An Expert Guide to Trail Running for Beginners
Looking to dabble in trail running but not sure where to start? Check out this comprehensive guide for everything you'll need to know as a beginner trail runner!
While trail running is a beautiful sport, so many people have an adverse reaction to the word “running” that they stay far away from trail running. Running on trails is actually a great way to experience longer hikes in a shorter amount of time while getting in a bit more exercise than you normally might.
To most people, trail running seems a bit daunting at first. Not only does it seem like a whole new sport to figure out and potentially dangerous considering the amount of uneven ground on most trails, but the thought of being a “runner” makes you almost feel trail running is only a sport for those who self-identify as elite athletes.
But truth be told, it's actually one of the least expensive sports to get involved in. If you are a hiker, you likely already have all of the gear you need. It doesn’t require you to be an elite athlete, and generally, the uneven ground is much less of an issue than you’d think! Below is a breakdown of everything I wish I knew before my first trail run.
The Big Secret
The first thing is a big secret that I wish more non-trail runners knew. Trail running involves much more walking than you’d think. Even if you walk most of the uphills and run the flats or downhills, you are still a trail runner. I think the pressure of nonstop running on a ‘trail run’ takes a lot of fun out of it and makes it feel like an extreme sport, or that there is a higher learning curve.
Another thing that turned me off was that the type of running I was familiar with was not appealing to me. I was never much of a road runner because I always just thought it was boring to run around my neighborhood in the city, but it turns out trail running and road running are hardly even similar. Road running has much more of an exercise-based motive, and trail running is much more low pressure as there’s less actual running involved, and it’s much more similar to hiking than road running.
The reason you do so much less actual running on trail runs is partially due to the terrain and also the distance. Unlike road running, trail running often has many more sections that are loose dirt/rocks, which are safer to walk than run. There are also often many more steep sections, so walking those uphills conserves energy. Even experienced trail runners will walk loose and steep parts of the trails so it's good to keep in mind that walking doesn’t mean you are failing in any way.
My journey with trail running started when I simply got bored doing the same hike that I always did with my dog and decided to run instead of walking. I liked this intro because I was alone so I had no expectation of being with a group or buddy who was either much faster or much more averse to running. I found that for myself and for other people I’ve talked to, taking the pressure off of seeing it as “a run” and seeing it as almost more of a power-hike makes for an easier entry and lets you have more fun along the way.
One of the best things about trail running is that it doesn't require a ton of special gear compared to other sports. This is especially true for those who are transitioning from hiking. While there are some things, such as trekking poles or a hydration vest, that you might want to invest in down the line, you won't find that you need to spend $1000 right off the bat like you might have to as a beginner in other sports, such as skiing, snowboarding, surfing, etc.
You likely already have some good shoes, athletic shorts, and shirts that will work great, but here's an example of what I wear on a trail run since some people hike in slightly different gear.
The one gear change I make when running vs. hiking is I prefer hiking in lightweight pants such as the Patagonia Happy Hikes, but I find those get much too warm running. I also generally don't need as much protection from bugs, which is one of the main reasons I wear pants hiking. I never wear pants when trail running aside from in the winter.
Shirt: I wear something moisture-wicking and lightweight such as the Mammut Women’s Cammie Tank. This kind of material both keeps you dry, cool, and its odor-resistant qualities usually let you wear it a few times without needing a wash (meaning it will last longer).
Shorts: You’ll want something lightweight such as the Patagonia Strider Shorts. I like that these have a zippered pocket on the back for my key and an underwear liner inside.
Socks: Running socks differ from hiking socks slightly in that they are generally thinner and have better moisture-wicking properties, which helps prevent blisters. The Smartwool PhD socks are my all-time favorite. In the summer I wear the Smartwool PHD Run Ultra Light Micro socks, and in winter I’ll wear the Smartwool PhD Run Light Elite Micro, which is just the slightly thicker version.
Winter and Fall
Winter trail-running gear looks a bit different, and while you likely won't want to start winter trail-running right off the bat, here are a few other pieces of gear I use in the winter.
Microspikes: Microspikes are basically attachments you can put over your shoes that have a rubber upper and a spiky bottom. They are great for gripping on snow or ice and are lightweight enough that you can just toss them in a small pack/pocket if you don't need them. I use some pretty similar to the Black Diamond Access Spikes.
