How To Run Your First Trail Run: A Step-By-Step Guide


If you’re new to trail running you might be a bit nervous to get started–there are a lot of things to think about and prepare for, or perhaps not as much as you might think. There are just a few things to understand so

Runners who are learning to trail run should make sure they have the right shoes, good gear, have researched routes to run that will not push them too much, and should be mindful of their technique before preparing to trail run for the first time.

Why are these aspects important, how do you make sure you’re making the right choices about each, what are the benefits of trail running, and how can you become better at it? These are all essential questions that we’ll cover to help you learn more about trail running before getting into it.

How Do I Start Trail Running?

You’ve picked a great sport! If you’re reading this, motivation clearly isn’t a problem, but you need to know how to actually begin and do it right so that you get the most out of the sport and don’t fail and get demotivated on your first try. Following these steps, there’s no reason not to get hooked on this sport from your very first run.

Are you ready for your first trail run? Are you sure?

Shoes

Trail running can push your body hard, and your shoes can take a beating. You want shoes that support your body and give you enough grip to where you can feel confident on the trail.

There’s nothing worse than being halfway through your run when your feet, ankles, or calves start having issues.

Do you need trail running shoes to get started? In my opinion, no–however, there is a lot to consider about shoes, so make sure you read on later in the article to find out some tips.

Be Prepared With The Right Gear

Whether you’re running in the mountains or in a forest, you are separated from any kind of urban shelter when you’re trail running. The temperature and weather can bounce around a lot, especially in the mountains (where at some times of the year you can expect rain at least once a day).

Plus, depending on where you go, you won’t be able to count on finding a restroom or a drinking fountain.

For these reasons, it is important to have the gear you need for the route you’re running. Rain or snow, cold or hot, bathroom or not.

Picking The Best Routes

You might be surprised to know that there may be trail runs closer to you than you might have imagined!

If you search on the internet “trail runs near me”, you can easily turn up popular locations and established routes. This is a fantastic place to start, and you’ll even be able to find trail runs where they are rated by difficulty by different communities.

Check out All Trails for some rated trail runs near your location. This is a fantastic resource where you can find people’s experiences on different trail runs. The runs are rated by difficulty so you don’t get stuck somewhere that you can’t get out out of.

When you’re starting out, start small! There’s no reason to do an all-day trail run at first. If you’re an established runner, just try an hour-long run. If you’re not there yet, just try 15-30 minutes of an out-and-back trail.

Bring a GPS

Hansel and Gretel used breadcrumbs when they were walking through the forest. Perhaps that’s not the best way to figure out where you are, but Hansel and Gretel were on to something–it’s easier than you think to get lost in a forest or in nature. Make sure to bring some way to find a way home.

In our modern world, a smartphone is a convenient and easy way to keep track of your progress and help you know where you are. Make sure you have a full charge.

If you don’t or won’t have the internet at your location, it’s important to download maps ahead of time. AllTrails has the ability to download trail maps ahead of time so you won’t have to rely on a spotty (or non-existent) internet connection.

If you don’t want to bring your smartphone but want to bring a GPS, perhaps you should look into a running GPS. If you don’t know what that is or if you haven’t heard about their advantages over smartphone GPS’s, check out this article to learn more.

Technique

Running, especially when getting started, can be daunting to get the perfect technique. But I’ll be the first one to say that it’s more important to get out there and get started without obsessing over your technique.

The key is to start small so you don’t push your body too hard towards injury. Pay attention to any pains or discomfort and that will help guide you to proper technique over time. If you want some more specific technique tips, we talk about this a bit further in this article.

Now that you’re aware of how to get started, we’ll dive into the details on these points to give you more guidance on which decisions to be making that will work best for you.

Choosing The Right Route for Trail Running

Local roads and trails, guidebooks and websites/apps (like Alltrails), and running clubs are all great resources for finding a good trail run to start with. You may find that you’re intimidated by the thought of going on your own and would prefer to start with a group, in which case searching for a local trail running group can be a great place to start, so you can benefit from running with people who know the area and who are more experienced than you are.

