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Over the last decade, trail running has exploded in popularity, with the number of organized trail races growing substantially in many areas around the world. If you’re interested in trying this exciting outdoor sport but aren’t quite sure where to begin, this is the article for you.
Trail running is a perfect activity for anyone interested in hiking, running, or both. While the increasing popularity of ultramarathons can make trail running seem like an intimidating or extreme activity, the sport is more accessible than many people think. Whether you’re new to running altogether or you’ve already logged hundreds of miles on pavement, we’ve got you covered with everything you need to know to get started with the rewarding sport of trail running. We’ll go over all the basics of trail running, including what makes it different from road running, required and recommended gear, what to bring on a trail run, general tips and etiquette, technique, how to get in shape for trail running, and how to find suitable trails.
What Is Trail Running?
Trail running is defined as running on any kind of unpaved surface. It typically occurs on hiking trails and walking paths, often located in mountainous or hilly areas. Many trail runners prefer this style over road running since it takes them through natural spaces rather than urban environments.
Here are the key ways trail running differs from road running:
- More frequent turns, hills, and obstacles: most trails feature more elevation changes, curves, and obstacles to watch out for than road running, which makes for a very interesting and engaging running experience.
- Varied terrain and scenery: a single trail run could take you over diverse terrain with varied surfaces, including mud, sand, dirt, grass, rocks, streams, and more.
- Less impact stress on the body: because of the varied surfaces, trail running causes less repetitive stress on your joints compared to running on pavement.
- Slower pace: the increased number of obstacles and elevation changes means a runner will typically travel slower on the trails than they will on paved routes.
Trail Running Gear
Unlike many outdoor adventure sports, it’s easy to get started trail running without purchasing a lot of specialty equipment. We’ll go through each item in more detail below, but the main things you’ll need to start trail running are:
- Trail running shoes
- High-quality socks
- Navigation system, such as a GPS device or map and compass, and basic navigation skills
- Water bottles designed for running or a hydration reservoir
- Backpack, vest, or waist belt
- Comfortable clothing suited to the weather conditions you plan to run in
This is the most essential piece of trail running equipment. Trail running requires shoes built to withstand the stresses of running long distances on rugged terrain. Like road running shoes, trail runners come in varied shapes and sizes ranging from minimalist/barefoot shoes, which seek to replicate the experience of walking and running barefoot, to highly cushioned, maximalist models with extra support.
Below are the key features you should look for and evaluate when picking out a pair of trail running shoes. When in doubt about what kind of shoe is right for you, consult an expert at an outdoor store who can help you find a shoe best suited to your needs and make sure you get the right fit.
Good Grip and Tread
Tread is one of the crucial differences separating road running from trail running shoes. The deep, widely-spaced, and multidirectional lugs on trail running shoes result in improved traction and better grip on diverse terrain. Shoes with deeper lugs are generally designed for trails with varied surfaces like mud and loose gravel, while those with shallower lugs are better for hard-packed trails.
Trail running shoes often have various features to protect your feet from hazards on the trail, such as sharp rocks. These features include abrasion-resistant uppers, toe guards, and a rock plate built into the midsole. The level of protection you require will depend on what type of terrain you plan to run on.
The amount of cushioning you look for in your trail runners is mostly a matter of personal preference. You may be happier with more cushioning if you expect to run very long distances, run on hard-packed surfaces, or use the same pair of shoes for both trails and pavement. Cushioned shoes are also a good choice for heavier runners and those with joint pain, including knee pain. If you plan to run shorter distances, on soft surfaces, or prefer a lightweight/barefoot feel, you’ll probably be fine with less cushioning.
Sturdy, Durable Construction
Many trail running shoes feature a stiff construction with supportive upper materials to stabilize the feet on uneven surfaces. The durable uppers are usually tightly woven to protect the feet against sharp vegetation that you may encounter on the trail and keep debris from entering the shoes.
Sometimes referred to only as “drop,” this measurement refers to the difference between the shoe’s height at the forefoot and at the heel. You can think of it as the difference in the amount of cushioning or material under the forefoot compared to that under the heel.
A lower drop requires the Achilles to work more and encourages a midfoot strike, while a higher drop promotes a heel strike. Minimalist shoes usually have a drop between 0 and 4mm, with 10 to 12mm or more on cushioned shoes. Moderate shoes tend to fall between 4 and 10mm of drop.
