Straight off, there are a few details to iron out. Trail running isn’t just heading for the hills and running through the local paths you might run in a cross country event (more of which you can find out about here if that’s your goal ). True trail running – the kind we’ll be talking about here – gets you out and away from the modern world. Deep forests. Mountain tracks. Scenery that needs to be seen to be believed. This is the trail running that often lasts for more than an hour and can have you alone in nature with nothing but your thoughts and what you’ve brought with you. That’s the trail running we mean.
Before you begin
The weather’s looking good and you’re feeling great. You’ve decided to head out on a proper trail run to enjoy the beauty of nature and at the same time, challenge yourself. Fantastic. Here are a few things to think about before you take that first step out onto the trail.
Picking the right route
So where are you going to go? Aside from the multitude of trail running sites and blogs (that may not cover your area), hiking blogs (of which there are a lot more online) can be a hugely useful tool to help you know where the best secluded routes can be. If you know where you want to end up – such as a key mountain or waterfall to pass on your trail run, you can also plug those in to your search engine to see the best way to get there on foot. Of course remember you also have to make it back to where you begin, so also keep that in the back of your mind.
One more thing to remember when planning where to head out to on your trail run in assessing the elevation, as this can be taxing on your efforts and add to your run time that many route planning maps don’t take in to consideration. Check the elevation along your planned route using online tools, map it out if possible so you know the parts that will require the most effort from you, and then you’re ready to head out on your set route.
Like all specialty sports, there are a few things you should take with you when trail running and a few things that are more “nice to haves”. It all starts with the shoes and clothes. Proper footwear for trail running is a must: shoes that cushion (for the descents), that have grip (for the unstable stones), that feel good (for the prevention of blisters) and that protect (from sharper rocks and roots). Stability is something you should also look for in your trail running shoes, as the uneven ground underfoot can lead to twisted ankles (something you do not want to happen when in the wilderness). For more on this, see our guide to finding the best trail running shoe for you here.
Trail running clothing can be equally important, as you will likely be spending quite some time wearing it all in the elements. Whether you go with long or short sleeves, shorts or pants, technical socks or ankle, much of your clothing choice depends on the weather, but also through the terrain you’ll be running. Even if it’s a bright and sunny day, wind is a factor that can chill you even more than rain, and so windproof clothing is often advised. Likewise, clothing that draws sweat away from the body helps keep you dryer vs. damp clothes that can add extra cold to your body. Of course, if it is raining and you’re heading out, waterproof jackets and pants are recommended for your run, especially in the cold so as not to develop any illnesses. Broken down, common sense comes into it when you’re thinking about trail running, so check the weather and know roughly how long you’ll be gone for so you can dress the right way.
Running with someone can be a great way to break in to trail running and is recommended for beginners. This is because it turns the discovery part of running (the technical downhills with hidden roots, the side-winding “off-course” tracks, the “hey look at that” moments) in to something to share and tackle as a team. When running solo, often a dead end or impassable terrain can lead to frustration. When running with a partner, it becomes easier to laugh it off add as another story of the adventure of the day.
If you are running solo, let at least one other person know you’re out for a run, or use a social running app like Strava or Runkeeper so that people know where you are. Even a little call out on Facebook, or happy snap on the route can come in handy if something happens (plus you get the kudos from friends and family for being out there running).
Just like with a normal run, you know whether you need water or not depending on how long you will be. Don’t think your trail run will be full of natural resources as often, streams and rivers you may come across trail running are not the kind you want to be drinking from, and taps or water fountains are definitely few and far between (if at all) when you run out of civilization.
Your best bet is to bring your own with you (which is easy these days with running bottles being smaller and more compact than ever before, and easy to carry on your belt or person). As a loose guide: if you’re running for more than 45 minutes to an hour, take a small water with you. If you’re running more than two hours, consider a water pack back pack and maybe a smaller source of energy (such as a gel pack). If this is your first time running a trail, carry enough water and food for double the time you think it will take: then you’re ready for whatever may happen.
Out on the run
Finding the right form
When starting out in trail running, forget about speed. Concentrate instead on remaining focused on the ground ahead, especially with more technical parts around uneven or slippery ground. Unlike with road running, trail running is much more work on arms for counter balance, and quads instead of calves, especially when hills are involved.
