One of the best things about running is we always have the opportunity for a new challenge. For me leaning how to start trail running in 2015 after over a decade on the roads was a challenge entirely worth undertaking!
Beginner trail running is often a place where long time road runners find themselves when they’re in need of a new feeling, scenery or challenge. Trail running and especially trail races are entirely different than training for something like a 10 mile road race, but don’t let that intimidate you.
Let it excite you for new automatic PRs. And honestly, the aid stations are WAY better.
I think one of the biggest things trail running has taught me is to simply enjoy whatever the day may bring. You can’t compare runs because one might be a single track that gradually climbs and another is a super technical run at 10,000 feet!
That’s so very different from road running and I think a key mental release for many of us!
While trail running might seem like an intimidating, but exciting variation to your morning routine, these quick tips will help you transition from the road to the trails with ease.
How Do I Start Trail Running?
Once you head out into the beauty of nature you’ll be hooked. It’s going to be harder in some ways, a different experience and require different muscles. So instead of worrying about pace get focused on the new experience.
- Find the right trail running shoes for more traction and comfort
- Learn how to find running trails for all abilities
- Get in the mindset of exploring and trying something new, not comparing to your road running
Use these beginner trail running tips to help you explore an entirely new side of your running and see a whole new world of possibilities! It will make you a better road runner and bring a lot of joy back to your workouts.
How To Prepare For Your First Trail Run?
Many days we simply grab our watch and head out the door to run, but with trail running we want to be a little more prepared. On the off chance that you should get lost or trip, we need some extra preparation.
Let’s start with a quick trail run checklist:
- Wear a hydration pack – makes it easy to take things you need
- Absolutely carry snacks – that back up energy bar may surprise you as trail running makes us hungrier
- Water – there are no water stops! You must carry water
- Safety alarm and or gel pepper spray
- Tissues and blister pads – listen sometimes ya gotta go and sometimes ya trip
- Extra lube on your toes and feet, they will move around different in your shoes, which leads to runner’s toe.
Ok now that we’ve got some quick tips out of the way, let’s dive in to the bigger stuff. Trail running tips to keep you safe, injury free and enjoying the experience.
18 Beginner Trail Running Tips
In order to get ready for your first trail race or for a longer distance on the trails you may need to make some adjustments to how you train, which is what we’re going to dive in to day!
When I’m training for a trail race I train by preparing my body and my mind and also by making sure that I have the proper gear to make my trail race an experience to be remember.
These trail running tips will help you just get started on your own or begin thinking about that first trail race…perhaps even an ultramarathon!
#1 Choose Trail Running Shoes
Depending on how technical the trail is that you’re running, you can get away with road running shoes for awhile. But as I quickly learned those right shoes add a level of stability and comfort that make them worth the investment.
I mean, did you really need an excuse to buy more shoes?? These shoes will help give you more traction around the downhills and have rock plates which will help protect your toes.
✅ Here’s a list of the best trail running shoes (based on my testing and yours!).
And since we’re on foot wear, why do trail runners wear tall socks?
Stopping to repeatedly pull a rock or dirt out of your shoe to prevent blisters is pretty annoying! Also, depending on the trail you might be running through grass and that extra layer can prevent scrapes or bug bites.
#2 Practice Trail Running Safety
As with many outdoor endeavors, it’s a good idea to let a friend or family member know where you’ll be setting out to run. Sometimes trails can take you to remote places, and in case of an emergency, it’s good to let someone know where you’ll be, and what time you’ll be back.
Better yet as someone new to trails, never go alone!
- Checkout my favorite running safety gear
- Grab GPS watch with an emergency alert function
- Share your location with someone when starting your run
- Leave a note on your car if heading out on a long solo run
#3 Train with a Hydration Pack
Depending on the length of trail race aid stations are sometimes few and far between. And of course if you head out solo on the trails, you just want to be prepared in case you go a bit long or take a little wrong turn.
Things you might want to put in your vest besides fuel:
- blister pad (I carry compeed)
- bear spray or pepper gel runner spray
- first aid kit if you’re going super long like many ultra runners
Oddly, I can run for hours on the road without needing fuel. However, on the trails you’re often moving a bit slower and the body can indeed get hungry!! Pack snacks!!
I find that it is easiest to carry your own hydration and fueling supplies so that you don’t get stuck on the trail feeling like you might bonk. That’s very dangerous!
And leads in to the next point.
(checkout my running hydration pack options)
#4 Overestimate Fuel for Trail Running
When you’re out on the trail, you’re often heading out away from civilization and often you’ll spend more time outside than you planned, making it important to ALWAYS carry some form of nutrition and hydration.
You can’t stop at a nearby water fountain or duck in to the 7/11, be like a boy scout and always be prepared.