Many trail running shoes come in a waterproof version, which is typically indicated with the letters “GTX” (short for Gore-Tex). Waterproof shoes are less breathable than their standard counterparts but are useful in wet climates. They are also beneficial if you plan to run in cold weather and on snow-covered surfaces. If you plan on running mostly in warmer and drier weather, you likely don’t need a waterproof shoe.
From wicking moisture and preventing blisters to supporting your feet in all the right places, high-quality trail running socks will keep you and your feet comfortable even after miles on the trail. Silverlight socks are made from a blend of merino wool, nylon, spandex, and silver yarns and are ideal for hikes and trail runs.
Silverlight socks offer superior blister and odor prevention, moisture-wicking and temperature regulating properties, and dual-layer construction to provide a balance between comfort, support, and breathability. You can learn more about how to choose the perfect hiking and trail running socks and what makes our socks unique in our detailed blog post.
Like many other outdoor activities, trail running requires a good navigation system, such as a GPS device or map and compass. Although most trails are well marked, you’ll want to ensure you always have some type of navigation system with you in case you get off course.
Many runners use a multifunction GPS watch, which helps measure things like distance, pace, and elevation, and can be used to find their way if they get lost. Others simply use their smartphones and trail running apps, such as AllTrails or RunGo.
Since trail running takes you to more remote areas than road running, it’s important to carry water or other hydrating fluids with you on your run. A hand-held water bottle or small waist belt will work fine for short runs, but longer runs will require you to carry more water in a backpack or vest.
There are many different hydration reservoirs and hand-held water bottles designed with running in mind, as well as soft-sided bottles that will fit into your pack, vest, or waist belt.
Backpack, Vest, or Waist Belt
Runners should plan to bring a backpack, vest, or waist belt to carry their gear. Whichever type you choose, make sure it fits snugly to prevent it from moving around too much while running.
The exact size you need will depend on things like the distance you plan to run, weather conditions, and your personal preferences. As a general rule, the longer you run, the more gear capacity you’ll need. You can use the numbers below as a guide and adjust the capacity based on your needs and preferences.
- 1-2 hour run: 2 liters capacity
- 2-3 hour run: 2-6 liters capacity
- 3-6 hour run: 4-12 liters capacity
- 6+ hour run: 6 or more liters capacity
Since new trail runners usually start with shorter runs, beginners will likely be fine with a gear capacity of 4 liters or less.
All trail runners need comfortable clothing suited to the weather conditions they plan to run in. If you currently hike or run outdoors, you likely already own all the clothing you’ll need for trail running. This includes quick-drying, breathable, moisture-wicking layers made from merino wool or synthetics. You should avoid cotton clothing since the material absorbs moisture, dries slowly, and is a poor insulator.
You’ll also want a lightweight shell if you expect any potential rain, wind, or cool temperatures and a fleece or other insulating layer, gloves, and a hat if you’ll be running in the cold or snow.
Trail Running Packing List: What to Bring on a Trail Run
We’ve put together a comprehensive list of items you may want to bring on a trail run, including gear, clothing, food, and accessories. You probably won’t need to pack all of these items for every run. Instead, you can adjust what you bring based on the length, duration, and location of your run and the expected weather conditions.
- Clothing: quick-dry shirt, hat, quick-dry underwear and sports bra, running shorts or pants, buff or bandana, lightweight shell, insulating layer and gloves (if running in the cold), face mask
- Footwear: your preferred trail running shoes, high-quality socks like Silverlight socks, and running gaiters if you want to keep sand, dirt, stones, sticks, and other debris out of your shoes
- Navigation: topographic map and compass or GPS device and a route description
- Hydration: full water bottles or a hydration reservoir and/or performance drinks
- Food and nutrition: performance snacks, such as bars, gels, or chews
- First aid kit: a basic trail running first aid kit includes bandages, blister pads or moleskin, medications and pain relievers, antibiotic ointment, and anti-chafing cream. Check out our hiking hacks article to learn about ways to make a space-saving first aid kit
- Backpack, vest, or waist belt: to hold your water, snacks, and gear
- Accessories: personal items such as keys and ID, sunglasses, sun protection, insect repellent, knife, whistle, headlamp and extra batteries, emergency contact card, and medical information
Many of these items can be left behind on short runs. However, if you’re headed into the backcountry, don’t skimp on gear and make sure to have the Ten Essentials with you for safety: navigation, headlamp, sun protection, first aid, knife, lighter or matches and tinder, shelter, extra food, extra water, and extra clothes.