Gloves: My hands tend to get really cold in the winter or cooler days so to avoid pain or turning around early, I will usually wear lightweight gloves, such as the Assos Trail Glove.
Pants: I prefer something that’s a bit warmer, but still has moisture-wicking properties, such as the Arc'Teryx Oriel Legging.
Windbreaker: If it is not full-blown winter yet, I’ll wear something that offers a bit of insulation and protection but that won’t make me overheat once I get started moving. I wear the Patagonia Houdini, but the Outdoor Research Helium Wind Hoodie is very comparable!
Jacket: If it's winter, I will wear something a bit warmer than a windbreaker or that has insulation. If you are getting something with insulation for trail running, make sure it is synthetic insulation instead of down insulation as down insulation won’t keep you warm once you start sweating. The Arc’Teryx Atom LT is my all-time favorite in terms of insulation, and if I want something a bit lighter, I will wear my Patagonia R2 Jacket. I don’t usually run in the rain, but if I do I will also bring a waterproof jacket, such as the Rab Kinetic 2.0. It’s my all-time favorite jacket for rainy workouts because it is breathable, I don’t get soaked or overheat while wearing it, but it also keeps the rain out.
Long-Sleeved Shirt: Under my jacket or windbreaker, I usually want something a bit bulkier than a tank so I’ll generally wear something that’s lightweight enough to let heat and sweat out but will keep me from getting too cold, such as the Royal Robbins Long Distance Shirt.
There's a bit more to know about trail-running shoes compared to the rest of trail-running gear, but whatever pair of tennis shoes you have will work as you get into the sport. It matters much less that you have a fancy trail-running shoe and much more that you just have a shoe that you feel comfortable in.
I use the Salomon SenseRide GTX, and here are some things I like about them. I feel like they have good grip on rockier/looser areas. The shape is a good fit to the shape of my foot so I don’t get any hot spots or blister areas or pinching. I can use an insole in them easily (I use this one), and they are durable. I have had three pairs so far, and they are my favorite shoes.
Some other popular trail shoes are the Altra Lone Peaks and the On Running Cloud Shoe. Before investing in shoes, do a bit of research or talk to an Expert here at Curated as there are a lot of options on the market and they are not all created equal!
If I am going on something that would be good to have water, I will usually bring a soft flask water bottle in a pocket where it won’t bounce around too much. If I have my dog and know that there is nowhere for her to get water along the way, I carry a small fanny pack, such as the Ultralight 1L hip pack, where I will store that soft flask and some dog-poop bags. It’s adjustable and lightweight so I can really cinch it down so it doesn't bounce around, and it’s lightweight enough that it doesn't feel like I'm carrying any extra weight (Bonus: it can also fit a folded up Patagonia Houdini that I mentioned above in case I want to bring it just in case!)
If I am doing a shorter run (40 or so minutes) and there is a stream for the dog along the route, I don’t find myself drinking water so don’t normally bring it.
If I am doing something longer, I will bring a running hydration pack or vest with two soft flasks. I use the Patagonia Slope Runner as it has plenty of pockets for snacks or keys and is a good fit. If I have my dog—which I almost always do—I will make sure to go on a trail where she has a water option, such as a creek halfway through, or I will bring my running vest and a collapsible bowl like this one.
So once your gear is set, which it likely is even without doing any shopping, the next thing you need to figure out is where to go. For a more in-depth look at how to find local trails to run, here’s a complete guide but, below, we will start simple.
What’s your favorite hike? Does it have a ton of elevation gain or any areas that are particularly dangerous or have loose rock? A trail that you know well and doesn’t have a massive amount of elevation or loose sections is the perfect place to start trail running. Running can feel uncomfortable at first, so if you are in an area that you already know well, you will feel all that much more comfortable. Loose rock can be a bit more dangerous when running because you are generally moving a bit faster so it's easier to slip, but if your favorite trail has a few loose sections you can just know ahead of time that you’ll walk those areas.
If you don’t have a favorite trail in mind, look around locally for something that has low elevation gain and low mileage, and don’t go into it with the mindset that you have to run the whole time or even most of the time. You could also look for annual trail races that happen in your area. They often show a map of the route, so that would be another simple way to find a runnable area close to you (make sure to go on a day that the race is not occurring of course!)
I started trail running on a trail near my house known as “The Pipeline”, which is a dog-friendly, out-and-back trail that has a 5-mile long flat section. If you do this entire section out and back you can run nearly 10 miles and only get about 300 feet of elevation gain. For Utah, that’s unheard of since everything has a lot of elevation here!
