Training

Your Complete Trail-Running Starter Guide

If you’ve never spent much time off road, it’s about time you did. If you’ve got no idea what you’re doing, don’t worry. We’ve got your complete how-to-start guide.

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Long before the novel coronavirus shut down gyms and caused the cancellation of road races, trail running was on the rise. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2019 Topline Participation Report, trail running numbers were up 9.4 percent from 2017, with more than 10 million participants.

“Getting on a trail is the most important way to transition to trail running,” says Megan Lizotte, U.S. trail marathon champion and founder of Athlete Mamas. “Trail running has a great, welcoming community, and I feel like any time you purposefully put yourself in nature, your senses are heightened, and it feels good for soul and body.”

But unlike other technical activities (think: skiing and mountain biking) where instructors walk you through the steps of exactly what you need to do to crush it, trail running has typically followed the similarly succinct advice of its road counterpart: Just get out there and run! You’re not likely to find a course in trail running for beginners, but that’s no reason not to start. If the reason you’ve avoided trails is because you’re not totally sure what you’re doing, it’s time to fix that. With more people discovering how fun it is to explore new places, challenge themselves in different ways, and get dirty, we wanted you to have the beta you need to hit the trail with confidence.

Trail Running for Beginners: Finding Your Form

Lizotte, who also competes on the road and is a two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, developed her appreciation for running trails by growing up in Colorado. And she sees the experience as a welcomed change of pace for the body that can benefit any runner. She uses the same foot position whether she runs on the road or trail and often does the same workouts, but she modifies her expectations about pace, because trail running is generally slower depending upon the terrain.

When it comes to your form, Lizotte, who is a running coach, recommends shortening and quickening your stride on the trail. A shorter stride allows for faster reaction time and means less time on your feet, which is less fatiguing.

Sometimes those new to trail running will complain of a sore lower back, something Lizotte says can be fixed with a more dynamic running form. “When people run with a chopping movement of their arms, they neglect movement through the mid-back,” says Lizotte.

The fix is to think about energy transfer and a fluid rotation through your mid-body. Make a light fist and run with enough rotation to allow for one arm to go back and one to send you forward, without letting hands cross the center line. It may feel exaggerated at first, but once you get the hang of it, your running form will feel more efficient while also allowing for more oxygen consumption — always a win. Make sure to keep your chin slightly tucked to prevent neck strain and increase airflow.

How to Stay Safe When You Start Trail Running

Safety is always the biggest concern that Gina Lucrezi, founder of the women’s trail-running community Trail Sisters, hears from potential trail-goers. Her number-one piece of advice? Run with a partner or group when you can. Trail Sisters, for example, has 100 local running groups nationwide. If you can’t find a Trail Sisters group in your area, check with local running stores to see if they have groups or can recommend running partners. Lucrezi also advises following these safety tips:

  • Read and heed trail descriptions when choosing your route; be realistic about your abilities and energy level, and consider starting on shorter, more popular trails.
  • Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return.
  • Be prepared before you go, by checking the weather and trail conditions and bringing food, water, and light layers.
  • Stay aware of your surroundings: know who and what is around you, make eye contact with other runners, and, if you listen to music, keep one earbud out to better hear your environment.
Illustration of a group of women trail running
Illustration: Eliza Southwood

Conquering the Climbs

According to professional trail runner Hillary Allen — whose nickname is “Hillygoat” due to her uphill running prowess — running uphill is always challenging, but it’s a great baseline for your fitness level and will get easier the fitter you are. “If hills are hard, get a few more miles under your belt, even of flat road running,” says Allen. As a run coach with Carmichael Training Systems, Allen helps her clients adjust to running up by giving them confidence in the process. Use her tips here to score the same payoff.

Ease into Hill Repeats

Start by doing strides or fartlek intervals. Run fast for a bit, then run easy, and repeat for five intervals or so during a run. When that feels comfortable, take the drill to a hill (paved is fine), until you’re comfortable with longer intervals of one minute of running, alternating with one minute of jogging and longer hill repeats during a workout.

Hiking is Your Friend

Hiking is part of trail running, especially when steep climbs are involved. Sometimes, hiking may even be faster than running. Allen has her athletes pick a hill where they can progress over several days or weeks. First, power hike the hill until you’re winded. The next time, try a mix of running and walking, until you eventually progress to running up the hill, not by gritting through, but by taking as many small steps as possible.

Keep Moving

Whether you’re running or hiking, the key on hills is to not stop. Keep the same effort level when you’re climbing as you do on flatter terrain. That means your pace will slow — and that’s OK. Shorten your stride, increase your cadence, and keep going until you reach the top.

Use Landmarks

When a climb feels dauntingly long, Allen chooses a rock, branch, or some other landmark and takes a 10-step walking break after reaching it before picking up her effort to the next landmark.

Mastering the Descents

Cat Bradley, 2017 Western States Endurance Run champion, jokes that when she and Allen train together, Allen pulls Bradley up the mountain and Bradley sets the pace on the way down. She acknowledges an important point for new trail runners to remember: Running downhill can be scary. The trick, Bradley says, is to feel the fear without letting it stop you. Embrace the downhill with her following advice, practicing technique any time you’re comfortable letting go, even if that’s on smooth roads. It will help you get more comfortable while also training your body to be more efficient.

Do a Trust Fall, with Yourself

Gravity is your friend when going downhill. To prove it, stand on a rock on a technical trail and lean/fall downhill to begin moving. Gravity will show your legs the way.

Use the Trail as Your Guide

Look at obstacles, roots, and rocks on the trail as stepping spots instead of things to avoid. Follow the terrain, like flowing through a banked turn, instead of fighting it.

Make Steps Quick and Light

Focus on short, fast steps, and landing on your forefoot. You’ll activate quads and glutes, which are more stable, while also being better able to navigate loose or technical terrain. It feels counterintuitive, but heel striking and leaning back reduce reaction time and often result in falling.

Look Ahead

Much like driving, you need to look at what’s coming to properly process how to react. Fight the urge to look at your feet. Instead look about 10 feet (or two to three steps) ahead, to determine your foot strike plan as you go.

The Gear You Need to Start Trail Running

Don’t feel pressure to invest in special equipment for trail running, but, depending on how long and far you intend to go, you may need a few items you wouldn’t normally bring. For big adventures, consider wearing a hydration vest as an easy way to carry anything you might need, including safety gear like a whistle, lightweight headlamp, and an emergency blanket, so you can be ready for the unexpected.

  • Phone: Even if you don’t always have service, a phone is your safety net in case you need to make an emergency call. You can also use it to take pictures of trail junctures so you can remember your route back. (Pro tip from Lucrezi: At trail junctures, turn around to take a picture of the trail behind you so that you know what it will look like when you return.)
  • Food and water: Trail runs can take you to more remote spots, with no corner stores or bodegas to be had, so be sure you have the nutrients and hydration you need.
  • Light jacket: If you’re in the mountains or plan to head up in elevation, a jacket helps protect you from the elements and sudden weather changes. Stash it in your waistbelt or pack when you don’t need it.
  • Neck gaiter: This handy piece of gear can be worn on your head, used as a face mask, soaked in a stream to keep you cool, and more. Plus it’s easy to wrap around your wrist when you don’t need it.