How To Start Trail Running: 6 Tips For Beginners To Get Going

Going off-road can be a rewarding experience for runners: here's how to get started. 

I first started running back when I was 12 years old, and I joined the cross-country team at my middle school. Cross country is a sector of running that is all about embracing trail running, grass, and any type of off-road running terrain.

I loved running through forests, meadows, and varied terrain and exploring some of the local trails in my community. However, once I got through university and finished running cross country, I pretty much hung up my trail running shoes and focused on road running.

If you don’t live in an area where there are lots of parkruns or Masters cross country running, it may seem overwhelming to start trail running 

However, trail running offers some amazing physical and mental health benefits that are somewhat unique compared to road running.

Although not everyone has the luxury of living somewhere close to safe running trails, if you do have the opportunity to try trail running, it is one of the best ways to inject newness, variety, and a more forgiving terrain into your training program.

In this guide, we will discuss how to start trail running, some of the benefits of trail running for beginners and experienced runners alike, tips for trail running, and some of the best trail running shoes and gear to get you started on your off-road running adventures.

A person trail running.

How To Start Trail Running

One of the most important trail running tips that I think any beginner’s guide to trail running should clearly state is that there could be a much bigger learning curve for trail running vs. road running.

Even if you have running experience, but you typically train on roads, your first trail run that has technical terrain (such as singletrack or a trail with lots of tree roots, elevation changes, uneven footing, steep inclines, rocky descents, switchbacks, etc.) will be really hard.

True beginners who are doing their first trail run as essentially their foray into running as a sport have all of these trail running technique aspects to master while simultaneously trying to work on running form and building up fitness. 

The challenging terrain can increase your heart rate and slow your pace relative to running on flat roads.

Therefore, whether you have running experience or are a true novice runner, one of the best trail running tips is to be patient and start slowly.

Don’t jump into longer runs on technical trails right away or longer runs where there is a lot of elevation gain.

Take time to get used to the differences in trail running form vs road running form to reduce the risk of injury, frustration, and muscle soreness in the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

When I am coaching experienced runners who want to start trail running, I have them treat their first trail running weeks as if they are a brand new runner, running no more than every other day on the trails. 

If you have a good fitness level and have been following a training plan outside of trail workouts, you can consider doing road running workouts on the alternate days as long as you aren’t experiencing significant soreness in your quads and hamstrings that compromises your running technique.

A person trail running.

What Should You Wear Trail Running?

If you are going to start trail running with any intention of running on trails more than very occasionally, it is imperative to get good trail running shoes. 

A good pair of trail running shoes will improve your traction and safety on the trails.

My current pick for the best trail running shoes for women is the new Saucony Endorphin Rift. I have tested hundreds and hundreds of running shoes over the years, and one of the common issues with trail running shoes is that they are heavy and stiff. 

Because you want to have great traction on the trails, the lugs and supportive elements for the uneven terrain add weight and an unpleasant inflexible quality to most trail running shoes. 

Somehow, miraculously, the Saucony Endorphin Rift trail running shoes have finally solved these issues. 

The shoe is super lightweight and has an upper that fits, breathes, and feels like a flexible sock while the aggressive lugs give you the anti-slip confidence you need for any kind of trail running terrain. 

I love the cushioning and the fact that Saucony has implemented SPEEDROLL technology.

This actually helps facilitate a forward roll for the heel-to-toe transition to help you climb hills and feel like you are flying along the trails with a shoe that is not only compliant rather than resistant to your motion, but actually facilitating your running. 

You can find some of our other trail running shoe recommendations here.

Two people running on gravel.

Running socks are one of the pieces of running clothing where you don’t want to cut costs.

Merino wool may sound hot for summer running, but thin Merino wool socks are actually highly breathable and can help prevent moisture buildup in your trail running shoes.

Sweaty feet can cause blisters, and many of the best trail running shoes are waterproof or have a Gore-Tex coating to help keep your feet dry if you have to run through puddles, muddy trails, or traverse streams.

While it is great to have waterproof trail running shoes and GTX trail running shoes are better for winter trail running and rainy days than regular breathable running shoes with traction, GTX does not breathe well so it’s common to get blisters, especially if your feet overheat or you get dirt and grime in your shoes.

This is why moisture-wicking socks are best for trail running.

Winter trail running socks should be breathable yet warm, so thicker merino wool socks are better. 

Investing in high-quality merino wool running socks such as Smartwool socks, Swiftwick running Socks, or Darn Tough socks will help ensure that the socks are not itchy and don’t cause friction blisters because of poor construction with seams in the toes.

Gaiters can be helpful for wet trails or those with lots of loose dirt and gravel.

Aside from considering different temperatures and weather conditions, the other factor to consider when picking what to wear for trail running or a trail race is the elevation changes.

