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4 Essential Trail Running Tips for Beginners

Trail running is a fun and challenging way of building your fitness and cardiovascular health. Like road running, there are key details that are worth knowing, especially if you’re starting out trail running. In this article, I’m going to outline four tips that every trail running beginner should emphasize and do when starting their trail running journey.

Before we get started on our four tips, let’s first define trail running. Trail running can have many different definitions and many people have their own criteria for defining what trail running is. Personally, I like to define trail running as any length of run on a non-paved trail, and during this run, you should be running — duh!

To take our definition a step further, the entire distance covered does not need to be a run, you just need to have sections or portions that you run. It is all relative when you first start out. For example, let’s say you tackle a 2-mile flat trail run on your local home trail. You can likely run this entire trail at whatever speed you feel comfortable.

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Now, let’s say you’re doing a more strenuous run up your favorite peak over 6 miles and 3,500 feet of elevation gain, you do not need to run this entire distance to call it a trail run. It is generally accepted by most trail runners to run the flats, hike the steeps, and comfortably move down the declines. At the end of the day, if you want to tackle any trail run, pick an unpaved trail and try to run most of it.

Full disclosure, some of these trail running tips may seem trivial to those of you who are moving from fairly serious road running to trail running. However, there still may be information within that could help your transition and progress.

1. Get a Pair of Trail Running Shoes

The first thing every beginning trail runner should do is get a good pair of trail running shoes. This may seem like common sense to some but for others, it is a great place to start this article.

Running on the treadmill, pavement or concrete is a much different surface than what you will encounter on a trail run. Most road running shoes will not have the proper sole for gripping trail running surfaces. Let’s dive into some of the key characteristics that trail running shoes have for helping you excel on the trail.

Better Outsole Tread

On trails, you will be running over much more aggressive terrain. Even easier trail runs that are done on flat dirt with minimal obstacles will still benefit from a good pair of trail runners. For those harder runs on technical terrain and even encountering inclement weather, you will start to appreciate your trail running shoe’s sole.

The more “aggressive” trail running shoes will have deeper lugs on the bottom of the sole to power over loose rock and wet conditions.

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Heightened Abrasion Resistance

Another characteristic of most trail runners is their abrasion resistance. When running on the road or treadmill you do not need to worry about obstacles tearing a hole in the side of your shoe. But when trail running, rocks and logs can be your worst nightmare if your shoe isn’t durable enough. Most trail running shoes will have a degree of abrasion resistance that is meant for the type of trail you plan on conquering.

Some shoes that have Gore-Tex or other related materials will be extremely abrasion-resistant but not breathable at all. This is not always the case though, some shoes are highly breathable and durable. It just depends on the material of the upper and inner portions of the shoe, and that brings us to our next point.

Varied Breathability Per the Shoe’s Design

Breathability is another characteristic to consider when shopping for shoes. If it is 90 degrees and you have a Gore-Tex shoe on while you are running, yes, maybe you will never get a tear in those shoes. However, you may also start to develop blisters or other rubbing-related issues since your shoes likely have two ounces of sweat in them.

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Intent-Driven Cushion and Heel-to-Toe Drops

Lastly, beginning trail runners should consider the cushion and drop of the shoe they are going to purchase. Different runs require different characteristics if you have not picked up on that theme yet. A long smooth trail run may require more of a cushioned ride, while a shorter more technical run may require less cushion and more technical features.

Features such as an underfoot rock plate can help to protect your foot and the shoe from running over jagged rock. Low cushioning may give the runner a better response when they put their foot into certain surfaces which can be desired when stability and balance are required.

Along the lines of the cushion, is the topic of drop, or the difference in the front height of the shoe and back height of the shoe usually measured in millimeters. You can consider a zero drop to 4mm drop as low, 4mm to 8mm drop as moderate, and 8mm or greater as a high drop for a trail running shoe. This is not a written rule and it is not 100% agreed upon, but for the most part, you can use these numbers as a guide for knowing if your shoe is a low or high drop shoe.

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Some say heel strikers will benefit from a higher drop shoe due to the higher volume of cushion on the rear or heel portion of the shoe. The opposite can be said for forefoot and midfoot strikers. A lower drop shoe will generally be recommended to allow for a smoother strike of the foot due to less volume in the heel area.

Regardless of the trail, you are deciding to run, just remember, different trail running shoes will specialize on different terrain. Before you head out to the trail, make sure to do your research or head into you local running shop to get a pair of trail running shoes that fit your specific needs!

2. Start Easy and Acclimate At Your Own Pace

For those of us who are driven and love the outdoors, starting something off easy can be easier said than done. Like most activities, you need to learn the basic skills before you attempt the advanced skills. The same can be said for trail running, it is a skilled activity like most active outdoor hobbies. Make sure to start off-trail running with easier terrain, shorter distances, slower relative speeds, and less elevation gain.

Selecting which trail you are going to run is very much in your control. Especially if you have already been hiking at altitude or running long distances on the road. I know it can sound like a good idea to select that big peak or that 26-mile loop for your first trail run. But let me tell you from experience, it is not sustainable and the improper way to work your way into a new activity.

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Pick a gentle couple-mile trail with low elevation gain and run it at a low to moderate relative speed, then progress and periodize your trail running accordingly. Again, do not feel the pressure to run the steep ascents, hike those, or even power hike. You can focus your trail running attention on the flats and if you feel comfortable with it, some of the steeper descents.

