Trail Running For Beginners Guide: Essential Tips and Gear Recommendations

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Here’s our super-detailed trail running for beginners guide!

Hitting the trails with your running shoes opens a world of possibilities – you’re suddenly in a fresh, engaging environment, with lots to see and experience.

The beauty of trail running is often in it’s simplicity – there’s just you and the meandering trail. It’s a totally different form of running to urban exercise, and can be very meditative.

If you’ve already been running for a while and are looking for some variety, trail running is a perfect option for you. 

You’ll never get bored when you’re trail running.  It’s full of excitement, challenges, and endless views.

So let’s get into our guide to trail running for beginners – everything you should know about hitting those routes!

What to Expect on Your Trail Run

When it comes to trail running for beginners, you’ll be using all the skills you learned for street running, but you’ll be adding more. 

Those skills develop from subtle differences between street running and trail running. And they have a big impact on how you run and how you prepare.

Uneven Terrain

Have you ever tried running on the beach? The soft, shifting sand under your feet makes you change your entire running position. You have to move your legs differently in order to move your feet differently. 

You use more leg muscles to compensate for the constant movement under your feet. With trail running, you experience that difference in texture in an ever-changing way. 

Even within one trail, you’re likely to run through dirt, gravel, mud, grass, and so many other types of terrain. Your body will be alert to that and continually adapt. 

The varying gradient and undulations also means that each footstrike will land slightly differently. This means that you’ve got to go slightly more cautiously, continuously reading the underfoot conditions in front of you and varying where your foot lands. The variety of foot strike positions can help strengthen your legs and ankles.

Even though it’s more challenging for your muscles, your feet will get a break from the unforgiving concrete of street runs. Landing on soft material can improve soreness and even shin splints because of the give of the ground.

More Hills

Unless you live in a particularly hilly area, you’re probably used to running on fairly flat surfaces. But trails are a totally different story. Since trails are usually forged through forests, parks, and mountains, they move with the land. 

Hence, more hills.

When you’re hitting undulating trails and climbing hills, the main thing to remember is that your performance will change. Don’t expect to hit the same pace you normally would while running around flat streets.

Enjoy the variety, try and push yourself to your comfortable limits, and forget about the metrics (more on this later).

The Weather Affects You More

If you get caught in the rain (or even snow), you have nowhere to hide on the trail. There are no coffee shops to dip under to wait out the storm. Out there, it’s just you and the wild.

You’ll have to think about how much it rained the week before your run. If it rained a lot that past week, your trail will be muddy. So either plan your run for another day or bring appropriate gear to tough it out! 

Depending on where you live, the latter option will be your best bet. When you’re committed to training for a race or getting good at trail running, you can’t postpone your run every time the weather is bad.

You’ll Experience Varying Altitudes

Altitude has a huge impact on every run. The higher altitude, the more difficult breathing gets. Some people even get altitude sickness if you travel to a higher area to perform your run.

 But there’s always a way to adapt and compensate: break yourself in by exposing yourself to it a little at a time. And always, always hydrate.

Related: What Is Skyrunning?

Trail Running For Beginners Guide: Essential Tips and Gear Recommendations 1

The Many Advantages of Trail Running

For me, trail running provides a head-clearing, meditative experience that makes it all worthwhile.

While training for trails can take a little getting used to, there are so many incredible perks you’ll enjoy along the way. 

Zero Cars

Getting away from the city and onto the trails will let you breathe pure, fresh air. You don’t have to share the road with toxic fumes. 

You’ll Never Get Bored

If you’re used to running on a track or exercising in your home neighborhood, you’ll find trail running much more exciting and engaging. With gorgeous scenery along the way and a magnificent view at the end, you’ll always have something new to look at. 

I find that an hour of trail running passes much faster – and with less effort – than an hour running around my neighbourhood.

After the first few runs, you’ll probably get addicted. You’ll spend a good chunk of time researching nearby trails and mapping out your next run. 

Part of the excitement in trail running is choosing your location – on top of the actual process! 

You Build Muscle and Endurance

Because of the varying altitudes, terrain, and physical challenges of trail running, you gain extreme endurance skills. 

Both street running and trail training have their challenges. With street running, the main objectives are speed, distance, and cross-training. 

Trail running has built-in cross-training. But the challenges it poses involve weather, uphill runs, and adapting to unpredictable circumstances. 

Getting good at both types of running will round out your fitness level to achieve more in both realms. 

4 Mistakes Trail Running Beginners Make

Mistake #1: They don’t wear the right shoes

There’s a big difference between trail running shoes and street running shoes. Here are some of the obstacles you’ll need to compensate for when jogging the trails:

  • Slippery areas with bad traction
  • Gravel
  • Surprise rocks that are sharp and come out of nowhere
  • Uneven ground

If you don’t want to end up with a sprained ankle, a cut in your foot, or an even more serious injury, learn to identify a quality pair of trail running shoes. 

