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How to start trail running: A beginner’s guide

Trail running is on the rise. Since people started running, the great outdoors has always called to us over the monotony of trudging on the treadmill. But with so much attention now placed on the world of trail running, starting out on the most natural kind of run out there can be intimidating. So we’ve put together this handy guide to start you on your trail running journey.


Straight off, there are a few details to iron out. What is trail running? It’s not just heading for the hills – true trail running gets you out and away from the modern world. Deep forests. Mountain tracks. Scenery that needs to be seen to be believed. Trail running 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’re talking about here.


First up, let’s talk trail running gear 


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. But before you hit the trails, let’s talk gear for beginners. 


1. The right trail running shoes


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. 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). Check out this article if you need more advice on how to choose the best trail running shoes.     

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2. Trail running clothes


Trail running clothes 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 trail pants, technical socks or ankle length, much of your clothing choice depends on the weather, but also 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's 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.  


Next, you’ll need to find 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 can be a useful tool to help you know where the best secluded routes can be found. 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 into your search engine to see the best way to get there on foot. Of course, keep in mind that you also have to make it back to where you began.


One more thing to remember when planning where to head out to on your trail run is assessing the elevation gain, as this can be taxing on your efforts and add to your run time that many route planning maps don’t take into consideration. Check the elevation gain 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.


You might want to find a trail running group



Trail running in a group can be a great way to break into the sport 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) into 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 as another story of the adventure. 


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 so that people know where you are. Even a little call out on social 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).


Trail running tips and techniques: 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 an 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 form to get you up the hills efficiently. 



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.


Need to start slower?
The best way to build up your trail running form is by going out for a hike first.
Find out why hiking is a great exercise


Safety tips when trail running


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.


  • Hydration. 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. Take a water bottle or hydration pack. 


  • 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 versus pushing on. With good gear you should be able to get through mild weather changes, but if you’re heading out alone for a few hours, be sure to check a trusted weather app first. 


  • 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.


  • 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.


And one last thing, we recommend taking a first aid kit out on the trail with you – just in case. 



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?   

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