Trail Running: Your Essential Guide to Hit the Dirt Running

Trail running breathes fresh air into your standard training regimen. Get ready to go off-road.

Trail running is quickly becoming athletes’ go-to choice. If you want to get your foot in the game, read on for the best trail running tips for beginners as well as essential info for even the most seasoned vets.

Click on a topic below or read your way through to learn all the ins and outs.

What is trail running?

Trail running differs from road running because the routes traverse through nature.

Sounds simple enough, right? Think again.

As it turns out, there’s a world of difference between the two sports and if you’re taking to the trails for the first time, you need to read up on a few pointers.

You don’t want to be that one guy or gal barreling down the trail, ignoring the unwritten rules of the road and proper trail running etiquette.

You also don’t want to be one of the unlucky ones who forgets their trail money—ahem, toilet paper (see all your must-know running terms here)—resulting in quite the messy situation.

No. You might have the dying urge to romantically run off into nature, the wind at your back, escaping the drama and chaos of city life, but you should learn the ins and outs of trail running beforehand.

All that glorious imagery is certainly yours for the taking, as long as you learn how to trail run—safely and smartly.

Trail Running Explained

Trail running has exploded in popularity over the past few years, and athletes push it even further with trail ultrarunning (note: “ultra” denotes distance beyond the standard 26.2 mile marathon).

Trail difficulty is usually measured in terms of distance and elevation gain. On very technical (difficult) trails, hills can be relentless, terrain twisted, and footing dicey.

There’s different types of trail running. For example, the term “skyrunning” refers to any sort trail running above 2,000 meters in elevation with segments of up to a 30% incline.

Translation? One tough race, with the logic of reaching the highest peak in the shortest time.

It’s pretty wild to envision 50,000 participants from over 65 different countries racing through the Swiss Alps or the jungles of Madagascar, but there’s some beauty to be found in negotiating massive mountains and backcountry terrain.

Of course, you don’t have to go to grueling lengths to enjoy the benefits of trail running. Ultrarunning, skyrunning, and fastpacking (which marries trail running and backpacking) are all extreme sports, but even amateurs can enjoy the basic jogging trails.

Trail running is serene—some would even say spiritual. It’s freeing and challenging. It’s an awesome way to make running fun. Varied terrain keeps you on your toes while the epic views offer incredible rewards. Consider us fans.

If you’re sold too, take these tips in mind and get ready to fall in love with your new favorite sport.

Trail Running Equipment

Trail running for beginners requires us to cover the bases on everything you’ll need to take to a running trail. From trail running shoes to hydration packs, read up on the essential gear you need to get going.

What is the difference between trail running shoes and road running shoes?

20 years ago there was no such thing as “trail running shoes,” leading to some suspicion over whether or not they’re actually necessary.

Spoiler alert: yes, they are.

The difference between trail running shoes and regular running shoes is that the former is specifically designed for off-road travel with enhanced features not found on standard shoe models.

So what are some of the key differences between trail running shoes and your ordinary trainers?

  • Less cushioning. Trail running takes place on softer surfaces (i.e. dirt, grass) and so cushioning is less important than running shoes designed for hard pavement.
  • Reinforced midsole. You’ll typically see trail running shoes reinforced with a lightweight, nylon plastic layer to protect the feet from puncture wounds caused by sharp rocks or sticks.
  • More traction. The outsoles of trail running shoes are aggressively knobby, designed to deliver monster grip across a variety of surfaces.
  • Zero drop. Most trail running shoes have a “zero drop”, meaning they’re low to the ground and provide better stability over uneven terrain.
  • Thick soles. Especially in the ultrarunning community, running shoes with thick soles have become increasingly popular. However, they’re still in tough competition with the minimalist movement.

You can find trail running shoes with additional bells and whistles such as rock plates, gusset tongues, and aggressive outer lugs. Which features you choose will likely add a bit of weight to your trail running shoes, so you’ll need to keep that consideration in mind.

What are minimalist shoes?

Part of the beauty of trail running is that it answers the call of our human nature, reenacting what our ancestors did ages and ages ago. To that end, many trail runners opt to wear “minimalist shoes”, or running shoes with little to no support which mimic the natural “barefoot” way humans ran for centuries.

