Whether you are looking to get into shape or trying to switch up your current workout routine, trail running is a fun, popular way to stay healthy and enjoy the great outdoors. Trail running works different muscles and strengthens you in ways that road running simply can’t match.
Trail running’s popularity continues to rise and with that growth come even more apps, wearable tech, shoes, and apparel that cater specifically to trail runners’ needs. Beyond your outfit, however, there is quite a bit to know and understand about trail running in order for you to make the most of it. Trail running is different from running on roads, ellipticals, or treadmills. You have to be prepared for the changing terrain on the trail, not to mention the climate which can sometimes vary wildly depending on the time of year you go.
If you are new to trail running or thinking about taking it up, this guide will tell you everything you need to know to get started.
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Trail Running 101
Trail running seems pretty self-explanatory: you run on a trail. But there’s a bit more to it than that. Trail running is usually a blend of hiking and running – how much of each depends entirely on your ability and the trail itself. Flat, even terrain usually calls for more running than hiking, but uneven terrain with big elevation gains often ends up meaning you hike more than you run.
Trail running looks very different for everyone. Depending on where you live, you might have well cared for trails in nearby foothills, or you might have to drive a ways out of town to get your feet on a bumpy, unmarked trail.
But the activity is so rewarding that it doesn’t usually matter too much what you do or do not have. There’s nothing better than getting your daily run in with fresh air, quiet, and no car exhaust. It can be incredibly freeing to run several miles and stand on top of a hill overlooking a quiet valley. There are many great rewards that come along with trail running.
How to Get Started
Where you live and the trails or off-road options available will make a huge difference on everything from gear to technique. The best advice we have, no matter where you run, is to start out slow. If you are a seasoned road runner, you will be surprised by how different it is to run off road. Your usual techniques simply won’t work on trails, and you could end up getting injured.
If there are resources in your area, use them! Check for local trail running groups, social media pages devoted to trails or trail running in your region, or visit outdoors stores to find experts. Find out which trails are best for beginners or start off with a plan to walk and hike first. There’s absolutely no need to rush into running trails, so take your time.
Here are a few tips for your first trail:
- Keep your eyes on the trail ahead to watch for debris or rough terrain
- Avoid technical trails
- Take short strides if you do jog, and stay lower to the ground
- Keep your distance from other runners
- Don’t forget to bring water & pre-hydrate
- Enjoy the scenery!
While some gear may be necessary (like hydration packs), for the most part, what you already have for apparel and shoes will work fine. In fact, we recommend not investing in any gear, shoes, or other items until you know that trail running is something you will do more than once.
What to Wear
As we mentioned, you probably don’t need to invest in anything new right away. If you’re brand new to running, though, you could take this opportunity to purchase trail running shoes – consider looking for some that are designed for light trails so that you can use them off trail as well (unless you’re absolutely committed to trail running and know you’ll run on more technical trails soon!).
Here’s a brief run down on what to wear when you head out to the trails.
Trail running shoes are designed for variable terrain, and they help to protect vulnerable parts of your foot from some of the things you’ll encounter (like rocks). Their design pays attention to traction and considers weather/climate conditions. You’ll see numerous types of trail running shoes. Some are closer to hiking boots than running shoes; others have minimalist designs with a little added protection around the toe.
If you plan to purchase trail running shoes, you can take a look at our picks for the best trail running shoes here:
Many new and seasoned trail runners find that their favorite pair of running shoes work just fine – especially if you hit up trails that tend to be well groomed or consistent. Of course, as soon as you find yourself on technical terrains or on slippery surfaces, you’ll likely want to start thinking about shoes designed for the trails.
When it comes to outfitting yourself, this is another area where it can be wildly different from location to location. Seasonality comes into play as well, as do additional factors like elevation change and time of day.
Here are some tips for dressing for trail running:
- Wear layers
- Wear things that you don’t mind getting dirty (or even ruined, if the trails are bad)
- Wear clothing made of synthetics or merino wool, not cotton
- Wear lightweight, breathable knits
You might also consider bringing a change of clothes and shoes for afterward, especially if the trails will be muddy or dusty.
What Else You Might Need
We’ve said it already, but it bears repeating: the need for any gear, clothing, or extras depends entirely on your trails, the season, and how far from civilization you will be. Here are some of the extras you may need now or in the future.
It’s absolutely necessary to bring water with you on many runs; for example, if you are going a ways away from civilization, if it’s especially hot, or if you are going for a longer run or hike. A hydration pack is a great investment if you’ll be doing a lot of trail running, and there are plenty of brands and types to choose from. Here are two great choices:
Sun protection is important for any outdoor activity, but it can sometimes be easy to forget with trail running if you are on shaded trails a lot of your run. Always remember to wear SPF 30 or higher sunscreen, and consider adding a hat or sun-protective clothing.
If you are getting exploratory on your runs, it might be worth it to check out some options for navigation. Look for local trail maps and figure out your path before you set out. Alternately, you can use apps or GPS devices to keep track of where you are going and how you’ll get back.
Many trail runners love the activity because they love the outdoors. They enjoy getting out of the city and appreciate nature’s sights and sounds. You definitely don’t need to listen to music to get in a rhythm when you’re running off road, but if you do decide to, you’ll need good headphones. Keep in mind that your headphones will need to withstand a lot, including dust and sweat. Check out our list of top headphones for running for some ideas:
In most cases, you won’t need to worry about snacking during your run. However, it’s a smart idea to bring food if you are going out into the woods – just in case you get delayed or lost. If you are going on longer hikes/runs or start training for marathons, you might bring light snacks that won’t upset your stomach. Otherwise, bringing food is only necessary for emergency purposes or if you’re going out for the day.
As a beginner, trail running during non-daylight hours isn’t usually recommended. It’s best to get to know the techniques required for off road running before adding in extra variables. However, you might find yourself going out before daybreak or running as the sunsets soon enough, so thinking about lighting options is a good idea. Headlamps are one of the best ways to light the way. Here is one great option for runners:
If you already hike, or you think you have the need for them, trekking poles might be on your list of trail running gear. Those who use poles swear by them, but they are really only useful when going long distances or on steep climbs. We like these trekking poles:
Trail running is addictive and fun. Don’t worry about gear just yet if you haven’t hit the trails before. But definitely give it a try – there’s a reason why so many love to run off road.