Trail Running Basics for Newbies

If you're ready to jump into trail running, here are some helpful ways to get started or improve your current experience.

Just as going from the treadmill or track to the road requires some tweaks, shifting from road to trail demands a little tinkering to make the transition a smooth one. Road running is a rather linear function while trails challenge with multiple planes, throwing lateral motion into the pursuit of forward advancement. Here are some helpful ways to get into trail running or improve your current experience.

To adapt your running to accommodate the varying terrain of trails, focus on strengthening core, stabilizing muscles and sense of balance. Because there are very few flat trails in this world, you will surely encounter hills so weave in runs that focus on strength, such as hill repeats or hitting the gym for resistance training. To become a faster and more fit trail runner, start running intervals and speed drills, and consider adding yoga and stretching to your training repertoire.

Road runners tend to be surprised by the demanding nature of running on uneven surfaces and blow up from starting their runs or races too fast. Begin at a moderate pace and be okay with moving at a variety of speeds, even power walking, when the trail warrants it due to incline, technical footing, elevation or all three. Weather can also have a tremendous impact on the runability of a trail, where mud and ice can bog things down. Don’t neglect the fact that you may have some intimidating wildlife encounters, some desired and others not so much. Route finding will also cause you to adjust your pace.

Gaining comfort on rocky or slippery trails comes over time, but you can accelerate that learning curve by adjusting your running form. A higher cadence where you pick up your feet to clear obstacles rather than taking fewer, longer strides allows for rapid adjustments, leaving you lighter on your feet and better able to react to always-changing surface challenges. Staying more upright and landing on the fore (instead of the rear) of the foot also aids in preventing ankle twists, blown knees or major falls. Lateral stability is a further premium, so practice using your hands and arms for balance when descending rocky trails, leaping from footstep to footstep. Trail running shoes, with added outsole traction, push-through protection plates, and durable upper materials, will also help you adjust to off-road running.

When confronting really steep climbs, it is often most efficient to switch to a power hike, use lightweight trekking poles or shift between different modes, as though they were gears on a bike. Some trail runners burn less energy if they climb using big strides, power hiking by leaning forward at the hips and swinging their arms to match an equivalent leg stride or putting their hands on their thighs to push down and engage the upper body. Others find it best to prance along in a running motion, taking baby steps in order to keep up their cadence as they make it to the top of the ascents. Either way, maintaining a consistent rhythm is crucial to powering up a big climb.

Newbie trail runners should consider the potential difficulty of passing people on single track. There is a certain etiquette involved in gracefully informing other runners, hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians that you are approaching and are fixin’ to pass. And, although this should go without saying, trail running should be conducted on a strict “leave no trace” ethic, not only with litter but also with footsteps. If a trail is laden with puddles, slush or mud, just suck it up and get dirty, going through the muck instead of making the trail wider by trying to skirt the bog.

Lastly, consider joining a local trail running group as a way to get to know your area trails and as an introduction to the vibrant trail running community. The American Trail Running Association site is great resource for finding clubs, races and routes.