If you are fully tracking, the one question you might be asking yourself is, “How do I know what a low to moderate speed is?” Well, as stated before, if you have been training in some capacity, so you may or likely have heard of heart rate (HR) monitoring. Heart rate monitoring can be accomplished through the use of many tools such as a wristwatch, chest strap, pulse oxygen monitors, or palpating an artery.

In my opinion, the gold standard for self-monitoring HR is through the use of a chest strap. This is one of the easier methods of monitoring HR and most accurate in my opinion.

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We will not get into the weeds of different percentages of heart rate charts because there are a lot. But knowing that 70% max heart rate or below is generally considered easy is helpful. Methods such as maximum aerobic function (MAF), can help to determine training HR for easy runs. You can also try to run at a conversational pace and consider this to be your easy speed.

At this conversational pace, you should be able to speak in full sentences and have a controlled breathing rate. At the end of the day do not get lost when it comes to monitoring, do your best to add some objectivity to your “easy pace”. If you can do this, then you are headed in a great direction.

3. Listen to Your Body

This one is self-explanatory but deserves a bit of delving into. First and foremost, listen to your body!

This cannot be overstated in a world where deviating from the written plan is considered lazy or possibly even weak-minded. A train of thought such as this is a recipe for disaster in trail running. Trail running is a non-contact impact-based endurance sport. You will get sore, you will be fatigued, you will depleted, and you will feel less than 100% when constantly training hard.

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At times, there is a need to push through some of this soreness and fatigue. But what you want to avoid is always pushing through soreness and fatigue in order to go run your planned trail. If you do, previously soreness and low-level pain can turn into a nagging overuse injury or worse, a strain or sprain.

If you have a 3-mile run planned for tomorrow morning but you had to stay up late due to work, you feel super fatigued and your nutrition was poor the last few days. Maybe make it a 1-mile run or even go on a 3-mile walk to help boost recovery. Listen to your body and encourage long-lasting success.

Another important aspect to remember is to always warm up. If you are doing any moderate to high-level activity, there should be a proper warm-up that proceeds with said activity. A properly executed warm-up will help to increase blood flow to working muscles, increase HR, increase breathing rate, decrease the chance of injury, prime the body biomechanically and wake up the nervous system.la sportiva mutant mountain running shoe for climbing

What does a proper warm-up look like? The possibilities are endless.

My personal favorite running-specific warm-up includes:

  • 3-minutes of dynamic mobility
  • 8-minutes of running drills
  • 4-minutes of mini band work

Do a bit of research into what a proper warm-up should look for tougher trail runs and try to hone in on some areas that you specifically would like to give attention to. Your warm-up should be individual per your training needs. Create a 10 to 15-minute warm-up plan that you can execute before your next trail run and reap the benefits.

Recovery work is another area that you can start to incorporate into your daily practice to help avoid injury. There are many different modalities to choose from and a lot of it comes down to personal preference, time, and availability. Recovery work covers the spectrum from stretching, hydrotherapy, self-tissue work, heat, compression, rest, nutrition, manual therapy, chiropractic adjustment, needling, and so much more.

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In my onion, find a modality that is backed by science and run with it, no pun intended. Start with setting aside 30 minutes per day to get some recovery work in, this will be a game-changer in your trail running journey.

Lastly, you likely noticed that nutrition and sleep are also outlined in the spectrum of recovery. These are two easy ways to boost recovery and keep your body in tip-top shape for trail running. Sleep and nutrition go both play a role in your muscle recovery, nervous system sharpness, and much more.

4. Enjoy the Process and Explore

At the end of the day, you are trail running because you love being in the outdoors and you love running. When there is so much stuff to think about for the high-performance-focused individual, how does one have fun while doing a trail run?

With so many performance-focused thoughts dedicated to before the trail, during your trail run, and after your run, enjoyment can sometimes be left in the dust when work and performance are the only two focuses with one’s mindset. If you are a driven individual and want to excel at trail running, this can be difficult, and I totally get it.

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I continue to fall victim to this key point and have to remind myself every run to enjoy myself. Just remember, you do not have to go trail running, it is a conscious decision that you make to step on the trail. Embrace that decision and even though it is going to be hard work, enjoy that process and enjoy that work.

Along the lines of listening to your body, you do not always need to push through a run and make it miserable. When starting off-trail running, you need to make sure and keep your motivation high by enjoying every trail run. Even those of us who are more advanced need to remind ourselves to enjoy the process and enjoy the now.

Takeaway Thoughts

Remember these four tips that every beginning trail runner should do and you will fall in love with the sport of trail running. These are points that I have personally failed at when starting off-trail trail running and would love for you to learn from my mistakes.

Save yourself wasted time, energy, and heartache by following these four easy tips. Get a great pair of trail running shoes, start easy, listen to your body, and have fun.

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Will Quillman

Will Quillman is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at The United States Air Force Academy. He works with the NCAA Division I FCS football program and teaches physical education courses, including basic cadet physical development and rock climbing. He holds a Masters Degree in Sports Medicine with an Emphasis in Strength and Conditioning from The University of Colorado Springs (UCCS). He loves outdoor gear and apparel. Training outdoors is one of Will's many passions and devotes hours every single day training for the activities he loves. Will knows that in the backcountry, gear and apparel can make or break a great experience.

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