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How to Start Trail Running

December 06, 2016

tips for getting started trail running

I think running is one of the most accessible and enjoyable sports out there, but I'm obviously biased because I've been running – in some capacity, be it on a track, in my neighborhood, or in the mountains – for nearly all of my life. Running isn't a sport that necessarily dictates a lot of gear or many years of specialized instruction: provided you simply want to run, and you generally move in a forward direction, you can say that you're a runner. I find tons of beauty and liberation in our sport's simplicity.

When you run, you can go about it in a variety of ways: hard intervals on the track, casual strolls around your neighborhood, multi-day explorations in the mountains, and the list goes on. As long as your feet can take you there, you can run it! Though I've been running for a long time now, I've only recently discovered the joy (and challenge) of trail running, and the more I do it, the more I think other runners should consider giving it a shot, too.

Trail running can be significantly more challenging than running on pavement, but in doing so, it can also equip you with tools to become a faster and stronger runner. It's not every day that you find yourself working up an enormous incline, one that leaves you no choice but to power-walk or hike, right? Further, you may find that it takes you significantly more time to cover the same distance on trails than it would if you were running your tried-and-trusty route, simply because you have to account for the ever-changing undulations and technical aspects of running trails. In this regard, trail running strengthens many of your little “stabilizer muscles” that you don't activate as much when you're running on roads, simply because on trails, you may find that you're moving in several planes of motion throughout the course of one run. In short: trail running can not only build your endurance, but it can also do a number for your physical and mental strength training.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how gorgeous running trails can be, too. I experience such unbridled joy running through trails that I almost feel child-like in a way; running trails – running through mountains, hills, parks, forest preserves, whatever you have near you that's not merely paved roads – makes me think that I'm playing in Nature's playground. It's also a really cool feeling to climb a giant hill or mountain and stand at the top, reveling in your accomplishment, and know that your body got you there. Of course, there can also be risks involved with trail running, particularly if you're running in areas where you're up very high or on super technical trails that are rife with gnarly tree roots and stones, but provided you make some thought-out decisions, you can mitigate the risk with the thrill and freedom of the run. As silly as it may sound, I'm convinced that trail running is just indescribably good for your soul, too. 

Consider incorporating trail running into your fitness routine. It is probably easier to do than you anticipate, and below, I'm including some of my best tips for getting started with trail running. As much as I love running on the roads, I'm finding that the trails are calling me more often than not these days, and running through nature has been doing absolute wonders for my physical and mental health. Give it a go, and I bet you'll be saying similarly.

Here are some tips to help jump-start your relationship with running trails:

Connect with a local-to-you trail running group. When you don't know something, asking for help is always the way to go. As you begin to incorporate trail running into your fitness program for the first time, you'll find that you'll glean a lot of wisdom from people who have been doing it for a while on the very same trails that you want to run on near your home. Ask questions, learn from their mistakes, and tag along on their runs so you can learn the lay of the land at the trails near your home. Runners are really friendly people, and nothing charges them up more than talking about running! In time, once you become comfortable with trail running, you'll be able to pay the favor forward and help out a trail running newbie, too. You'll be able to find your local trail running groups either online or by asking around at your local running specialty stores.

Research which trails and parks are nearest to you. Even a simple online search or merely glancing at a map can show you which trails and parks are nearest to your home or work. When you're doing your research, look for big swaths of greenery, little triangles (that indicate hill tops or mountain tops), and consider looking for trails that run parallel to bodies of water.

Wait to buy trail-running-specific stuff until you know for sure that your stuff won't cut it. We runners like our stuff, so you may find that branching out into trail running justifies a shopping spree at your local running store. Hold your horses! Give yourself the opportunity to try out the stuff you already have because chances are that it'll work just fine. You'll learn from trial and error which things you need to replace when you're running trails – maybe you need higher socks, or a bigger hydration vest/bladder, or perhaps a different pair of shoes – but you won't be able to make those determinations until after you've given it a go for a while using your existing stuff. Plus, if you save money on gear, that means you'll have more money for trail races, which leads me to my next point.

Sign up for a trail race! After you've been immersed in trail running for a while, and have made connections with your local trail running community, consider taking the plunge and signing up for your first trail race. What have you got to lose?! With a little research, you'll find a distance that's suitable for your level of fitness and your training. The options out there are pretty vast, from 5ks all the way up to and beyond 100-milers. Ask your local trail running group for some advice, and see if any of them have local trail race recommendations. The trail running scene is typically very welcoming and very fun, and the atmosphere is simply unbeatable. Give it a shot, and you'll probably be quickly signing up for more.

Trail running is both thrilling and relaxing, and you'll likely find that running trails does a wonder for your senses, too. Personally, I feel more “zen” when I'm running trails, perhaps because it gives me a moment to disconnect from the stresses of the world, but I also feel incredibly strong and empowered from my trail running pursuits because I know how hard I'm working. In time, you may find that trail running also benefits your road running pursuits, too, because of its ability to strengthen both your endurance and speed capacities without significantly increasing your injury risk.

Do both your body and your soul a favor, and go hit the trails as soon as you can. You won't regret it.


Writer Bio

Dan Chabert

Writing from Copenhagen, Denmark, Dan is an entrepreneur, husband and ultramarathon distance runner. He spends most of his time on, & and he has been featured on runner blogs all over the world.