An opposing camp would argue that running long distances in minimalist shoes without enough support takes its physical toll on the body.

The pros and cons of minimalist trail running go back and forth, but if you’re curious, go ahead and give ‘em a go. You’ll probably know right away whether or not they’ll work for you.

You’ll want to transition slowly into less support, though, or risk getting injured along the way.

Can you use road running shoes on the trail?

It’s certainly possible to hit your local jogging trails in your favorite road shoe—plenty of people do it. But if you plan on making trails your primary running surface, we highly suggest investing in a dedicated pair of men’s trail running shoes or women’s trail running shoes.

You and your feet will be much, much happier.

The good news is that yes, you can still use trail running shoes on the road if you’re looking to stretch the value of your investment. If you’re on a running trail and hit some tarmac, you won’t need to change shoes or go barefoot.

Keep in mind though, trail running shoes on the road will wear out more quickly than if you ran in running shoes specifically designed for the pavement. The softer rubber and lesser cushioning won’t fare as well on the road as it would on soft terrain.

One other point worth mentioning: you should expect a slower pace at the same perceived level of effort running in a heavier trail shoe than a road shoe. If lightweight speed is what you’re after, you definitely don’t want to run a 10K in a pair of Salomon Speedcross.

Are trail running shoes good for walking?

Sure, waterproof trail running shoes are great for walking around suburban puddles and street rivulets. Many also feature advanced ventilation systems, which help prevent blisters whether you’re on the trail or standing at work.

It used to be the case that only chunky hiking boots or heavy sneakers were available for the trail, but now there are plenty of lightweight trail running shoes that are versatile enough for all your different vertical tasks.

If you’re looking for footwear that you can walk around town in, pound pavement, or take to a running trail, you should look into hybrid, all-terrain shoes that perform great no matter the surface.

What should I bring on a long trail run?

Okay, now that you have a grasp on the importance of proper trail running shoes, let’s take a look at the rest of the gear you need to equip yourself with before taking to a running trail.

H2O

When you’re running a road route, popping off and getting water is usually pretty easy. But when you’re on a running trail in nature, water resources may be few and far between. You should already know this, but hydration is essential.

If you don’t drink enough water, you’ll turn into Darth Vader with a hoarse and raspy voice—and that’s just the beginning of your worries. Thirst, dry mouth, and a decrease in energy are the first signs that your body is running low on water.

Without remedying the situation with water, you’ll start to see more serious symptoms of dehydration, including:

Proper hydration is key to comfort and performance while trail running, leading to more energy and endurance, plus a decreased recovery time. Follow these hydration trail running tips to ensure the right water intake.

Know how much water to drink

  • Pre-hydrate with 17-20 fl. oz. about 2 hours before trail running.
  • Maintain water intake with a few good sips (5-10 fl. oz.) every 15-20 minutes while on the running trail.
  • Recover with post exercise hydration. As a general rule of thumb, drink 16-24 fl. oz. of water for every pound lost after a trail run.

Plan ahead

  • Runs under 45 minutes might not require you to pack water—but if it’s hot outside, always bring water, no matter what.
  • Water is heavy (16 fl. oz. is just over one pound); avoid carrying additional weight by planning a route near a water fountain.
  • Alternatively, make a loop that involves passing your car which can be used as a water refill station.

Make it easy

  • Set a timer. Once you get going down a good running trail, it’s easy to zone off and forget when the last time you took a sip was. Setting a timer every 20 minutes can remind you when it’s time to rehydrate.
  • Keep it accessible. You don’t want to have to stop to drink water; you won’t stop frequently enough and doing so will slow you down. No matter which carry method you choose, make sure your H2O is in easy reach.
  • Replace electrolytes. Premixing your water with sports tablets and powders can help you easily replace electrolytes which are lost when you sweat. Sodium and potassium are essential, but calcium and magnesium are also important.

Carry conveniently

  • Handheld water bottles
  • Waistpacks and hydration belts
  • Running vests
  • Running backpacks

Overhydration (hyponatremia)

Dehydration is a major concern, but overhydration in the case of extreme physical activity is also something to be mindful of.