- an electrolyte drink
- granola bar, fruit or jerky (I usually have a combo)
Dehydration can seriously slow you down, and can make even a short, well traveled route feel like a marathon. Keeping hydrated will keep you from bonking, and keep the run fun!
Plus, drinking plenty of H2O will ensure that you’re mentally sharp while on trail.
#5 Remember to Leave No Trace.
Be prepared to carry out what you bring in.
This is another reason training with your hydration pack on will come in handy or be sure to wear clothes with pockets for carrying your energy gels or stuffing away those squares of paper after you tackle your first squat and pee.
# 6 Carry Trail Maps
For many, running can be an escape from technology. You lace up your running shoes, and can spend your workout disconnecting from phones and computers. And since many devices won’t always get a signal you need to be prepared!
When making the switch to trail running however, getting lost can be a risk, especially on trails that you’ve never run before.
Apps such as trailrunproject.com offer an excellent way to keep track of where you are, where you’re going, and how to get back to the parking lot in a pinch. It runs off of GPS, so even when you have no signal you should be able to get an idea of if you’re on the right path.
A good trail running watch will also have a “back to start” feature! This will guide you back.
You can still use your workout as an escape, but bringing your phone along can provide a life saving resource.
#7 Know How Technical Your Trail Will Be
Instead of looking at mileage, you’ll need to start thinking about total time you want to be on the trails.
That’s because a more technical trail with a lot of vert or elevation gain could take significantly longer than a flat gravel trail. Before we do any trail I look it up on the Trail Run Project to see how it’s rated, then I use the slider to checkout what the climbs look like.
Technical terrains mean you need to have practice some trail running skills in advance to stay safe.
#8 Wear Running Layers
When you’re heading out for a trail run, it’s important to keep in mind that you’ll be farther away from shelter than on a simple jog around the neighborhood.
It’s good to keep changing weather conditions in mind, especially if you’re training anywhere near the mountains. And to prepare accordingly by layering your clothing with pieces that can be added or removed (another good reason to wear hydration vests!).
- A running rain jacket or wind breaker can come in handy if you’re gaining significant elevation
- Yak Trax might give you a leg up on icy or snow packed trails
- Working with the elements and planning ahead will keep you moving forward instead of having to turn around at the trailhead.
Here are my tips to layer for winter running.
#9 Work on Your Stability and Balance
During a trail race you’ll encounter rocks, roots, sticks, tree branches, holes and more. Ankle strength suddenly becomes far more important than it ever was with road running.
This varying terrain will require that you include strengthening exercises in your training that will improve your overall balance and ankle stability (i.e. step ups and walking lunges with weights).
Improving your core strength will also help you to nimbly navigate over challenging trail terrain without missing a beat.
BONUS: Checkout these ankle exercises to help prevent strained or rolled ankles! Or use a good ankle running support.
#10 Practice Picking Up Your Feet
In distance running, we often keep our feet low to the ground as a means of conserving energy. But on the trails this could lead to disaster as you need to truly step up and over all the little things in your path.
As your body becomes fatigued it’s easy to think less about this, which can cause unexpected tripping and falling down on the trails. I’m guilty of this on sidewalks, ha!
So I have practiced paying more attention on the trails and looking a few feet ahead to know what may need to be traversed.
A few skip drills that can help you with this as well.
#11 Allow Yourself to Be present
This trail running tip sounds too cliche, but it’s not quite what you thinking.
While slipping into the zen mental space of a run might feel great, it’s important to stay present trail running. Even the most well-maintained trails can have unexpected obstacles, and you’ll want to keep your attention on them to avoid a trip.
- You’ll need to pay attention so you can focus on form
- Pick your feet up higher than on roads
- Don’t let the hydration pack cause you to curl shoulders forward
#12 Let Go of Your Road Running Pace
If there is a trail tip I love most, it’s this!
Trail running and road running may seem similar, but comparing your minute per mile time between the two is akin to comparing apples with oranges. The obstacles present on trail, and the variation in the grade make holding a consistent pace difficult, if not impossible.
Instead of using minutes/mile to judge, run by perceived effort to gauge how hard you’re working.
- head out on the trail for a set amount of time
- try to push yourself to run further in that same amount of time when you next return
- You can still challenge yourself without trying to stick with unrealistic minute per mile goals.
Additionally, don’t be discouraged if your trail pace is slower than your road pace. You have to work much harder when trail running!
What is the average pace for trail running?
There is no average!! But many road runners will tell you they can be a couple minutes per mile slower on the trails, especially when running at altitude, up steep hills or on a technical trail.
You simply can’t compare one trail to another.
Ultrarunners have taught us all that walking the uphills is a better way to conserve energy and thus allow you to keep running farther! Power walking those hills might slow your pace technically, but it helps you keep going.
#13 Include Hill Workouts
Just like in road racing, running uphill repeats will help you to build leg strength and will be necessary to help improve your aerobic capacity.
