12 Tips to Help You Hit the Trails for a Run
Have you ever been hiking on a beautiful scenic trail, say in the mountains, and suddenly been passed by some sweaty human going triple the speed as you? While you might think that person is possibly running from some animal, or worse, they are crazy enough to actually want to run up a mountain, in truth, trail running is not as weird as you might think. In fact, the sport of trail running — which is exactly what it sounds like — has been growing in popularity year over year.
Trail running is actually one of the best ways to workout, and (in our opinion) one of the most rewarding and fun ways to work up a sweat. Plus, it has some serious perks; including, the fact that you use more muscles in trail running verse road running (including your core, ankles and feet), that you lower your overall risk of injury — including the very common running injury known as shin splints, that you will likely be less anxious and stressed in your day-to-day life (nature-based activities have been known to help lower both your stress and anxiety and also help you get out of a negative thought spiral), and finally, trail running is thought to help you live longer (according to a Harvard study, being out in nature more often helps boost longevity). Plus, and this is really important, trail running is often a whole lot of fun — especially if you don’t take it too seriously and instead look at it as one big adventure.
So if we have convinced you to check out trail running for yourself, then consider these 12 trail running tips for beginners below. These helpful tips cover everything from what to do before you step foot on the trail, to how to recover faster after a long day of climbing those mountains.
BEFORE STEPPING ON THE TRAIL
1 | FIND TRAILS THAT FIT YOUR FITNESS
When you are first starting out with trail running it is important to know your limits and to make sure you start out on trails that won’t push you too hard. Because honestly, nothing is as disheartening and tough as getting into running shape on a super technical and difficult trail.
Instead, we suggest starting out on a trail that has little elevation gain, is nice and scenic (this helps keep your mind busy), soft (trails will help your body adjust to running without all of the extra strain you get on paved surfaces), and that is pretty busy. By starting out on a fun, beautiful and relatively easy trail, you will more likely want to keep up trail running long-term than if you just start out on really tough trails that push you physically and mentally.
A good way to find trails that fit this “easy” category is to look at sites like Alltrails. Here you can search for trails depending on distance, difficulty, elevation gain, route type and what kind of scenery you want.
2 | WEAR PROPER SHOES
While it might seem like a big investment to make in the beginning, one of the best ways to help you enjoy trail running when first starting out is to have proper footwear. Legitimate running shoes will help keep your feet comfortable and also injury-free. While we aren’t saying you need to buy the most expensive trail running shoes out there, we do suggest investing in at least a standard pair of running shoes period.
For the most optimal fit, we also recommend going into a running shoe store to get your feet looked at and measured — at least for the first shoe purchase. Because not everyone’s feet are the same, you will want to make sure you are wearing the best shoes for your feet.
Some of the best trail running shoes are from brands such as Altras (which we both wear and LOVE), HOKA and Scarpa. You can find even more recommended trail running shoes at the bottom of this article.
3 | BRING THE RIGHT TRAIL RUNNING GEAR
You are definitely going to want to bring the right gear with you on the trail — especially when you are first starting out. Below are three basic items you will want to have before you set out on any trail run:
Running Backpack / Hydration is super important while trail running, so you will want to make sure you have a comfortable way to carry water. This running backpack by Osprey is lightweight and breathable and easily adjusts to fit your body. It also allows you to carry other necessities along the route (read more about this below).
Ultra-light Running Socks / One of the best ways to prevent blisters (a common side effect of trail running) is to wear proper socks that help keep your feet from rubbing and moisture at bay.
Lightweight Workout Shorts / A good pair of running shorts doesn’t get in your way — luckily this pair has a nice stretchy waistband and super soft breathable fabric.
Because trail running requires you to usually be away from people and services, you will want to make sure you have everything you need on you in case of an emergency (weather, getting lost, getting hurt, etc.). Therefore besides the items above other important things to pack with you before heading out for a trail run are water, some snacks, an extra layer of clothing, a basic first aid kit, and a headlamp. Also, it isn’t a bad idea to bring your phone with you along the route — especially if you are running in a new place or in a more rugged area.