Meetup is a popular app that helps people of like hobbies to find each other. If your friends and family aren’t into trail running, this is a good option.

If you are running on your own or with another beginner, you will need to do the research yourself. Many towns and cities keep maps of roads and trails that you can access; otherwise, there will likely be an app or map online for your area.

Depending on your level of fitness, choose something easy. It’s better to try a more manageable route on your first run and challenge yourself as time goes on.

A common mistake is choosing a distance similar to what you’re able to do on the road. Trail running is not the same and is more challenging, mile for mile. You’re going to be running up and down hills and navigating scree, mud, deer crossings (literally), and other obstacles.

For myself, it takes me an hour to run 4-5 miles while trail running.

Trail Running Technique Tips

Trail running will stretch your body further than road running. You’ll be facing a lot of obstacles, very uneven ground, and intense slopes that you won’t find on normal roadways. It’s important to have good technique, so here are a couple of things to look out for that I’ve learned in the book “Runner Anatomy”:

  • Injuries are most common in your lower back and in your knees. If you have any pain or numbness in these regions, there’s a good chance you might have poor posture or you haven’t developed enough strength in supporting muscles.
  • Ensure your body is warmed up before pushing yourself. Jumping into sprinting a hill on a trail run could tear your muscles. (this study confirms the role of warming up to preventing injury)
  • Excessive pronation/supination (rolling of your foot), tight hips or lower back, and inflexibility of your knee are all dangerous conditions. If you’re unsure how your technique is lining up, make sure and consult a running coach who can help diagnose any problem areas.

Some other general trail running technique tips are:

  • Use a short stride. This is especially important when running downhill. This will keep you in more control, and will also prevent hyperextending your knees.
  • Keep a neutral pose. It’s strangely natural to try and lean forward when going up a hill and lean back when going down a hill. Leaning back can encourage your running to pound your knees when going downhill, so it’s better to keep your back straight and use quicker steps.
  • Use your arms for balance. Just like if you’re trying to balance on a balance beam, if you keep your arms up and out, they can help you balance during tricky parts of your run (such as if you’re going downhill). Otherwise, you can swing your arms as you would during normal running to help give you more power.

What Gear Do You Need To Trail Run?

Shoes

Starting from the bottom up, shoes are the most important item for trail runners. Going along a gravel path will probably be okay to do in road running shoes, and you’ll likely get away with it without too much trouble, but as soon as you encounter roots, rocks, mud, or other slippery or uneven surfaces, having the right shoes can become super important.

There’s a class of running shoes called “trail running shoes”, also called trail shoes or trail runners.

Trail running shoes emphasize traction and are designed for stability and foot protection. This means that traditional trail running shoes are usually a little beefier than regular running shoes, but there are also both minimalist and maximalist versions of the shoe.

A helpful way to think of the difference between regular running shoes and trail running shoes is to think of bike tires that are designed for the city versus mountain bike tires. Mountain bike tires are usually thicker with deeper groves to provide good traction, and trail shoes are similar, with extra cushioning.

My regular ol’ running shoes on the trail.

All that being said, trail running shoes aren’t completely necessary. You can get away with regular running shoes–I know this because I’ve done it.

But, you have to listen to your body, and I think the trail running shoes are a great investment if you are wanting to run out on the trail. Dealing with a lack of traction isn’t a showstopper, but it is more work–why not get shoes that are built for it?

Clothing

The rest of your outfit can be pretty simple–whatever you would use to run comfortably in the city. If it’s hot, shorts and a t-shirt will work fine as you’re getting started.

As you progress and start to take on more challenging terrain and increase your mileage, your clothing should consist of layers on your top half. The weather changes in the mountain can be unpredictable, and pockets of cooler and warmer air are also common as the terrain changes around you.

There can be large temperature variations during the course of your run, and you should also be prepared for rain, wind, or other changes in weather conditions.