This is also a good opportunity to practice using strong arm swing to help you climb each hill using not only the power of your legs but also your core and upper body too! Many trail races venture into mountainous territory so you will be glad you tackled those hills during training.
When someone asks if trail running is easier than road running, I think of hills….NO.
- Trail running can allow you to let go of thinking about pace, which might make it feel easier
- Trail running can be more enjoyable with the views and that could make it feel easier
- Effort wise it is indeed harder
You’ll often see experienced trail runners power-hike steep sections of trail. This isn’t because it’s easier, it’s because it’s more efficient for the total workout. It keeps their HR from shooting up which is going to impact their total endurance.
#14 Find a Friend to Train With
I admit that my general preference is to go solo so that I can enjoy the surroundings and not feel any pressure on my pace. But the truth is that any training with friends is going to make you stronger and can help the time fly.
If you’re nervous about trails or getting lost, then it’s time to embrace the power of group running or just find a single friend to go with you!! Thanks to Organic Runner Mom pictured below for adding tips to this article!
#15 Vary Your Training Conditions
Weather can have an impact on trail conditions making them muddy and slick so be sure to hit the trails during your training even if they are a total mud pit.
During my Costa Rica running retreat, I realized how little time I’d spent on trails that were slick due to wet leaves and it was a game changer.
First I realized, that running poles were my new best friend. The slight addition of stability allowed me to continue moving quicker.
Second, this road runner finally embraced the mud and dirt of trail running. Have fun getting dirty and be a kid! Might as well enjoy the conditions whatever they may be, as you’re in some pretty cool places.
#16 Trail Running Wildlife Awareness
When heading out on a trail run, be aware that you might be headed into someone’s home.
Most animals are afraid of humans, but extra caution should be taken at the dawn/dusk hours when predators might be out and about. Educate yourself on the best practices if you see a critter, and keep familiar with the types of animals that you might see on trail.
- Back slowly away from bears
- Stay calm and still with a mountain lion
- Don’t try to jump over rattlesnakes, you’ve got to let them move
#17 Pay Attention to Sunrise/Sunset
Especially when you’re heading on an out-and-back trail run, it can be important to keep an eye on the time. While reaching a peak or an end point may be the goal, remember that you’ll have to make your way all the way back to your car.
Especially in places where afternoon thunderstorms come early, it’s easy to assume that you’ll have more time that you really do.
Inclement weather and setting sun make a much bigger difference when you’re on a remote trail than when you’re looping around your neighborhood, so keeping track of your time might be prudent.
#18 Continue Doing Speed Workouts on the Road or Track
In order be fast on the trails continuing your normal speed workouts (fartleks and intervals) will keep your overall speed up when you head out on the trail.
Depending on whether you’re running uphill, on a technical trail with rocks or uneven terrain, you can’t use running pace effectively for speed workouts.
It’s definitely okay to do these workouts where you feel comfortable and not feel like you must spend every single run on the trails. The combination of longer runs on the trails and short speed sessions will make you a better overall runner.
*That being said, you can 100% do speed work on the trails. They key is to remember that you’re doing these by effort level and not by pace.
#19 Sharing the Trails
Many times you’ll be sharing the trail with mountain bikers. While they often will stop and let you pass, it’s incumbent upon you to not have music so loud in your headphones you don’t hear them coming.
They’re obviously much faster and I generally prefer to step to the side so they can move on by.
All the new runner tips I’ve shared before really apply here too. Be patient. Have fun. Embrace the journey!
Good luck training for your trail race and enjoy everything that comes along with venturing off the roads. You may discover that you are truly a trail runner at heart.
Looking for more trail running tips?
- Best Trail Running Watches (extra long battery life, altimeter, etc)
- Trail Runner Gift Ideas
- First 50K Training Plan
- Comparing Nike Trail Running Shoes
- Best Trails Near Denver and Boulder
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I started out as a road runner but once I went to my first trail race I fell in loooove. I still do road races (mostly the ones my friends do, to have some fun) but I enjoy trails so much more. I find being out on the trails so rewarding, I live in a big city but very lucky to have great trails and mountains very close so there’s always something new to discover. At first I was so afraid of getting lost but as you gain experience I feel now more prepared to be aware of the surroundings and find my way back if/when I think I’m lost.
Great tips Norma! I quickly learned what I started running in Colorado that some things just aren’t meant to be run. 😜
Cuong Trail Runner
Thanks for these helpful tips! My last trail race is miserably failed because I didn’t train balance enough so I got an injury when down the hill.
we totally overlook the downhills, but training our quads for it is huge
I’ve started in trail running. I’m taking it slow at the moment, just doing 3 miles each trail. Great way to see some amazing places while getting fit. Thanks for sharing Amanda.