The sole will have something that looks like cleats. Those are usually rubber bumps, spikes, or some type of protrusion that jut out from the sole. They help your foot roll with the ground so if you find a rock, it will go between that extra protection and you won’t hit it straight on. 

They’ll have strong ankle support. Sometimes the shoe runs up to your ankle in the style of a hiking shoe, instead of sitting below it like a typical running shoe. They should always have an extra hole for the shoelaces near the tongue of the shoe, so you can tightly secure your ankle.

Trail running shoes are not the same as hiking shoes. Hiking shoes are generally much heavier, designed for carrying weight on your back, like a day pack or even camping gear. 

Trail running shoes have to be light to accommodate speed and distance. 

Here’s my top picks for trail running shoes on the market right now:

[amazon bestseller=”trail running shoes men” items=”2″]

[amazon bestseller=”trail running shoes women” items=”2″]

Mistake #2: They don’t bring a jacket for the top

Even when it’s a hot summer day below, the top of a mountain can be quite cold…even snowy! So always bring a light jacket for the top. You’ll absolutely want to take some time to enjoy the view and take in your successful achievement. 

You’ll be disappointed if you’re too cold to stay! 

Which reminds me…a running pack or vest is mandatory prior to hitting the trails!

Mistake #3: They don’t plan their route beforehand

If you go to a well-known place that is famous for its trails, you’ll probably find adequate trail marking along the way. But you never know. Sometimes trail markers get hidden by moss or never existed in the first place. You don’t want to get lost when you’re on the trail.

I use Strava Routes to find new routes wherever I am in the world, then the Strava app helps me navigate as I run. And nowadays I always share my location with someone I know whenever I’m trail running, using something like Whatsapp or Strava Beacon.

Without camping gear, food, or enough water, you would end up in serious danger. Don’t be afraid but always have a backup plan.

Mistake #4: Comparing Trail Performance To Urban Performance

If you’re booking a 50 minute 10k time in your neighborhood, then that’s great – but don’t hit the trails and assume you’ll be hitting the same pace targets.

Trail running for beginners – or experienced runners – is a different ball game. DOn’t try to hit any speed targets until you’ve built up a lot of trail running experience and are familiar with the route you’re tackling.

I find it helpful to think in terms of Rate of Perceived Exertion when I’m trail running – as opposed to measuring my speed and comparing to other runs.

Trail Running For Beginners Guide: Essential Tips and Gear Recommendations 2

Must-Have Gear for Trail Running

Many people underestimate the dangers of the wild. But the fact is, there’s just not access to emergency supplies like there is in the city. 

Here’s a list of things you’ll definitely need and things you might need while you’re foraging your trail. 

  • Something to carry water and supplies: Some people opt for a fanny pack that will hold a few bottles and bags of snacks. If you’ve already run a half marathon or a marathon you may already have one lying around. 

Others use a Camelbak water carrier. Usually, those come with a small, light backpack with a few side pockets to carry nutrition. 

The most efficient way to carry supplies is a trail running vest. This has pockets spread evenly across the whole garment – in the front, sides, and back. 

It’s the most efficient way to distribute your supplies around your entire upper body, so you don’t feel all the weight clumped in one place. 

  • First aid kit
  • Sunscreen
  • A navigation device that doesn’t need wifi or electricity to charge: This can be a solar-powered charger for your iPhone (just download your map ahead of time), it can be a running watch, or it can be a physical map. 
  • Headlights
  • A whistle and/or a knife: You’ll need this for protection in case you get lost or run into danger. 
  • Spare socks

How to Get the Most Out of Your Trail Run Every Time

If trail running for beginners goes bad, it can leave a negative impression in your mind, stopping you from trying again. Small things can always go wrong, but you have to understand that it sometimes comes with the territory. 

There are two things you can do to minimize mishaps on your trail and have a great time, no matter what. 

1. Prepare

Follow the previous tips to make sure you have everything you need for a good run. Know where you’re going, how to get there, bring everything you might need, and get a good night’s sleep before you go. 

2. Pace yourself

Start with trails that are in nature but don’t involve a steady climb. Adjust to the change in climate and terrain without the strain of the hills. 

Keep in mind that you don’t have to run up the entire mountain right way. You can always walk the parts that are really steep and just run as much as you can

As with all running, don’t start out by running your fastest. Begin with a slow jog and save your energy for the intense parts of the trail. 

Upgrade Your Trail Runs to an Ultramarathon or Stage Race

Trail running for beginners often starts as a new, fun experience but it often turns into ultramarathons or stage races. These are multi-day races that involve carrying your own gear and food for the duration. 

When you decide to start training for these races, you can download our ultramarathon training plans, which are completely customizable for all levels and all schedules. 

Just select the one that fits you best, edit as needed through Google Sheets, and then get started on your ultramarathon goals.

Photo of author
Mia Kercher is a hiker, cyclist, and runner. After finishing her first marathon in 2013, she continued the sport but found a new passion in trail running. She now explores the glorious mountains in Portland, Oregon.

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