Beginners guide to trail running

As one of the co-founders for and an avid trail runner I have been making a lot of trail running posts on twitter and facebook now that trail season is in full effect.

With that said, a number of people have been telling me they have interest in running trails, but they are not exactly sure how to take them on. They are nervous, or intimidated, or just so unwilling to step out of their road comfort zone that they stare longingly at the trail heads while shuffling their feet.

Well, I am here to tell you it’s not that tough. Let’s take a look at 10 steps that beginners can use for trail running. This is by no means the end all be all guide, just some basics to get you motivated and out on the trails.

1. It’s just running; Everyone knows how to run, so just go run! Trust me, you know how to do this already.

2. You will fall; Everyone does. Heck, many of us fall on flat roads. The way to avoid this is to follow a few simple steps.

     A. Take smaller and quicker steps – This keeps your feet under you and your legs moving forward.

     B. Look where you are going – Trails bob and weave and dip and dive. Roots, rocks, and leaves are everywhere – The scenery is amazing, but if you enjoy it for too long you are bound to take a spill.

     C.  If you are at the fatigue point, back it off. This is when your leg lift dies a bit, causing you to not clear obstacles as well.

     D. If you have a choice between 2 steps and 3 to get over that log, I suggest taking 4. You will save energy, and stay safe. I was side by side a guy in my last race, he tried to jump one leg up and over a log, I took 3 steps. My cadence was fast so I hit the ground on the other side in control, and never looked back as I dropped him. A lot of that had to do with being efficiant

3. Walk the uphills; I just did this in my last race and it was a HUGE success. I find it hard to “let someone go” in a race, but on a huge hillside trail, they won’t make much ground on you and then you will be fresh at the top and will reel them in on the backside of that hill.  – Also, stand tall or at least keep the upper body straight while going up the hills, you don’t want to compress the lungs and diaphragm, that makes breathing harder!

4. Ignore your times: You cannot. I repeat, you cannot compare trail times to road times. They are not even remotely similar. Would you compare a pool swim time to an open water ocean swim? Run for total time or run for fun but never run to compare to roads, you will only be disappointed.

You will however be surprised at how much trail running improves your road times though. A happy side effect of trails!

5. Control those downhills – Some downhills are nasty, root and rock infested slopes. Take your time. Nothing is worse than an out of control downhill runner. Only two things stop them. Trees or the ground. I would prefer you avoid both!

6. BACK OFF!  On the roads it is tempting to tuck in behind a runner and sort of “draft”. On trails that is a recipe for disaster. You won’t be able to see the trail or obstacles and when that runner jumps, jives, or ducks out of the way of something guess who falls in the hole, misses a turn, or gets smacked by a huge branch that is swinging back off that runner you were tailing? Yep. You.

7. Wildlife is wild. Remember that. Respect that. In most parts of the country your trails will only have some deer or turkey. In other areas you may have bears, moose, or even more dangerous animals. Be careful. Be respectful, and avoid skunks at all costs.

8. Gear – Trail shoes certainly help, but are not required. Before you go out and buy the latest and greatest, decide if you love the trails or not. On Wednesday I saw a LOT of runners running very well in regular road shoes. I do suggest though wearing socks that are a bit taller, keeps junk out.

9. Use the buddy system – If you have never run trails before, run a local race, ask a friend to go with you or find a trail clinic if any are in your area. If you must forge ahead alone, bring a phone with you as a “just in case”. You will see things on the trail  you will never see on the roads, it is always nice to have someone to share those with!

10. Have fun – Run down streams, jump through mud puddles, climb over that fallen tree, hug a hippie, get dirty, smile a lot and enjoy running as we were meant to run and have run for millions of years! Stop and take pictures if you want to, stop to just take in the scenery and the scents. Trail running is a different atmosphere. Soak it in, enjoy the process, but most of all remember to have fun and enjoy yourself.

That should make it easy to keep on keepin on, even when you run where the road ends.

16 thoughts on “Beginners guide to trail running

  1. Cheryl

    I have run dozens of mtn. trails in arizona-have never fallen. Twisted ankles, scratches from pointy things and have jumped over several rattlesnakes, but have never fallen down. Have you done an Xterra tri/trail run? They are pretty fun and challenging depending on which one you sign up for.


  2. RMHigh7088

    This is filled with good stuff. I concur with all of it. Recently ran some rough trails in minimalist shoes and it went fine. And walking the uphills, yeah, I had to do that a couple time. I ain’t proud! Just slow. Good work. I dig it.


  3. Anne

    Great tips, thanks!!! I fell in love with trail running over the winter (thanks to a mild winter!) and am excited to explore more of them this spring and summer!


  4. Jonathan Auyer

    Great post Eric. I still remember my first trail race—the anxiety, excitement, nervousness, and “can’t wait to do this”-ness. It was loads of fun, and I think that the more people see how much fun the trails are they will be embrace their inner “trail beasts.” Keep writing and spreading the good word.


  5. Heather@Just a Colorado Gal

    Yay, glad you did this post! I’ll continue working on that whole ‘don’t fall on your face’ thing 🙂


  6. Ben Murphy,

    GREAT post, Eric! Nice collection of intro tips – I’ll be pointing my “I’d like to trail run, but I’m nervous about _____” friends over to this one!


  7. - Alison Gittelman

    Great post! I am an avid trail runner and was recently asked for some advice on running trails. I am pointing my readers in your direction!


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