Me wearing several layers during a wintery trail run

Running in colder months requires a bit more planning, but the basic layering you should think about is as follows:

  • Comfortable base layer to help your sweat disperse (want to learn more about base layers? Check out our article here on the subject)
  • Warm mid layer: I use a fleece (as you can see in the picture) when I run in cold weather–if it’s not super cold you can get away with a comfortable long-sleeve shirt
  • Waterproof outer layer: Even if it’s not raining, a waterproof outer layer will protect you from the wind and will keep you warm. You can vent this outer layer to make sure your sweat doesn’t stay on your body.

Water

For longer runs, as you progress, bear in mind that carrying water will become necessary, and wearing a water vest or backpack should be considered as part of your gear. You can of course just bring a water bottle, but when you’re trail running having two hands-free (not to mention having balanced arms) is a crucial safety precaution.

You want to be able to catch yourself if you trip!

GPS

As mentioned above, make sure you have some way of finding your way home. If you’re good with maps, then that might be all you need. A smartphone, a hiking GPS, or a watch GPS are all good options.

Safety Gear

Other gear includes everything from first aid kits, food, and sun protection, to headlamps. Still, these don’t necessarily need to be considered for your first trail run and can be further explored later down the line if you really enjoy the sport and find yourself doing it more regularly.

If you’re in a remote area with nobody around, then it’s worth it to plan for extra safety gear.

Benefits Of Trail Running For the Body

Trail running brings unique terrain that will challenge your body and your level of physical fitness in new ways.

Physically, trail running can be better or worse for your joints.

Joints

Trail running can be better as running on dirt is easier on your joints than running on the road. If you want a more in-depth comparison of road running vs. trail running, see our article, here.

On the other hand, trail running can be worse going up and down hills, running on uneven ground, or even having to deal with mud and other hazards can lead to injury and hyperextension if you’re not careful. If you trip on a rock and mess up your knee, you lose all the benefits of a lower impact surface.

Strength and Running Technique

Trail running is a great way to develop balance and build strength because it forces you to adapt your running style, gait and pace constantly as you cover different terrain and adjust your movement to the surface and obstacles accordingly.

With hills, you need more technical footwork, which can push and grow your running ability.

If you’re fortunate to live near mountains, running at higher altitudes makes for a strong cardiovascular system as your body has to work harder to pump oxygen to your blood.

Trail running works more muscles than road running, as the variety in the terrain trains not only your legs but more muscles in your core that help you to stabilize, and also in your ankles and feet.

Benefits of Trail Running For the Mind

Surrounded by the beauty of nature, without the distractions of urban running, trail running can be a great getaway for the mind, escaping the chaos of cities and swapping it out for the peaceful, calming effect of nature instead. It is a well-researched fact that being in nature is good for the soul (check out my article here if you want to learn about some interesting studies on the outdoors and happiness).

A beautiful trail near where I live. Better than working that’s for sure.

During one month of this year, I trail ran every day, and the peace I found out in the woods was amazing. It was rejuvenating in ways that running on a treadmill will never be.

Many runners see trail running as a more relaxed and easy-going sport and less competitive than road running, though not any less physically challenging. With the chance to get in touch with nature, trail running can be more meditative and act as a good tension release and a way to mentally clear one’s head. Reducing rumination, or negative thought spirals, exposure to nature will do more for you mentally than a run of the same distance in an urban area would.

What Counts As a Trail Run?

Do you think of trail running as being covered in dirt and running through forests? It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. ‘Trail’ is quite a generic word, and there are many different types of trails. What counts as a trail run is kinda broad and covers any running in nature, usually on dirt and not on a tarred or poured surface.

It’s all about getting out of urban spaces, so running on a sidewalk in a park is great, but is generally not considered trail running.

Trails vary in how they look, and some are wide, groomed dirt roads that people can run alongside one another one, while others are small mountain paths that at first glance might look impossible to run on.

These small paths are known as single-track paths, these paths don’t allow for more than one person to run along with them in either direction. Multi-use trails are often made from crushed gravel or stone and are suitable for bikers, runners, and horse riders.