You can find even more awesome trail running gear at the bottom of this article.
💬 INSIDER TIP: try to download the map of the area you are planning to trail run in before you set out — heck, maybe try to download it before you even leave your house. Having an easy-to-use offline map will ensure you still have a way to find your way back to safety even without service.
4 | WARM UP YOUR LEGS
While some people can go from zero to a hundred with no issues, it is usually smarter to take a bit of time and get your legs warmed up before you step on the trail and start running. These warm up exercises can be anything from a couple of high knees and butt kicks, to just walking for a bit in the beginning.
Some of our favorite warm up moves are to do a couple of leg swings — both to the side (where you cross your leg in front of the other and then out to the side) and back to front. We also will do a couple of moving stretches like high knees, knee-to-chest pulls, and walking lunges, if we find ourselves a bit sore, or if our legs feel a bit stiff from sitting all day.
ON THE TRAIL
5 | START OUT SLOW
One of the most important things to remember when you first start trail running — or any type of running for that matter — is that it is perfectly okay to go at a very slow pace and to even walk.
Always remember that walking doesn’t mean that you failed or that you are weak. In actuality, walking can sometimes be a really smart decision — especially on super steep or technical sections. Likewise, when you first start trail running you probably won’t be in the best possible shape; therefore a bit of walking can really help you push your distance and stamina. One great way to do this is to run for a set amount of time — say 3 minutes — and then walk for a bit — say 1 minute. This off-and-on running and walking will help you build up your running strength and eventually lead you down the line to walk less and go farther on your runs.
6 | WALK THE HILLS
Likewise, when you are out trail running and you get to a massive hill don’t be ashamed to walk. One thing we have learned during our time trail running is that if you can’t see the top of a hill, it is almost always smarter to walk up it than it is to run it.
This is because, for the most part, you will expend more energy running up a hill than if you just walked it. And you will likely still go around the same speed as you would running as walking anyway. This is such a well-known idea that most professional trail runners almost never run up steep sections. Instead, they speed walk or hike up them (often with trekking poles to help).
So the next time you are out on the trail and you come to a ginormous hill, don’t be ashamed or discouraged if you have to walk it. Just keep on moving and once you reach the top just start running again.
7 | RUN YOUR OWN RUN
One of the key things about trail running — and running maybe in general — is the idea that as long as you keep moving you will eventually get to where you need to go. We know this sounds a bit obvious, but what this really means is that even if you slowly jog or even if you walk, you will eventually get to where you need to go.
Honestly, unless you are in a big race, it doesn’t matter what speed you run at. What matters is that you are out there having fun, seeing the beautiful landscapes and getting some good healthy exercise. It truly does not matter that you are slower than others. At the end of the day, no matter how fast you ran, you will still have accomplished something and (hopefully) got those happy endorphins going.
8 | CHECK YOUR SPEED AND ALWAYS KEEP AN EYE AHEAD
Because trails can be quite a bit more technical than road running, it is important to always keep a good eye ahead of you. This means paying attention to the trail a couple of feet in front while also focusing on not tripping on common trail obstacles like roots, rocks or slick muddy sections.
Due to trail running’s more adventurous nature, you inherently engage many more muscles than you would road running. You also have to put a lot more focus on not falling and not tripping — which in turn, makes your brain work just as hard as your legs. And this can then lead to lower levels of stress and anxiety, and a happier feeling overall.
Also, we believe it is worth mentioning, that because of trail running’s more technical terrain, it is not really fair to compare your speed and paces to what you would be doing on even surfaces like a paved road or bike trail. Therefore don’t beat yourself up if you are running slower or if you have to walk a bit more. While both road running and trail running are indeed running, they are totally different and should not be judged equally.
9 | BE PREPARED TO GET A BIT DIRTY
In our opinion, one of the best ways to look at trail running is as one big exciting adventure. Therefore it is important to remember that you will likely get a bit dirty, a bit wet, and even a bit scratched up. Take it all in stride and remember to just have fun with it.
