There are two types of runners: those who pound the pavement and those who run anywhere, without compromise. That’s what trail running is. It’s getting down and dirty in the backcountry, and that’s what makes it so addictive. The challenges are endless, the fun is relentless, unforgettable moments keep coming at you and, best of all, no two trail runs are ever the same.
From challenging yourself on the most technical terrain to taking on steep ascents to embracing a barrage of erratic conditions, there’s a lot to think about when hitting the trails. That’s what sets it apart from your favorite urban run. There is always a challenge. From the unpredictable weather to the dicey terrain, you get to apply your abilities to a new challenge with plenty to learn as you dash through the dirt.
So whether you’re looking for the next running challenge, searching for new ways to stay motivated for a winter run or just out there to explore the great outdoors, we’ve pulled together a list of our best trail running tips to guide you. Just be warned: once you take on the trails, you won’t go back.
No two trails are ever the same.
When it comes to pounding the pavement or doing laps of the track, you know what you’re in for. But the best thing about taking on a trail is you never really know what lays ahead. That’s its special sauce. Each trail offers you a unique challenge and new terrain. Sometimes you’re running along a well groomed surface made of limestone and the next moment you’re navigating a minefield of obstacles: tree roots, loose rocks, steep hills, dense mud and so much more. In short: it’s you versus nature, and that is what makes trail running such a dynamic experience.
Rock the right gear.
The golden rule of trail running is being prepared for what may lay ahead. That means wearing the right gear for the type of trail, dressing for the conditions and having everything you might need for the amount of time you’ll be out there. Above all else, that means running in the right shoes for the terrain and having a trail running vest filled with essential kit and emergency supplies.
In terms of footwear, personal choice is essential, but you want a multi-terrain shoe that offers support, comfort and soft-cushioning. As for supplies, make sure you have plenty of fluids, high-energy snacks, sunscreen, polarized sunglasses and a first aid kit tailor-made for trails. Think instant ice packs, blister plasters, bandages, sterilized wipes and tubigrips.
Trail running is not road running.
So leave your ego and your PBs at home. This is trail running and that roughly translates as exhausting from the get go; enough that you’ll find your speed is more than halved, especially when you’re staring out. So instead of focussing on speed, focus on the experience by slowing your pace, finding your rhythm, understanding the terrain and making incremental improvements with each new trail you run. Trust us: when you prioritize these areas of your game, your speed and distance will improve in just a matter of weeks.
Know the route you’re running.
There’s a thousand things to think about when running a trail, so make sure you have an idea of your route before you set off. From downloading popular routes onto your GPS watch to finding a mapping app that’s easy to use, taking on popular local trails is a great way to get into trail running. Not only that, but as you progress and head even deeper into the backcountry, you’ll have more experience in self-navigating new trails so that, even when you’re armed with just a map and a compass, you’re able to stay on course.
Trail running relies on your arms.
When you run trails, try to keep your elbows a little wider than you would when road running to give yourself some extra balance while taking on the more technical terrains. Doing this will also widen your stride, making it easier for you to navigate rocks and roots as you incorporate side-stepping into your navigational technique. And lastly, use your arms to maintain momentum when running uphill by pumping your arms harder than normal.
Focus on strength and balance.
To improve as a trail runner you need to focus on three areas of your game: experience, strength and balance. Think of it like this: in the same way running plans will improve your speed and endurance, the more you can run obstacles the better you will get at understanding different terrains and spotting technical challenges. That’s where strength and balance will boost your trail running performance too.
Lunges, bridges, push-ups, tricep-dips, single-leg squats, calf raises, and dedicating time to a wobble board will all boost your strength and stability in a way that is suitable for trail running. Just make sure you always include an adequate recovery period into your training, as the more challenging the trail, the more your body will be taxed -- and in ways that you may not even feel.
Work with the hills.
For those new to trail running, it can be hard to keep your ego in check, especially when you’re taking on an ascent. The trick is to pick your battles. For example, most ultra-runners will take short and quick steps when running uphill, unless it’s a particularly technical stretch, in which case they’ll walk the hills and run the descents and flats to maintain their stamina.
As for running downhill, there’s two approaches to keep in mind. For gentle, well-groomed descents, lean forward, widen your stride and let the hill do the work for you. For more technical, steeper hills, however, try to recreate the motion of running down a set of stairs by keeping your body upright and letting your legs take on the challenge.
Run with time in mind, not distance.
Spoiler alert: trail running is a whole lot more demanding on your body than both the track and the road. That’s why we recommend running with time in mind instead of distance and starting out with there-and-back routes as you get to understand your capabilities and start to build your confidence. For instance, taking on a 10K trail could take you an hour longer than you had anticipated, leaving you more vulnerable to injury, changing conditions and darkness.
Make safety the priority.
Trail running is all about the experience. That’s what makes it so fun. But safety needs to remain the priority too, so whenever you head out for a trail run, either go with someone or make sure someone knows exactly which trail you’re taking on. On top of that, make sure you have plenty of fluid, a trail map, your ID and a safety app, like what3words, that will make your location is to find should you get lost.
As for the physical side of your running safety, make sure you keep your eyes on the trail. It can be tempting to look down at your feet or at the scenery around you, but it’s much safer to keep your eyes about four feet in front of you, focussing on the trail and the line you’re going to take so that you don’t trip on any obstacles.
Please stay hydrated.
Guess what? Trail running is almost-always a lot more challenging than pounding the pavement or running on the road. That’s why it’s so important to stay hydrated when you’re running trails. It’s about maintaining peak performance and avoiding dehydration, which is one of those issues that can lead to pretty serious consequences. That’s because, when you’re trail running, your body is working hard just to stay balanced and navigate the tricky terrain. Now couple that with the intense physical exertion, and all that sweating is going to ramp up your risk of dehydration.
As such, make sure you drink plenty of water or sip on an electrolyte drink throughout your run to keep your fluids high and your body functioning properly. And if that’s not enough to make hydration a priority, drinking water will also help to regulate your body temperature, prevent cramping and maintain mental sharpness.