Trail Running Etiquette and Other Tips
Many of the trails used by runners are on public land that is shared among different outdoor enthusiasts. As a result, it’s important to know the rules and familiarize yourself with proper trail etiquette before setting out on a trail run. The rules for trail running are essentially the same as those for hiking, which we’ve already covered in depth here.
Below, we’ll provide a summary of the most important things to know before setting out on a trail run so that you remain considerate of others, as well as some additional tips for getting started.
Learn the Right of Way Rules
Since trail running is a great way to escape into nature, it’s possible that you won’t encounter anyone else on the trail. If you do, it’s important to be respectful and know when to step aside and let them pass.
Here’s a quick summary of the right of way rules on the trail:
- Trail runners traveling downhill should yield to those traveling uphill.
- Bikers should yield to trail runners, hikers, and horses. Although this is technically the rule, keep in mind that it may be easier for you to step to the side of the trail or get started again than it is for them. If that’s the case, you may want to let them pass.
- Horses, mules, and other animals yield to no one. Since animals spook easily and can behave unpredictably, they have the right of way over trail runners, hikers, bikers, and anyone else on the trail.
- Hikers should typically yield to trail runners.
Sometimes it’s not always clear who has the right of way. You should always be polite and use caution and common sense when approaching others. If a person looks like they would have a hard time getting started again or would not be able to stop safely, you should yield to them.
When yielding to others, it’s polite to let them know once it’s safe for them to pass by saying something along the lines of “You can go ahead,” or “You’re good.” Similarly, you should announce your presence to people you’d like to pass by saying “Hello” when approaching them from behind. If they do not step aside, you can ask nicely to pass them or say something like “On your left.” Make sure to thank them once you go by.
Leave No Trace
As is the case with any outdoor activity, trail running requires us to be mindful of our effects on the natural spaces we visit and minimize these impacts as much as we can. From staying on marked trails to respecting other people and animals you encounter, the seven Leave No Trace principles can be used as a guide to recreate responsibly while trail running.
The seven Leave No Trace principles are:
- Plan ahead and prepare: Plan your run carefully to stay safe and reduce your risk of damaging natural resources.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Stay on marked and existing trails, and don’t cut any new switchbacks. If you’re doing any camping on your trail running adventure, stick to designated campsites or durable surfaces such as rock, sand, gravel, ice, snow, and dry grasses.
- Dispose of waste properly: Take all trash such as food wrappers and toilet paper with you and make sure you know how to properly dispose of human waste in case nature calls during your run.
- Leave what you find: Do not remove any natural objects from their place or alter the trail in any way.
- Minimize campfire impacts: Most trail runners will not have campfires while running, but if you do, only build a fire in a safe place and ensure it’s properly extinguished when you’re done.
- Respect wildlife: Avoid feeding, touching, and getting too close to wild animals.
- Be considerate of other visitors: This includes keeping noise to a minimum, controlling your pets if you have them with you, and familiarizing yourself with trail etiquette.
Bring a Mask and Keep Your Distance
Even though trail running takes place outdoors, you should carry a mask with you to wear in case you encounter other people on the trail and remain socially distanced, especially in areas with a high prevalence of COVID-19. In certain places, it’s required to wear a mask in outdoor settings, while in others it’s considered a courtesy. Check the local policies and guidelines before you go for a run to make sure you’re in compliance.
Get a Sense of Your Pace
New trail runners will benefit from getting an estimate of their pace on a few short, out-and-back trails. Once you know your typical pace, you can plan longer runs more safely and effectively.
You can adjust your pace as needed according to the terrain and surface. Never hesitate to walk when in doubt, and don’t feel ashamed of moving slowly at first. It takes time to get used to the unique challenges of trail running, so be patient as your mind and body adjust.
Stay Properly Fueled with Good Nutrition and Hydration Practices
Poor hydration and nutrition can lead to problems like cramping, fatigue, nausea, and other ailments that affect your performance. Everyone is unique in their nutrition needs, but runners should generally eat a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of carbohydrates and proteins.