When heading uphill, quick and light steps are the way to go. With a upright body (not crouched forward as many amateurs do) and your eyes forward. Use mainly your forefoot to run uphill, focusing less on overall speed and more on the consistency of quick and light steps to get you up the hills efficiently. For more, see our guide to running (and training) hills here.
One of the parts about trail running most people love are the technical downhills. This is when there are rocks, roots and basically a large number of tricky elements making for hugely uneven terrain under foot, stopping you from hurtling down as fast as possible.
One insider tip to get better at downhill running is to hit the gym. Not the weights or the rower, but balancing balls and beams. These are regular parts of professional trail runners’ routines, as it helps them develop the skill and poise as well as stability needed when hurtling downhills.
Lastly, if you find your feet getting hot in certain spots as you run downhill, likely your shoes or socks may need to be adjusted or changed. Cushioning is what matters on the downhill, so shoes that are too flat below might not be your friends when it comes to the descent.
What to look out for
Aside from the technical aspects of the run, trail running also has a few things to be wary of when out there and are important to note.
- Wild animals. Though not common, you do hear stories about runners being chased by animals or coming close to treading on a tail they would love to have avoided. This all comes down to planning and preparation as well as vigilance. If you do see an animal you’d rather avoid ahead, stop, take a second, then simply head back the way you came in a calm manner. Animals generally want to avoid you, so be sure to do the same for them.
- Unforeseen weather. From sunny day to stormy darkness, it can happen. Always when trail running, if something you didn’t plan for pops up, the best thing you can do is to head home slowly, even walk, versus pushing on. If something does happen, the sheer inconvenience of getting help (especially in bad weather) will have you cursing yourself, so instead, head home and then out again when the weather is what you expected it to be.
- Getting lost. It can happen to anyone. The key is not to panic but to check your phone or map, see if you can find out where you are, and simply retrace your steps. If you have no idea where you’ve ended up, and no reception on your phone, head to the highest point you can find. This way, you should have the best view on everything around and see the closest signs of civilization to your location.
Though there are more risks trail running then when doing laps on the track, the rewards are far greater. Out in fresh air, the sights you can see while trail running and the often unreachable places you can only get to by foot make it definitely worthwhile. There’s an excitement to trail running that you can’t get in any other type of run. The serenity and landscape often can have you realizing this is one of the purest forms of running there is, and it’s not hard to imagine back to when we as humans were doing these kinds of runs to hunt down prey through trail paths. It’s no wonder many people call trail running an adventure sport; with the right route and mentality, it definitely is that.
After the run
You’ve headed out, it all went without a fault, now your back home feeling on top of the world. So, what to do now?
Eat and drink
Whether it’s been an hour or four, food and drink should be main priorities – especially the recovery of liquids. The easiest go to for a quick post-run win is a banana, glass of water (330ml) and then some kind of protein shake you can slowly sip down. These items will start to get your body back to normal, and should do so within the first hour of your return.
When you’re back after the run and after you’ve eaten (but before you wash) clean your shoes and gear. 5 minutes spent here getting the mud off your trail running shoes, unlacing them, taking out the insoles (if possible) and hanging your shoes and the rest of your gear somewhere airy and warm will help preserve their lifespans, and is something you’ll be thankful for later. For a full guide on how to properly wash your shoes, see here.
Shower, rest and recover
From here, it’s all about how you recover normally from a run. Some people stretch (which we recommend, especially your glutes and hamstrings if hills were involved in your run), while others head straight for the shower. The most important thing is to take it easy and give your body time to recover. Likely if you usually run on roads, small twitch muscles from the uneven trail terrain will be sore over the coming days, so prepare yourself for that!
From trail beginner to mastering the trails
With the basics now under your belt, you’re all set to head out into the wild without trouble. A final trail running tip to take away: like with all running, research shows if you have a goal in mind - say, a trail running race in your sights - you’re much more likely to feel content with your performances out on the run. With so many incredible trail and ultra-trail races springing up globally, there might be one not too far away from you. Up for the challenge?