If you are going to be doing a longer trail running race, ultra marathon, or simply taking on a trail with a lot of elevation gain, you will want to have a light jacket or multiple layers that you can add and remove based on the elevation changes.

Mountain running and trail races that have exposed summits can be exceptionally cold, and there may be snow cover, ice, or high winds.

Make sure to check the weather conditions and get to know the general climate or environment for the ultramarathon course before you decide what to pack, especially if it is your first trail race or your first time running that particular ultramarathon event.

A person trail running.

What Are The Best Tips For a Beginner Trail Runner?

Here are some of the best tips for how to get started with trail running:

#1: Use a Trail Running App

A trail running app like AllTrails (the world’s largest trail app) is one of the best ways to find good local trails for running or to safely explore new trails without getting lost.

You can use the AllTrails app filters to find local running trails based on distance, elevation gain, level of difficulty, varied terrain, etc. to find the trail running route that is best for you.

#2: Work On Your Trail Running Technique

Technical trails and uneven terrain can affect the ideal trail running technique and even your running form. 

Trail running typically requires a faster cadence with short, quick steps rather than long, loping strides with a low cadence. 

This helps avoid obstacles like tree roots on the trail because you can be more nimble and agile while navigating the varied terrain.

Similarly, you should shorten your stride length when running uphill because a higher stride frequency and shorter step length require less energy as you ascend. 

In contrast, for downhill running, you can lengthen your stride because you are working with gravity, so a low cadence can be more appropriate and will use less energy. 

However, you still don’t want to be overstriding. A faster stride rate will still facilitate less impact stress.

Overall, it is important to practice your trail running technique on technical terrain.

Depending on whether you are doing singletrack trails with steep inclines and descents where there is a lot of nimble footwork required to avoid tree roots, loose rocks, and uneven terrain, it can be helpful to use ultramarathon running poles for added stability.

You may also want to “fast pack“ (brisk walking rather than running) the steeper sections of technical trails where there is a lot of elevation gain.

In fact, many of the top ultrarunners and trail runners commonly employ the fast-packing trail running technique in an actual trail race.

A person adjusting their headlamp.

#3: Prioritize Trail Running Safety

Wearing a Road ID or some form of identification for emergency medical situations can be a key safety measure for trail runners.

You never know if you will encounter a situation where you twist your ankle or end up needing some help.

To that end, bear spray, a bear whistle, or pepper spray may also be necessary for trail runners or those who are running on more remote trails.

You should also carry a small first aid kit for blisters, cuts, scraps, or other minor injuries.

It is also best to have a running buddy or a trail running group rather than run trails alone.

Running with other trail runners can be a safety precaution against some of the risks of trail running, such as encountering wildlife or dangerous people who may target you because you are alone on remote trails.

You should always wear reflective running clothing if you are running in the dark.

At the bare minimum, you should wear a reflective running vest and a headlamp so that other trail runners can see you and vehicles or traffic can see you as you get to and from your local trails (if you are running rather than driving to the trailhead).

Note that you should never go trail running during hunting season in areas where hunting is permitted.

A person trail running.

#4: Be Prepared With the Best Trail Running Gear

In addition to having trail running shoes, other essential trail running gear will help you stay safe and comfortable as a trail runner.

You must have a good hydration pack or use hydration vests, particularly if you are doing long trail runs, or at least a handheld water bottle to have fluids and electrolytes.

Our pick for the best hydration pack for trail runners is the Thule Vital Running Hydration Pack. It’s big enough to stash a first aid kit, energy gels, and extra layers in the pack.

#5: Include Strength Training and Balance Exercises

One of the biggest differences between trail running vs road running is that the uneven terrain of trail running is much more challenging for the small, stabilizing muscles in your ankles and feet, particularly if you are running technical trails with lots of rocks, tree roots, loose gravel, etc. 

You can decrease your risk of twisting your ankle and falling on trails by working on your foot and ankle strength with balance exercises such as single-leg balance drills, single-leg hops, picking up marbles with your toes, single-leg squats, and balancing on wobble boards or unstable surfaces.

You should also do strength training exercises such as lunges, step-ups, squats, deadlifts, and split squats to strengthen your leg muscles for off-road terrain, inclines, and descents.

A person trail running.

#6: Consider Training for a Trail Running Race

After your first trail run, you might find you can’t wait to get back out on the trails again.

Over time, as you incorporate more trail workouts into your training plan, you might decide that you want to train for a trail race—or even an ultramarathon!

Indeed, many long-time road runners eventually become true trail runners, loving every minute of their off-road mileage.

You can read more about trail running and check out some of our ultramarathon training plans here.

Don’t forget to have fun, and remember, don’t focus on your pace and just enjoy the beauty around you!

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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