Hyponatremia is an electrolyte imbalance common among trail runners and ultramarathoners. It usually happens when sodium levels are low and diluted which causes tissues to swell up dangerously and cell functioning to become impaired. In very extreme cases, hyponatremia can lead to coma and even death.

Avoid overhydration on long trail runs by:

  • Monitoring your drinking. Don’t drink more than you sweat; roughly 10 fl. oz. every 20 minutes is a good rule of thumb.
  • Add salt. Avoid electrolyte imbalance by taking salt tabs, eating salty snacks (such as pretzels), or drinking an electrolyte mix versus plain water.

Fuel

A “bonk”, otherwise known as “hitting a wall”, is severe fatigue which sets in due to a loss of glycogen stores in the muscles and liver.

During a muscle bonk, the brain works fine but the legs quit. Alternatively in a blood-glucose bonk, the legs work fine but the brain checks out. Then there’s the little-purple-man bonk, in which endurance athletes begin to hallucinate.

Bringing along essential fuel supplies—a.k.a. calories—on lengthy trail runs is a wise idea in order to maintain glycogen stores.

Sugar will effectively boost your glycogen levels back up to where they need to be, but efficiency is the name of the game here. A gooey concoction of brown rice syrup with some artificial flavoring might not sound like the yummiest of snacks, but they’re popular because of how well they work.

Energy gels and chews are a great, lightweight method for easily digesting carbs and sugar. Plus solid foods can upset stomachs while running, so nutrition in liquid form is a good way to mitigate this.

Trail runs that span over four hours in duration should add protein to their trail nutrition. If you’re gearing up for long distance trail running, add the following staples to your pack:

  • Energy gels, chews, and bars
  • Fresh fruit
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Beef jerky
  • Protein mixes

How much should you eat while running? Typically, 200-300 calories per hour is a good number to shoot for, but this of course varies based on person and workout intensity.

Important: You might come across micro-trash on the trail, or left-behind wrappers and debris from the act of fueling. If you do, pick it up. Don’t be that person who litters—it’s seriously frowned upon in the trail running community.

Additional Trail Running Gear

Depending on the conditions of your outdoor running—such as weather temperature, distance, terrain, etc.—there’s several additional trail running gear items you might want to pack along.

  • Warm-weather clothing (moisture-wicking materials, protective hats, sunglasses)
  • Cold-weather clothing (light rain jacket, beanie, running gloves)
  • Lightweight crampons to assist with traction on snow and ice
  • Navigation tools (GPS devices, topography maps, compasses)
  • Toilet paper for unpredicted bowel movements
  • First aid and safety supplies

Especially if your running involves backcountry travel, prioritizing trail safety is a must. Be sure to always communicate where you’re heading and to bring the standard ten essentials.

Not sure how to cram all your gear into a compact running vest or pack? Here are some trail running tips for how you can successfully tote everything you need.

How can I improve my trail running?

You’re suited with the proper trail running shoes. You know how to effectively carry water, fuel, and all your other must-have trail running gear. Now you’re ready to learn how to improve your trail running and take you training to the next level.

Slow Down and Shift Gears

Think of trail running as an obstacle course filled with seemingly endless rocks, roots, stumps, and sticks. You need to choose a line and make split-second decisions regarding how to move your body and transfer weight. Here’s how you can slow down and shift gears:

Reduce your pace

Running trails are usually more demanding than road routes; slow down and develop a trail tempo. Once you get the hang of things, you can add a tempo run to your training in order to increase your speed and endurance.

Adjust accordingly

Trail running includes traversing over all types of terrain—each of which will require a few tweaks to your balance and center of gravity. Change gears whenever necessary to avoid injury.

Increase Your Strength

Trying to avoid a quad buster on a running trail? Yeah, us too.

(Quad busters are steep, downhill runs at pace so brisk that the runner seems borderline out of control. If they’re followed by a stretch of flat terrain, they’ll probably feel even more torturous.)

Strength training

Improve your trail running and avoid quad busters by adding strength conditioning to your training routine. A twice-weekly circuit workout focusing on upper-leg, hip, and core strength will be most effective.

