Trail Running 101

Trail Running 101The thought occasionally creeps into my mind after passing, for the 20th time this month, that quirky mailbox that marks the halfway point…

“Why do I do this? I go around and around the same neighborhood loop to what end? Kind of feels like a gerbil on a wheel. Our ancestors ran to find food, hunt animals, and flee man-eating beasts. I am looping around my neighborhood when I could be running a trail around a lake and over ridges. Instead of the local dogs barking at me I can come upon a herd of deer or spook a hawk from its perch.”

For a trail runner, the adventure is already a reality. Trail running has taken the world of running by storm. With challenging changes in elevation, a need for greater concentration, and often the reward of a beautiful landscape, it’s no wonder trail running has seen such an increase in popularity.

For those interested in a new challenge or simply a change of scenery, here are some tips for starting out on trail running.

Getting Started

Just as in every sport, the beginner is faced with a dizzying array of options when it comes to choosing the right gear. Should I buy the low end model in case this ends up being a passing phase? Or should I go with the top of the line so that I won’t have to replace my purchase in 6 months once I’ve made significant improvements?


For road runners looking to take up trail running, normal running shoes will work just fine on beginner trails.

The major difference between a trail shoe and normal running shoe is the sole. Trail shoes should have knobby bottoms for traction and thicker soles for increased protection. Trail shoes also usually have a thick protective toe cover that allows you to dig in while going uphill and avoid whacking delicate toes on hard rocks. Recently there has been the addition of barefoot trail shoes for those who want a lot of contact with the trail. These shoes are good for graded backcountry trails but not that good for extremely rocky trails.


It may seem trivial to the average person but the importance of choosing the right socks becomes readily apparent after just one or two runs in the wrong pair. Synthetic fiber has made cotton the enemy of runners and hikers. Cotton absorbs moisture and then rubs your skin in all kinds of nasty ways that cause blisters. Polyester, nylon and wool socks like these,

Darn Tough Vermont Merino Wool 1/4 Light Cushion Socks - Men's Darn Tough Vermont No-Show Light Cushion Sock - Women's Wrightsock Coolmesh II Tab Low Sock
Darn Tough Vermont Merino Wool 1/4 Light Cushion Socks – Men’s Darn Tough Vermont No-Show Light Cushion Sock – Women’s Wrightsock Coolmesh II Tab Low Sock

will keep your feet much drier and blister free.

Shorts or Pants

When trail running, your normal run-of-the-mill running shorts or fitted running pants are fine. Keep in mind that trail running is not a regular jog in the park. There is a good chance that you will encounter branches, briers, and other parts of nature that tend to stick out into trails and snag your shorts at high speeds. To make sure the only bottom in sight at the end of your run is the bottom of the trail, be sure to choose a fabric that is both durable and light. Once again, do your best to avoid cotton for the same reasons noted above.


Approaches to trail running differ considerably. Because of this, the hydration systems people use while running vary equally as much. For many, a hydration vest is a good, lightweight choice. Big enough to carry all the water a runner would need with some pockets for a phone or GPS. Another popular choice are runners belts which have small storage and a selection of small water bottles distributed around the belt. For others traveling longer distances, it is a lightweight hydration pack that can carry essential items like a first aid kit, wind rain jacket and some energy snacks.


Find a Trail

Hiking ExercisesBeginners should remember to take it slow. Even experienced road runners will find that trail running is a very different way of putting one leg in front of the other. Try to find a trail that suits your level. When starting out, wide trails with gentle inclines and minimal rocks are ideal. It may seem a bit easy, but adjusting to the differences is important. Better to spend a few days adjusting to trail running on easy trails, than a week on the couch with an ice pack on your ankle. In any case, it’s crucial to remember to stretch with the proper hiking exercises for the optimal trail experience.


Your first runs should be taken at a slow pace. Experienced trail runners find they run about 20% slower on a trail than they do on a flat road. Bigger hills, more obstacles, and more side-to-side movement all mean that your pace will be significantly slower than your road speed. If you are uncomfortable with the terrain, don’t be afraid to walk.

Your Feet Will Follow Your Eyes

The expression “look before you leap” is very relevant and should be taken literally, on the trail. Keep your eyes focused to a point about 3 feet in front of you. Your feet will follow. This method will also help you anticipate obstacles and plan your route. As much as you’ll want to look at the scenery, be aware that your body may follow your gaze.

If you have any other tips for those starting to trail run, please share in the comments below!


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  • hikeypoo

    Running is great and nature is great but I’m not so sure running around in nature is great. I would say, choose your trail wisely- stick to the wide carriage roads and stay away from the hiking trails. Hikers do not appreciate having to suddenly leap aside at the approach of a runner. If you find yourself on a trail with hikers, remember proper trail etiquette. If the trail is narrow, slow to walking speed and pass with a friendly greeting/warning. Do NOT run in bear or puma territory where running may activate their hunting instinct!

    • Duke2011

      I’m a hiker and have shared trails with several trail runners. I have never had to “leap aside” for a runner as you can usually hear them coming or they will normally call out if there is something that is drowning out the sound of their approach like a creek. “Proper trail etiquette, slow to a walk & pass”, why wouldn’t the proper etiquette be for you to stop & step off the trail a bit & let them pass? Your goal isn’t speed or time but theirs certainly is.