Trail running is more technical than road running and also involves walking, despite its name. Because it is in nature, it usually involves terrain that is not flat or consistent in slope, and especially on mountains, lots of uphill and downhill.

Surfaces can vary from gravel or mud to rocks or softer, sandy trails. Roots, rocks, branches, and shrubs all play a role in providing some natural obstacles, but this adds to the challenge and variety along the way, which makes it all the more fun.

How Do I Improve At Trail Running?

Just like with anything, getting good at trail running requires practice. The more you do it, the better you will become at it. If you’re looking to improve at trail running but perhaps only have limited access to trails, say just over the weekend, then try to cross-train.

Cross Training Exercises

Doing other types of exercise, whether it be just road running or core workouts, or other training programs that improve your strength and fitness, will make trail running easier.

The book Running Anatomy mentions several exercises that can improve your running technique and therefore improve your trail running. Check out our article here if you want some other specific exercises around posture and running as well.

  • Running in water: Shallow or deep water running is not just for people healing from an injury! Running in water increases resistance for your entire body while running through the entire running rhythm! This is something that adding weights to your run can’t do because gravity only pulls in one direction.
  • Foot and Ankle Stability: Single Leg Heel-Raise With Dumbbells. With one foot on a platform (like an exercise step), and the other off the ground, the single foot on the platform should only have the ball of your foot (not the heel) on the platform. While holding dumbbells of any weight that works for you, raise your body with the one foot taking care not to hyperextend your knee. Lower yourself down and allow your body to dip below the surface of the platform.
  • Legs and Hips: While seated at the leg extension machine, keep your torso in an upright posture and raise your legs without hyperextending them. Do not use momentum to push the weights up, but instead carry the weights in a smooth motion and lower them back down.
  • Core: Plank by going into a push-up position, and then put your weight on your toes and your forearms. Keep your spine long and your neck parallel to the ground. Maintain this position to feel the burn in your core.
  • Arms and Shoulders: Alternating Hammer Curls--while standing in a neutral position, hold a dumbbell in each hand with the dumbbells perpendicular to your body. The palms of your hands should be facing each other while you hold the dumbbells. Without using momentum, in a smooth motion, lift one dumbbell without rotating your wrist towards your shoulder on the same side. Repeat on the other side.
  • Chest and Back: Pushup–start by lying down on your stomach and then push yourself up onto your toes and hands. Keep your arms perpendicular to the ground and your hands at shoulder width. With your neck parallel to the ground, lower yourself down until your chest grazes the ground, and then push yourself back up.

Besides weight training, you can maintain fitness in other ways. If your body is less focused on gasping for air while running, you will have more time to focus on improving your technique.

Swimming, cycling, weight training–all of these are great options for alternative cross-training exercises.

Other Improvement Tips

Joining a trail running group can help push your physical limits. While for some people, this could take away from the experience of being out in nature and the desire to be alone, you can pick up tips on technique, gear, trail paths, and other helpful information that can improve your trail game, not to mention push you farther if you are at all competitive.

Using a GPS watch (see our article to learn more about them) can be particularly useful in helping to keep track of your progress, as elevation, distance, heart rate, and other metrics can be measured and used to compete against yourself, pushing to improve on them.

If you have access to different types of terrain, exposing yourself to a variety is beneficial in improving your trail running capacities by helping your body to learn other techniques for different kinds of surfaces. While it may seem difficult and irregular at first, the more trails you expose yourself to, and the more frequently, the better you will become. 

For example, some people specifically look for the biggest, baddest hill to run. If you’re brave, this will push your body faster than just pounding more miles.

Conclusion

This may all seem like a lot to take in, but trail running can be as simple as lacing up a good pair of trail shoes and heading out the door to explore. They say that once you’ve switched to running on dirt, you’ll never go back. If you have access to trails and want to exercise, it can be one of the most physically and mentally rewarding activities and such a great way to spend time outdoors.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

Recent Posts