Road to Trail Running: 8 Helpful Tips To Start The Transition!

Transitioning from running exclusively or almost always on roads or a treadmill to trails can be really daunting.

In many ways, trail running can seem almost like an entirely different sport from road running and certainly from running on the treadmill at the gym.

Running on trails does require some special trail running gear and some modifications in your running technique or form, depending on the types of trails you are running on.

However, you can start adding trail running to your repertoire of running routes with a few tips for transitioning from road to trail running.

Keep reading to add some nature to your runs!

A person trail running.

Let’s get started!

8 Tips To Start The Transition From Road to Trail Running

Here are some of the best tips for how to get started with trail running, especially pertinent to runners who are already doing some road running or running on the treadmill but who have been reticent to run trails or venture off the beaten path.

#1: Get 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

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

Road to Trail Running: 8 Helpful Tips To Start The Transition! 1

#2: Use a Trail Running App

The biggest hurdle for most runners who are anxious about trail running is knowing where to run on trails without getting lost.

A trail running app like AllTrails (the world’s largest trail app) can tell you exactly where to run.

There are more than 400,000 trails on the app around the world, with trail descriptions and downloadable maps and guides that you can access from your phone as you run. 

There are also reviews and photos of the best trail running routes in your area on the app. 

What’s great is that you can use the AllTrails filters to find running trails (versus hiking routes or other outdoor activities).

Then, you can then filter down running trails based on distance, elevation, level of difficulty, terrain, etc., to find the trail running route that is best for you.

It makes it super easy to find a doable route, and the app tracks your trail running stats and achievements.

A person trail running with their dog.

#3: Join a Trail Running Group

Even if you are using a good trail running app and are familiar with the trails that you are running on, there are some greater inherent safety risks running on trails vs roads.

Trails tend to be less populated, so if you get injured, it can be more difficult to get help. Additionally, if there are human or animal predators, it can be really scary and/or risky to run alone on trails.

Try to find a trail running buddy or a local trail running group, or take a canine running companion with you on your trail runs to increase safety and provide some emotional comfort venturing off onto the trails.

#4: Be Prepared With the Best Trail Running Gear

In addition to having trail running shoes, there are other essential trail running gear that will help you stay safe and comfortable as you make the transition from road to trail running.

In terms of safety gear, a headlamp is a must if you are running trails in the dark. You may also need a safety whistle, bear whistle, or other safety gear, depending on the wildlife in your area.

Unlike when you are running on the roads, access to water fountains with clean drinking water is generally not possible running on a trail, so it is essential that you have a good hydration pack, particularly if you are doing long trail runs.

A person trail running.

Our pick for the best hydration pack for trail runners is the Thule Vital Running Hydration Pack.

This lightweight, ergonomic hydration pack for runners comes in several different sizes, depending on how much water you want to carry while you run, as well as how much extra space you want to stash other belongings such as snacks, extra layers, trail running safety gear, etc.

What’s great about the Thule Vital Running Hydration Backpack is that the product comes in a women’s fit and unisex fit. 

This is truly one of the best running hydration backpacks for women because it is specifically designed to be anatomically contoured to the female body if you choose the women’s Thule hydration pack.

This means that you don’t have any of the bouncing, chafing, or capping between the hydration backpack and your shoulders, back, armpits, or chest.

It’s like the hydration pack becomes one with your body so that you forget it is there, save for the fact that you can readily access water right from the hose with the included bladder.

You can stash your extra layers in the pack as well if you heat up or if you are doing a mountain trail run where it will be colder near the summit, and you want to have a lightweight jacket to throw on as you gain elevation.

A person trail running.

#5: Change Your Goals and Running Metrics for Trail vs Road Running

One of the best tips for beginning trail running or transitioning from road to trail running is changing your running goals or how you are “measuring” running workouts.

Instead of running for distance, consider running for time while trail running.

Running for time on the trails tends to make more sense because you may not be able to get a good GPS signal with your running watch on the trails.

More importantly, the technical nature of trails makes them more difficult, and you may have significant changes in elevation on a trail run vs road run.

Running for time vs distance on trails helps factor in these challenges of trail running over road running so that you don’t overdo your trail running workouts or hold yourself to the same expected running pace or mileage on a trail run versus road run.

Expecting yourself to run just as far or just as fast on the trails as you would on level and flat roads can lead to frustration and overtraining.

A person trail running.

#6: Build Up Gradually

Even if you have been running consistently on the roads, you need to give your body time to adjust to trail running.

Don’t suddenly switch from running all of your mileage on the roads to the trails, as trail running puts different stress on your muscles and connective tissues. Start with shorter trail runs a couple of days per week. 

If you fall in love with trail running vs road running, gradually decrease your road running mileage and frequency as you increase your trail running volume.

#7: Work On Improving Ankle Stability and Balance

One of the biggest differences between trail running and road running from a musculoskeletal standpoint 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, 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.

A person balance training.

When you first start balance training, make sure that you are standing next to a wall or surface that you can hold onto if you lose your balance. 

Gradually progress the length of time that you stand on each leg. You can also progress the difficulty of balance exercises by closing your eyes or standing on an uneven surface, such as a pillow. 

This will require much more activation of the small muscles in your ankles. Closing your eyes removes the visual feedback that you receive, requiring your body to use only proprioceptive awareness to stay balanced.

#8: Be Present

The good news is that while becoming a trail runner may have a little bit of a learning curve, even for experienced road runners, many runners fall in love with trail running.

They find that supplementing road mileage with trail running is a great way to reduce the risk of injury, keep the sport of running feeling fresh and exciting, maximize the benefits of being in nature, and open up new avenues for self-discovery, challenge your body and mind, and experience some of the many benefits of trail running.

Once you start trail running, if you decide that you have quickly fallen in love with being connected to nature and getting away from the hustle and bustle of running on the roads or running on the treadmill at the gym, you may even consider training for a trail race or ultramarathon.

Check out some of our ultramarathon training plans here.

A person trail running.
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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