Speed hiking

Speed hiking uphills can preserve your endurance while increasing your strength and stamina. Over time, you can maintain the same uphill/downhill pace using the same cadence or energy effort.

Focus on Your Form

With trail running for beginners, it’s critical to learn proper form. But even if you’re a seasoned trail runner, focusing on your form can make you more efficient and less prone to injury.

Shorten your stride

A shorter stride improves your balance, makes you more agile, and allows you to react to obstacles more quickly. Don’t be afraid to lengthen a single stride when necessary (to avoid a muddy patch, for example).

Use your arms and eyes

Yes, part of the glory of trail running is all the beautiful scenery. Nonetheless, avoid gawking and keep your eyes focused on the trail 15-20 feet ahead of you to avoid stumbling over unforeseen obstacles.

Don’t forget to use your arms, too, in addition to your eyes and legs. Honing in your swing will help you build forward and upward momentum, plus keeping them a little wider will help your balance of technical running trails with tree roots and rocks.

Improve Your Diet

What you put into your diet is one of the most important aspects of training regimen. Improve your trail running with some dietary tweaks.

Essential fatty acids

Elite runner and impressive title-holder Scott Jurek swears by Udo’s Oil—a little miracle blend of essential fatty acids.

Jurek set an all-surface record back in the 2010 24 Hour Run with 165.7 miles (that’s 6.5 marathons in a day!!) and he stresses the importance of omega-3, 6, and 9 fatty acids for pretty much all of the body’s functioning.

If you want to improve your long distance trail running, take a tip from a pro: go pick up some Udo’s oil and add it to your smoothies or eat it by the spoonful, or find an alternative source of flax to keep your body operating at its best.

Listen to your body

In additional to essential fatty acids, it’s important to check all the right nutritional boxes and make sure you eat the right foods to fuel your body.

The New York Times offers a wealth of information on how to best feed runners for optimal performance, in additional to a calorie calculator that can help you determine your body’s exact needs.

Practice Injury Prevention

“Pre-hab” exercises are an effective way to improve trail running strength and practice injury prevention. Here are a number of different exercises you should—add to your pre- or post-running routine, on or even off the trail:

  • Lunges
  • Squats
  • Clams
  • Leg raises
  • Resistance training
  • Stretching and yoga

What is trail running etiquette?

Before you head out and apply all these trail running tips to your next ride, learn off-road rules and the proper trail running etiquette.

  • Same as road rules, if you see another runner approaching, make room by moving to the right and allowing them to pass on the left.
  • If you’re approaching another trail runner whose pace is slower, avoid startling them by alerting them to your presence and give them a quick shout of “On your left!” as you pass from behind.
  • Yield to any mountain bikers you might see on your running trail (it’s easier for you to stop!). If you’re about to pass runners heading in the opposite direction on a path too narrow to share, the person going downhill has the right of way.
  • Don’t litter while trail running! It’s extremely disrespectful to the pristine, natural environment you and other trail runners have the privilege of enjoying. If you see someone else’s trash, pick it up. “Leave nothing behind but footprints” is the golden rule of trail running.

Best Running Trails in the U.S.

Now that you know how to trail run and what to bring, get inspired by checking out some of the best running trails in the U.S.

  • The Lake Tahoe Rim Trail, California—You don’t need to do the 165-mile running trail in its entirety; multiple access points give you trail running bliss across segments that weave through forests, meadows, granite boulders, and alpine lakes.
  • Vasa Pathway, Michigan—Enjoy a seasonal show on these rolling trails which offer 3K, 5K, 10K, and 25K loops.
  • Superior Hiking Trail, Minnesota—Trail running with scenery ranging from rocky gorges, dense forests, lakes, streams, and waterfalls? Yes, please.
  • Wildwood Trail, Oregon—Portland is blessed with lush Pacific Northwest greenery, and this segment is a trail runner’s crown jewel.
  • Awa’apuhi Trail, Hawaii—Next time you make it to tropical Kauai, don’t miss the opportunity to trail run with sheer cliffs and stunning ocean scenery.

Beware: once you experience the freedom, challenge, and reward of trail running, you’ll have a hard time going back to your regular road routes. Give nature a go and experience why this sport has become quite the craze.

 

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