When it comes to trail running, you might wonder where to start. Well, wonder no more because we’ve put together this handy guide just for you.
Whether you’re a seasoned road runner or this is your first foray into the world of running, trail running is the best way to see more of the countryside, get fitter, feel better, and fall in love with the feeling of freedom.
Trail running is a growing sensation; there’s never been a better time to join the movement. If you’re wondering just how to become a part of it, you’ve come to the right place. So, lace up – it’s time to get out there and hit the trails, one step at a time.
This is your guide to trail running, and the journey starts now.
Table of contents
Trail running is probably exactly what you think it is! Whereas road running involves running on roads, and track running is running on tracks, trail running, as you might guess, is taking running into the wilds and utilising walking, hiking, and even mountain biking trails to get your cardio fix.
Trail running has been around for a long time and is popular in casual and competitive scenes. It has inspired world-famous trail races, such as the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a 171km ultra-marathon with more than 10,300m of vertical climbing across its course! There is also the Madeira Island Ultra Trail in Madeira, the Golden Ultra in Canada, the Transylvania Bear Race in Romania, and the iconic Silver Falls Trail Race in the US. But while some of these races span hundreds of kilometres and multiple days, there are many (thousands, in fact!) trail races that are much shorter and easier to manage for someone just starting.
While you can certainly work up to competing in these extraordinary events, running has to be for you. We think trail running is one of the best ways to find your zen state, get closer to nature, and push your body further than you might think possible. All you need are a good pair of shoes, a will for adventure, and some trails.
Trail running, while accessible, shouldn’t be taken lightly. Trail runs usually involve much more vertical ascending and descending than normal runs. They also require you to be nimble and agile, dancing over uneven terrain, rocks, roots, and all manner of other obstacles in the pursuit of that next kilometre.
As such, there are a few things that you should have in preparation for your first trail run. The first one is your body.
While road running is tough on the joints and lungs, trail running is a different beast. Because trails are often rougher and steeper, you’ll be putting your body under more stress than usual, so it’s best to have a solid baseline of fitness and an understanding of what this sport entails.
Second, you’ll want to ensure you have the right gear to deal with your environment's demands — running shorts, a sun hat, sunscreen, a waterproof running jacket if need be, and, of course, the right shoes.
And speaking of shoes, let’s talk about them a little more — especially as they’re the most crucial part of your gear.
Trail running requires trail running shoes. That’s not gym shoes, road runners, or flip-flops — it’s trail running shoes. These are a lot like regular runners, except for the sole and construction.
The sole will be thicker and more durable to deal with rocks and other rough surfaces and prevent stones from digging into your feet. They’ll also have more cushioning to cope with steep descents and a tough, tread-heavy sole to ensure maximum grip in all conditions and surfaces.
Trail running shoes usually provide more lateral support and, depending on the brand and style, might be slightly taller or have specialised design features to meet the specific needs of trail runners. These features help protect from ankle rolls and other common injuries.
In short, trail running shoes protect you from the inherent dangers of pounding rocky trails and should be the first thing you purchase before tackling this hobby. Just prepare yourself — a good pair of trail runners might not be cheap, but I promise you, they’re worth every penny.
We can talk about the right shoes and gear until the cows come home, but none of that will help you out on the trail unless you have the right mind and motivation. Unfortunately, trail running can be so tantalising and deceptive in its demands that people often start with lots of zeal and burn out quickly.
So, from someone who's done just that – and then read up on trail running, spoke to a bunch of runners, and then got it right the second time – here are ten tips to keep you going and help you get a good foothold in the sport.
Not all trails are built equal, and not all trails are suitable for runners at the start of their journey. If there are trails near where you live, that doesn't mean they'll be the right spot for your first (or next) trail run.
Checking out apps like AllTrails and searching will all you to tailor your results to trails within your fitness range. You should look for shorter trails rated blue and with gentle inclines. Loop trails are much more interesting than 'out and back' trails, and ones with good scenery are always more enjoyable!
Try to avoid red and black trails. These often require scrambling, steep climbs or long ascents to a peak and then double back on themselves. These can be pretty demoralising, as you can always see how far you have left to go, and it can often be tricky to run on the return journey.
Instead, loop trails that have ups, downs, and flats, and are relatively short and easy-going, are best to start on. And then you can work your way up from there! Speaking of working your way up ...
If you can run 5km or even 10km on the road, it doesn't mean you can run it on a trail. You'll get out of breath more quickly as there's a lot more management of your foot placement and less rhythm with trail running. There's also added fatigue that comes with this increased lateral movement, which engages your core and oblique muscles a lot more. This means trail running is often much harder than regular road running.
It's essential to start with shorter runs. Beginning small will allow you to train your muscles and body for the task at hand and build up your cardio, stamina and confidence.
It's so, so important to complete your first few runs and start with a positive experience. Choosing easier runs and finishing them strong allows you to get back out the next day and the one after. You’ll learn the sport, as well as your body.
Getting into a routine of running is vital. And for trail running, you'll find a very steep drop-off in your fitness if you take a few weeks of R&R! So, it's always better to find a good, shortish trail that you can run comfortably and time yourself doing it.
Having this 'baseline' trail is a great way to stay fit and healthy. Giving yourself a goal of finishing in a manageable time and sticking to that every run is the perfect way to stay fitter for longer, more adventurous outings.
