Trail Running Basics

Trail running is different from road running. This article gives you the basics to get started and have an enjoyable trail run.

A trail run offers twists and turns, rocks, trees, branches, mud, snow, up hills and the down hills, and altitude changes. Although these are hazards to be aware of, they also contribute to making running trails so much fun.

Trails force you to use more stabilizing muscles in your feet, ankles, hips, and core due to the variance in the terrain. Don’t be surprised if you’re sore in places you haven’t been sore before after your first trail run, even if you’re in amazing shape.


Here are some other useful tips:

1. Pick a relatively flat, short trail for your first time. Picking a steep, technical trail for your first trail run can be frustrating and dangerous if you aren’t accustomed to running on trails.

2. Keep your eyes on the trail. This is harder than it sounds. The views can be quite breath taking and it can be very tempting to look around while running.  However, the hazards can appear out of nowhere, causing a potentially nasty and embarrassing spill.  If you want to enjoy the view, simply stop and take a look.

3. Look three feet ahead. This allows you to see what’s coming before its too late, yet at the same time be able to react to what’s under your feet. Focusing on every branch and rock can be mentally exhausting, so allow your senses to take over. This takes practice and probably will be hard to do at first – just be patient. If you’re running with a buddy, stay a few feet back. This will allow you to see what they have dodged and make it easier for you to dodge yourself.

4. Slow down. You won’t be able to run as fast on the trails. Typically expect to be one to two minutes slower per mile. Few people can run at break neck speeds on a trail, and even those who can have to slow down when running trails for the first time. Trail running tends to become more about enjoying the process.

5. Walking is fine. Many trail runners will actually walk up the steeper uphill section and walk down the downhill sections of a trail. Walking can save energy, is easier on your legs and allows you to get through your run in one piece. Power walking up a hill can actually be faster than running, and you won’t burn as much energy in the process.

6. Running uphill. When running uphill take shorter steps than normal, trying not to gain too much vertical height in any one step.

  1. Being efficient is key—taking longer strides is more work.
  2. Stay off your toes or you will fatigue your calves.
  3. The quads are much stronger; so use them by lowering your heel to the trail.
  4. Stay as upright as possible, looking ahead rather than down at the ground.

7. Running downhill. Lean forward, but not too far that you lose control. Leaning forward will minimize the braking effect of your legs and will allow you to run faster while using less energy.

  1. Shorten your stride and land more on the balls of your feet.
  2. If you feel like you are bounding, your steps are too long and are leaning back too far.  Use your arms to keep your balance.  Holding them out to the side or swinging them more than normal will help keep you from tumbling down the hill.
  3. If you get going to fast, start galloping (remember back to elementary school) and serpentine across the trail to make the decrease the pitch of the trail.

8. Slow down if the surface is wet, slippery or rocky.