton of unknown obstacles to boot. And that means you’ll have to will your body to twist and turn and contort in ways you don’t have to on traditional terrain.
If that discourages you, take a deep breath. It’s not as difficult as it sounds. You just need to make sure to calibrate your expectations properly and to make sure you’re prepared to meet the challenge. We’ll help you with that.
What is Trail Running?
First, let’s talk about what trail running actually is.
It’s been growing as a sport at an incredibly fast rate, after all. There were only 160 organized trail races world-wide in 2008; by 2018, that number ballooned to over 1,800. That’s an increase of over 1,000%.
So there must be something to it.
Trail running, to put it simply, is a mix between running and hiking. To put it another way, if you’re running on an unpaved surface through an area that hasn’t been too contaminated (or improved – however you want to look at it) by humans, then you’re trail running. And as you can tell by our definition, running trails and hiking trails are often one and the same.
So if you really want to reduce the definition down to a nub, then it would suffice to say that trail running is just hiking, but faster.
There is also what’s known as “fell running,” and “mountain running,” which differ from trail running in minuscule ways. Here’s the quick (reductionist) break down:
- Fell running – also called “hill running” in certain locales – differs from trail running in that the route that you take to get to a checkpoint is usually up to you. In trail running, routes are marked and all runners follow the same route.
- Mountain running – this one’s a little bit of a finicky differentiation, but the sole difference between mountain running and trail running is that some of the surfaces along the routes of mountain running can be paved. That doesn’t mean they’re always paved, but sometimes they are. That’s it; that’s the only real difference.
Is trail running harder than road running?
The short answer is yes.
Remember, if you’re running on a road, you’re running on a relatively even surface. Of course, you’ll have to be careful about cambers – a slight, even imperceptible curve in the road that favors one side – which have the potential to cause serious damage.
But that’s nothing compared to the twists and turns and ascents and descents of natural terrain. Some of these ascents can be quite steep, though perhaps not as steep as hill running or mountain running.
Perhaps the biggest mistake that beginner trail runners make is running on trails like they would on a road or on a treadmill. On the latter two mediums, you can literally just zone out and let your body run on autopilot. You can listen to music, daydream, admire sights, and so on. If you try that on a trail, chances are you’ll find yourself falling headfirst towards the dirt, or whacked in the face by a protruding branch.
That’s the one thing above all else that makes trail running a greater challenge than road running. Yes, you have more obstacles, like bushes, rocks, and even animals; yes, you have varying gradients that can potentially wear you out quicker; but the real issue you need to overcome to overcome the rest of it is your level of focus. In order to run a trail successfully and safely, you need to keep your undivided focus on the trail ahead of you.
For a more detailed look at the differences between trail running vs road running, click here.
And even more information on trail running for beginners, we highly recommend that you take a look at the video below.
Tips on Getting Started
Know Your Trail
This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many people jump in headfirst without a thought in that head. No two trails are the same, and some trails vary significantly in terms of the obstacles you’ll face. Be aware of how hilly your chosen trail is, and how rocky, muddy, or sandy it is. Awareness of a problem is the first step in tackling it. As a beginner, you should opt for what are known as “groomed” trails rather than “singletrack” trails. Just trust us on that one. It’s better to train your way up to the hard stuff.
Safety is always first – no matter what the activity. Trail running is no different. Make sure that the people in your life know where you are before embarking. Depending on where you’re running, you might not have cell phone reception and no way to reach them. In the same vein, it’s always best to run trails with at least one partner.
Bring a map of the terrain your traversing, too. That way you can always find your way back to civilization in case you screw up (we all do sometimes!).
And also remember to lift your feet! One of the most hazardous mistakes beginner trail runners make is that they get lazy with their feet and drag them instead of lifting. While that’s perfectly okay (though not optimal) when road running or on a treadmill, it could spell disaster on wild terrain. You could catch a root or trip on a rock and down you’ll go.
But that’s easily avoided with a bit of conscientiousness. So avoid it.
Speaking of conscientiousness – stay focused. We’ve already discussed earlier the heightened importance of focus when trail running vs road running, especially for beginners. Again, lift your feet and keep your eye on the trail. This can’t be stressed enough.
What you wear is important. Trail running gear differs from gear required for other types of running in significant ways. In fact, gear in this case is so important that it warrants its own article.
Check out what we believe to be (and yes, we’re quite biased) the best trail running socks on the market.
Time vs Distance
If you’re used to running on a treadmill or running on a road, you probably measure your progress by how many miles (or kilometers) you run. But when it comes to trail running, especially for beginners, it’s much more prudent to measure your progress by time.
This is because running on natural terrain is just tougher. There are relatively sharp changes in incline and a plethora of obstacles to avoid. These take a toll not just physically but mentally as well – so if you’re just starting out, you may find yourself running way fewer miles on the trail than you’re used to on the road. And that might be disheartening.
But don’t let it get you down. The mileage – at least in the beginning – isn’t so important. It’s about timing. Once you get the basics of trail running down (meaning, once you’ve learned to keep your focus and you’ve acclimated to the obstacles and the ups and downs, and your muscles have adapted to the added stress), higher mileage will become much more attainable.
Keep Your Distance
This is one thing beginner trail runners do that no one can fault them for. They’re staying positive; they’re operating on the assumption that the run will go smoothly enough and that they’ll succeed in conquering the route.
The problem is that this optimism might lead them to follow their partner(s) a little too closely.
And when they trip on a root – or their partner does – more than one person is going to get hurt.
Avoid that by keeping your distance. We recommend staying about 10 feet behind or in front of your partner.
Don’t stubbornly keep to a pace just because. Like we said before, measure your progress by time, not distance, and especially not by speed. Pace yourself, get acclimated, improve your focus, and eventually you’ll be able to naturally speed up.
It’s like crawling before you can walk; then walking before you can run. If you find yourself abnormally out of breath out on the trail, slow down (or even stop and rest if you have to). We’ve all been there and there’s absolutely no shame in it.
Just like with any type of run, nutrition is important. What you eat before running is essential; as is what you eat after it. And before, during, and after, perhaps nothing is more vital than keeping your fluid levels in check.
Trail Running Etiquette for Beginners
- Remember that the road doesn’t belong to you. There are other people on it, going in both directions.
- If the trail is wide enough, keep to the right side of the road and let people pass. It’s just like with driving.
- If you’re running down a slope and you see runners coming up, yield to them. Running downhill is generally easier, so you’ll always want to let those who are running uphill pass through first.
- Don’t be a pig. Most people who choose trail running over other forms of running do so to be “at one with nature,” so to speak. Throwing wrappers and trash all over the place will take them out of the zone.
- In that vein, it’d be nice of you to pick up trash along the route if you see it. And it’d be even nicer if you do the kind of stuff the runner in the video below did. Give it a watch; it’s incredibly enlightening.
And there you have it: everything you need to know about trail running for beginners.
Questions? Concerns? Make sure to leave them in the comments below.