This is seriously one of our favorite things about trail running: it is like hiking in overdrive. For the most part, you get to explore a beautiful area, see some stunning sites and get a good workout in. How does that not sound like fun?
AFTER THE TRAIL
10 | STRETCH OUT YOUR LEGS
Once you finish your run, make sure to start the recovery process right away. This includes drinking water to rehydrate — especially if you sweat a lot — eating some nutritious food, and putting aside a couple of minutes to stretch your likely sore muscles. Below are four really important stretches you should do after every trail run.
Your quads take a big beating when trail running, so make sure to spend some time stretching them out afterward. A great one is to stand next to a wall or something you can balance against. Then stand on one leg, bend the other one and grab your ankle until your heel comes up to your glute. Pull your foot closer to your butt until you feel a deep stretch. Make sure to keep your back straight and try to avoid bending forward.
Because trail running is usually a bit hillier than regular road running, your hip flexors have to work quite a bit harder. A great way to do this is to first stand up straight and then step back with one foot. Then keep your back leg (the one that stepped back) straight, while also bending your forward knee until you are in a lunge-like position. Make sure to keep your pelvis neutral (aka lifted up towards an imaginary belt buckle). Also, just remember that the more you lunge forward the deeper the stretch.
The more hills you climb, the more strain on your calves. Once you finish running — especially after a nice hilly trail — make sure to find a wall, tree or car and stretch them out. One of the best calf stretches is to lean against a wall, put both hands out at shoulder level, and then step back with one foot. Keep your knee straight and your heel on the ground. Then bend your forward knee and push against the wall.
The twisting and turning that you experience while trail running can put a lot of strain on your gluteus medius (which is a large fan-shaped muscle located on the outside of your hip/butt). The best stretch for this is known as the seated pretzel. To do this stretch, start by sitting on both legs and stretching them both out in front of you. Then bend one knee and bring your thigh as close to your chest as possible. Then cross the foot of your bent knee over the straight leg. Finally, use your hand to pull that bent knee towards your chest (try to hug it close for the best stretch) and twist your mid section and chest in the same direction as the bent knee. Remember to always try to sit up as straight as possible and make sure to never slouch your back.
If you can, try to hold these four stretches for at least 60 seconds before switching to the other leg.
11 | DO A BIT OF STRENGTH TRAINING
Some runners swear by strength training while others don’t do it at all. So this tip is totally up to you and your personal preferences. We personally find that doing a bit of strength training in conjunction with our runs makes us feel stronger and have more energy overall (we also think it might help us stay injury-free).
If you are someone who wants to include a bit of strength training into their trail running training plan, then check out these simple exercises that for the most part don’t require any equipment.
Because you need to have strong, powerful legs to help you get up those hills, you will want to make sure all muscles are strong. A regular squat is great, but also consider adding in single-leg half squats, Bulgarian split squats and overhead squats with a band.
SINGLE LEG BALANCE
Because most trails are uneven and come with their own set of obstacles, you will want to make sure your ankles can handle all kinds of terrain without getting hurt. A great way to strengthen your ankles is to do a single-leg balance — which is exactly what it sounds like. To start, just stand with one leg on the ground and the other bent forward at a 90° angle. Then hold it for 30–60 seconds.
While trail running is mostly about your legs, you will also want to set aside a bit of time to strengthen your arms and shoulders. This is because by having a strong upper body and core, your body is more balanced and therefore stronger overall. This balance will be especially helpful on those long uphill sections. A push-up is a great exercise for upper body strength since it works your triceps, anterior delts, abs and parts of your shoulders.
In conjunction with push-ups, also try to add in a few pull-ups to your trail running strength routine. A pull-up is focused entirely on keeping you strong by using only your body weight — which means you are less likely to add a bit of unnecessary bulk to your physique.