Trail running is so easy to duck out of, especially if it's rainy or cold or you're not feeling too great. But as we mentioned before, it's easy to take a little time off and then let the whole thing slip away. As such, another thing to promise yourself is to make no excuses.
If you've got the right gear, there's never a bad time for a trail run. And with your short, go-to run at your fingertips, there should be no excuses. Even if you get out for a few KMs in the rain and run for ten or fifteen minutes – running slower and taking it easy is a million times better than skipping a run altogether!
In this mindset, having a nice little checklist of things you'll need is a good way to invest in the idea of trail running and commit to it a little more seriously. Of course, we already mentioned trail running shoes, and we can't stress their importance enough!
Then, you'll want to make sure you have good socks to match. Bamboo or polyester socks that are made for running are best. This means they'll be cushioned, low-friction (to help prevent blisters), and moisture-wicking to help alleviate sweat build-up without getting damp and soggy!
I'd also highly recommend a pair of sports underwear (with the same quick-drying properties) and running shorts (I like 2-in-1s for the extra support and to eliminate chafing!). On top, a breathable running t-shirt or vest is always a good choice. And then you'll definitely want a water vest or belt to carry a bottle and your phone/keys.
Helpful extras include a hat/visor to keep the sun off, a lightweight waterproof jacket for rainy runs, and sunscreen to prevent sunburn!
Once you're into the flow of running, just heading out for a quick 5km is often tempting! But as trail runs are a little more demanding, doing a warm-up and cool-down is necessary. A solid warm-up and cool-down are imperative for preventing injury and ensuring you're ready for the next one!
I find some quick stretches – followed by a shake-out walk and then a light jog to get the heart rate up and the muscles limber – is a good choice. Getting yourself into a routine is the best thing you can do. All you need to do is stick to it!
Staying hydrated and fuelled is essential for a good run and for feeling good. Any seasoned athlete or runner will tell you they have a go-to meal to eat before races or runs and that knowing your body and what it needs to function is essential for progress and performance.
Carbohydrates are good for slow-release energy, with fruits and sugars being good for quick-release energy. Protein is essential for recovery, and fats and salts are needed to regulate it all.
Eating carbs can be a good way to give your body fuel the day before (or a few hours before) a run. Half an hour to an hour before, a light, sugar-rich snack like fruit can be great to give you a little boost. Salts, fats and proteins should be incorporated into every meal to ensure your body's functionality, with protein being the most important for the growth and repair of muscles and other tissues!
Water is the best fuel and should be drunk in volume. Sports drinks and other liquids like coffee should be taken in moderation, as small amounts can be helpful for performance, but overall, the negatives outweigh the benefits.
While we encourage you to run often, listening to your body is a top priority. While a good warm-up and cool-down routine (paired with a good, protein-rich diet) will help prevent injury and damage, taking care of your body is key to staying fit and healthy.
To allow injuries to heal, skipping a session or choosing a less strenuous route is a good choice. You could even work out in a different way that doesn't target the area giving you pain.
Self-massage or professional massage/physiotherapy is always worth considering if you need to rehab something. Your body is an amazing machine but not infallible. It talks to you constantly. All you need to do is listen!
One thing that often gets to runners and poisons their well is boredom. As you get fitter, longer runs will manifest themselves, and sometimes, boredom can cause you to lose interest in what you're doing, plateau, and sometimes give up altogether.
That's why it’s important to find your flow state. When your brain takes a break, you can relax, enjoy your run, and let your body do the work. So whether that's listening to motivational music, podcasts, or just daydreaming about something else, finding your zen place where you can just enjoy what you're doing is one of the most essential things to discover. And everyone is different!
While trail running will be super enjoyable, it'll also take its toll. Mentally and physically, you'll be pushed (maybe to breaking point!). Not realising how tough it's going to be is what quashes many trail runners' aspirations. But improvement is the most important – and enjoyable – part of the whole thing.
Embracing the pain, fatigue, and difficulty is a vital step in this whole process. So don't dread it – enjoy it! The fact that you can push yourself to failure is an amazing thing. In a few weeks, you'll come back and run further on that trail, beat that time, or summit that mountain!
Whatever your level, you can always improve, which should be your aim. So, embrace the pain in your body and soul, and push through, revelling in the strength of your will and persistence.
Is trail running better for my Joint health compared to road running?
Trail running provides a softer and more forgiving surface than road running, which can be easier on your joints. The uneven terrain can help to build stronger leg muscles and improve balance, which may help to reduce the risk of injury over time.
How should I deal with encounters with wildlife while trail running?
If you encounter wildlife during your run, keep a safe distance, make yourself known with your voice, and don't approach or attempt to feed them. If approaching an aggressive animal, back away slowly without turning your back and avoid sudden movements.
How do I choose the best trail for my skill level?
Start by identifying trails that match your current fitness and skill level. Use apps like AllTrails or local trail guides to explore trails with different difficulty ratings, elevation profiles, and technical features. Begin with easier trails and gradually increase the difficulty as your skill and confidence progress.
Trail running is a strange sport, but its popularity is ever-growing. And hopefully, by now, you’re feeling a little more confident about starting and continuing this hobby. Whether you live in the Austrian Alps or the British Midlands, there are always trails to be discovered and beautiful scenes to feast upon.
Just remember appropriate footwear, good fuel, and good vibes. The rest is between you and the trail. Now get out there and start running!