Before your run, pre-hydrate by drinking about 600 ml (20 fluid ounces) of water around two hours ahead, and plan to consume between 150-300 ml (5-10 fluid ounces) of water every 15 to 20 minutes while you are running.
If you’re running for more than an hour, make sure to bring a carb-heavy snack. Consuming around 200-300 calories per hour will help you stay energized while running. There are many gels, chews, and bars that will keep you nourished on your run since they are designed for runners and other athletes.
Consider Joining a Running Club
If you’re interested in meeting other trail runners and discovering local trails, consider joining a running club in your area. Doing so can connect you with a community of experienced trail runners to learn from as you begin your own trail running journey.
Getting in Shape for Trail Running
The uneven surfaces and diverse terrain found on running trails challenge the body’s muscles more than flat, even pavement. Even if you’re used to running, it will take your body some time to adjust to these new stresses. Below are some tips to help you get in shape for the demands of trail running without overdoing it.
Make Time for Rest and Recovery and Build Up Your Fitness Slowly
The body needs time to recover after any kind of workout, and trail running is no different. Adequate rest can help keep you motivated, prevent overuse injuries, and replenish your energy.
As a general rule, you should start slow and avoid hard workouts multiple days in a row. Start with one or two trail runs a week for the first two to three weeks, then move up to two or three runs per week. This will give your body plenty of time to rest and recover as it adapts to the new stress and stimuli of trail running.
You can continue adding a run every two to three weeks until you reach your desired weekly goal, but make sure to take at least one day off from running each week.
Walk Technical and Steep Stretches at First
New trail runners may want to start by walking the technical and steep sections of a trail or running only short periods (20 to 60 seconds) on technical parts. If you feel more comfortable doing so, you can avoid challenging trails all together until you develop a stronger base in your strength, balance, and endurance. Waiting to run longer stretches on these types of trails will help you reduce your risk of injury and burnout.
Incorporate Strength Training
Strength training is an excellent way to make your body more resilient and reduce your risk of injury while also boosting performance. Incorporating targeted strength and balance exercises into your trail running training 2-3 times a week can help you get stronger off the trails and help prevent injury.
Exercises that are beneficial for trail running include: squats, single-leg squats, lunges, step-ups, calf raises, box jumps, deadlifts, bridges, planks, and push-ups. You can also do some balancing exercises like standing on one leg or using a wobble board to help improve your stability.
Hiking and trail running work many of the same muscle groups. Take a look at our hiking exercises post for some more training ideas and instructions on doing the exercises.
Trail Running Technique
It takes time to adjust your running technique to the trails, but here are some guidelines to get you started:
- Take short, quick strides, especially when running uphill.
- Use your arms for extra power and balance.
- When running a gradual downhill section, try opening up your stride, leaning into the decline, and letting gravity help you along.
- For steep hills or technical downhill sections, imagine you’re running down a staircase. Keep your torso upright and focus on the motion in your legs and arms.
- As tempting as it may be to look around and enjoy the view, keep your eyes on the trail to watch out for obstacles. It helps to scan the trail ahead of you rather than looking directly at your feet. This way, you’ll be more prepared for any hazards that lie ahead.
Choosing a Destination
From your own neighborhood to exciting destinations across the globe, trail running can take you to tons of different places, including many you may not otherwise visit. Whether you live in an urban or rural area, there are many places you can look for potential trails.
To start, look for parks with trail networks in your area, or even gravel roads. This is a great way to get a feel for running on different types of terrain and test out any new gear you’ve purchased without straying too far from home.
When you feel ready for an additional challenge, search online, in a guidebook, or on a trail running or hiking app for new trails you’d like to visit. Many apps and online resources include useful information about the trail, including difficulty, elevation gain, distance, and a description, as well as reviews that will help you get a sense of whether it might be a good trail for you.
You can apply these same techniques for finding trails in any area you visit if you want to do some trail running while you’re there. You can even research a faraway destination ahead of time and plan an entire trip around trail running or a specific race you want to enter.
Trail running is an excellent way to enjoy nature, challenge yourself, and stay fit. Even if you’ve never been running before, you can reap the benefits of this exciting outdoor activity. If you take it slow at first and gradually build up your strength, balance, endurance, and technique, soon you’ll be well on your way to being an experienced trail runner.
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