Calves take a lot of impact while trail running, so you will want to make sure they are nice and strong and can handle all of the time spent on the trails. One great way to do this is to simply add some regular standing calf raises to your strength training routine. Or you can step it up and do the calf raises on a set of stairs. Either way, always make sure you are rising up on your toes as high as possible.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: a key thing to keep in mind with strength training is to combine the same difficulty level of your running workout with the difficulty level of your strength routine. It is important to do hard workouts together instead of doing a hard run and then a hard strength workout on your easy day or rest day (this kind of negates the idea of a rest day). Taking a full day off from running and exercising will help your body recover and come back stronger once it is time to hit the trails again.
➳ You can find even more trail running strength routines here.
12 | HYDRATE AND REFUEL PROPERLY
As with any outdoor adventure, it is super important to hydrate and refuel properly. By making sure your body gets the right amount of water and nutrients, you can help ensure that it will stay strong for future adventures. One of the most important things to figure out when it comes to refueling while trail running is what can you actually eat (and not get sick from) and what your body actually craves and needs.
Some people can eat right before a run and feel totally fine. Others have to wait an hour or two after eating to run otherwise they feel really sick. You need to learn what works for your body and stick with it. Can’t have milk before a run? Cool, then black coffee it is. Are you craving salty foods during your run? Awesome, make sure to have a good amount of salty snacks like tortilla chips with you once you finish your run.
Listen to your body and feed it properly. That’s really what is most important.
These 12 beginner trail running tips will hopefully help you enjoy your first foray into trail running and keep you coming back for more. While running, in general, is a great way to boost your health and endurance, trail running in particular is such a fun and exciting way to combine fitness and adventure. Plus, it has some truly killer benefits — including, but not limited to, helping your mental health, helping you reconnect with nature, and helping inspire you to head out and get some healthy exercise.
\\ The Top Trail Running Gear
Are you convinced to jump on the trail running wagon? Great! Below are a couple of items that might be worth getting (though never feel like you need the best gear to have a good time).
TRAIL RUNNING SHOES
Below are some of the best trail running shoes on the market, according to Runner’s World.
Salomon Sense Ride 4 / A great all-around trail running shoe.
Hoka Speedgoat 5 / A great shoe for longer runs on wet terrain.
Salomon Ultra Glide / A great shoe for longer runs on drier terrain.
La Sportiva Bushido II / A great shoe for any tough terrain, including mountains, forests and deserts.
WATER BOTTLES AND HYDRATION PACKS
If you are planning to head out on longer trail runs then you might want to consider bringing some water with you. A lone water bottle works great for shorter runs, but if you are looking to be out for a couple of hours, then a hydration backpack might be best (plus then you can carry other necessary things like snacks, a headlamp and your phone).
Fastdraw Hand Water Bottle / This 500mL bottle easily rests in your hand.
Nathan Quick Squeeze 18oz Bottle / While a bit bulkier than the bottle above, this one can hold more water and your phone.
Osprey 1.5L Hydration Vest / This comfortable running vest is lightweight, compact and easily holds 1.5 liters of water.
Osprey 6L Pack / For longer trail runs you might need a bit more storage, so consider getting this 6-liter running vest that comes with a 1.5-liter hydration bladder and plenty of pockets for those necessary items.
While shoes might be one of the most important pieces of your trail running setup, wearing the right clothes can also help you have a good time on the trail. Below are a few key pieces of trail running clothes to have with you.
Simple, Comfortable Running Shorts from Praise Endurance / These shorts include a tight fit base, a loose cover and a comfortable elastic waistband that will help keep everything in place.
Moisture-wicking Tank Top for Hot Summer Runs / This easy, breezy tank is perfect for warm runs out in the sun.
Lightweight Windbreaker from Mountain Hardwear / The weather can change quickly while trail running, so make sure to always pack an extra warm layer just in case. This super lightweight windbreaker from Mountain Hardwear packs down super tightly and can easily fit in your running bag.
Super Comfortable 3/4 Length Running Tights / Don’t let chillier weather keep you from hitting the trails. Instead, pack on a bit warmer clothing — including these moisture-wicking and super flexible tights from Patagonia.
Explore even more adventure tips and guides at www.backroadpackers.com.