I liked the out-and-back style because I could just run 2 miles if I felt like it, or if I wanted to try something longer I could go slightly further. I didn’t end up doing the whole 10 miles for quite a while, but it felt much more manageable to do it this way, adding a mile every once in a while on a trail that I was already comfortable and familiar with.
Tracking Your Progress
The second huge motivator for me when it came to trail running (the first being my dog's enthusiastic desire to run with me) was tracking my runs with a Garmin® GPS watch. I didn’t mean to get a Garmin watch, but it came into my life right around the time I started running and it seriously motivated me to run more.
It's really satisfying to track your progress, see your mile times improve, or see the map of where you ran in the mountains and build on that over time. When you upload your run to your phone or laptop, you can see a map of the route you took. I think it's really fun and interesting to zoom into that and see which trails go off the sides of where you were and possible detours you could take in the future. It gets me hyped to get back outside the next time so I can keep checking out different trail systems.
I use the Garmin Vivoactive 3 watch, which is one of their simplest models, but it does everything I want from GPS tracking, elevation, pace tracking, and heart-rate monitoring. I've had it for nearly three years and have only had one issue, which was with a band screw and covered by warranty.
If you end up getting more into trail running and start training for any races or bigger objectives, it also gives you helpful info, such as stride, cadence, pacing info, and more, which can be incredibly helpful for building a training plan!
A Few Final Tips
Try to avoid running on muddy trails. It’s a bit more dangerous and not in line with Leave No Trace principles! If you must run in a muddy area, go through the mud as well as you can instead of stepping on the foliage on the side of the trails. Stepping on the foliage makes it die and oftentimes makes the trail bigger, therefore making the mud problem worse in the future.
Energy Bars and Calories
Make sure to always carry a snack with you on longer runs even if you don't think you'll need it. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, “I’ll be okay without a Cliff bar!” and then halfway through I am pretty tired and need a snack to keep me going. It’s worth the extra weight in your hip pack! I will also make sure I restock electrolytes when I get back to the car or house with a Nuun tablet or some Gatorade as I lose a lot more fluid on trail runs than on road runs or hikes.
If you are constantly running in loose areas or in steep areas, and/or if you have a history of knee problems, get some trekking poles! Most of them fold up so you can attach them to a pack if you need to, but it’s worth it to bring them if you are finding your knees being exceptionally sore after steep trails.
Take it Slow
Even though running seems intuitive, you are actually using entirely different muscles than you do when you are hiking. Doing too much too soon can cause an injury so just make sure to check in with your body and ease into it to avoid injury!
While I don’t normally carry a first-aid kit with me unless I am on a two-hour or longer mission that I know has some sketchy parts, I always have it in the car. Trail running is a lot more of an adventure sport than road running, you often don’t have phone access and are in wilderness areas, so be prepared to deal with injuries or scrapes on scene.
It’s also a good idea to invest in one of the many satellite devices available on the market so if you ever get stuck or need help, you have options to contact someone. The Garmin InReach is my favorite and the one I am most familiar with.
And Lastly…Don't Be Hard on Yourself
It’s difficult to not be hard on yourself sometimes, especially when you are first starting out. When I started trail running I hardly even told anyone because I was bummed that my mile times were so high even though I was supposedly “on a run.” The elevation changes and technical terrain make for much slower miles than you’d normally have on flat, even-grounded roads.
The turning point for me was reading something my friend Nicole, who I saw as an intense athlete at the time, posted on Instagram regarding how slow her trail running mile times are and how times and mileage don’t actually matter. What matters is that you are still getting outside and exploring new places and having fun. Knowing that it wasn't just me who was a self-perceived “slow runner” helped me. It was eye-opening to me that other people who I considered “premier athletes” were also walking on trails.
Nicole continues to be a huge inspiration for me in all outdoor sports I participate in and shares a lot of great info about trail running, so check her out below.
Hopefully, this article can serve you in a similar way and let you know that trail running is secretly just hiking a lot of the time, and doesn’t have to be fast or look any certain way!
If you have any other questions at all about trail running or Hiking and Camping in general please reach out to myself or another Hiking and Camping Expert here at Curated. We’d love to get you ready both in terms of gear and mental game to get out on the trail this season seeking some new and exciting trails!