How to Start Trail Running: Guide to Quit Pounding Pavement

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How to Start Trail Running: Guide to Quit Pounding Pavement

Over the last two years, running has increased in popularity by almost 30%. Running is one of the easiest activities to get into because, especially at the beginning, all you need is a pair of appropriate shoes.
You don’t need any fancy equipment or a membership anywhere. Running is something you can do from wherever you are on the planet, no matter the day of the week, the season, or whether you have company or not.
The barrier to entry is higher in your mind than it is in real life. Just get out there and run. Could be a quarter of a mile or 5 miles. Go fast, go slow, walk a little bit, walk a lot a bit, just do you.
If you’re looking to take to the trails and either get off the pavement or to start your running journey on a dirt path, this guide will show you how. 

I’m going to go over:

  • What to expect when you start trail running.
  • What gear you’ll need and what gear you may want to invest in later down the road…err…trail.
  • How to best plan and prepare for trail running.

Expectations & Mindset

Sure, gear is important, but we’re going to start with expectations and mindset because I believe these are foundational components even before we get to the gear closet.
If you’ve never been a runner before and you want to get into trail running, it might be because:
  • You like hiking and want to spend more time moving through the backcountry, faster.
  • You like nature and want to see more of it, faster.
  • You want to get some exercise but don’t want to be whistled at or judged by all the cars on the road and trails offer a bit more anonymity.
There are a ton of reasons people get into trail running and they’re probably all good - I’m an advocate for the running of trails so I won’t judge you for whatever your reason is. You can find most anything you’re looking for out on a run.
“Is trail running harder than road running?”
Short answer: No.
Longer answer: Trail running isn’t inherently harder than road running, but it is a bit different. One of the biggest differences between trail running and road running is the technicality and the speed you’ll be moving. On a road, the surface is generally smooth, gains and losses in elevation are somewhat gradual, and the route is determined by the pavement. It’s easier to get into a rhythmic cadence and let your legs take you wherever you’re going.
On a trail, you’ll need to pay far more attention to your feet. You may have to hop, skip, or side-step an obstacle. The elevation profile can be more erratic and substantial depending on the trail. Trail routes can also be more inventive, depending on the landscape you’re running in. Trail running may be harder to get into a rhythm with and it’s more often going to be a full body experience. 
One of the biggest differences you’ll experience between road running and trail running is a difference in pace. If you’re already a seasoned road runner, treadmill runner, track runner, or otherwise have some idea of the speed at which you’d like to run, add a few minutes per mile to your ideal pace. Trail running just takes longer.
There are more technical things going on and your path likely won’t be as smooth and predictable as a paved road which will inevitably slow you down. This is no fault of your own and is just the nature of the activity.
Ok, now that we’re prepared for the process, let’s find out what gear we need for trail running training.

What Gear Do I Need for Trail Running?

Trail Running Shoes

Shoes are the starting point for any running adventure. If you’re just getting into trail running, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on the latest-and-greatest. When it comes down to how to choose trail running shoes, you just need running shoes that fit, have cushion, and don’t give you blisters.
How do trail running shoes differ from road running shoes?
Trail running shoes are generally a little beefier than their road running counterparts. They have more cushion, more traction, and more support for the foot and ankle.
Trail running shoes come in a wide variety of styles. You can find minimalistic shoes that let your feet connect more with the terrain or extra-cushioned ones that help protect the joints. Which kind you choose will depend on your goals, distance, and personal preferences. If you are not sure what shoes are the best option for you, take a look at this deep dive into the pros and cons of shoe styles.
Keep in mind that when you’re choosing running shoes, you may want to go a half to even one and a half sizes bigger than you normally wear. When you’re running, your feet swell and you need more space inside the shoe to accommodate this. 

Clothing

Moisture-wicking, quick-drying, limited-chafing clothes are what you want for trail running. That means wool or synthetic materials over cotton - and this includes your socks!
I also recommend wearing layers. Changing temperatures throughout your run or variable terrain can make you warm up or cool down and being able to remain comfortable is key. Lightweight layers that pack down really small into a pocket can be so convenient for longer trail runs. We have an in depth article on layering if you feel like you need some more tips. 

Hydration

The next piece of gear you should consider adding to your trail running kit is some form of hydration. It’s good to have hydration on you even if you’re planning a short run that you don’t *think* will require extra water - on trails and in the backcountry, you just never know.
There are a lot of hydration options around these days from waterbottle carriers that slide onto your hands to the ever-popular hip belt/fanny pack to vests and backpacks that come with specialized bottles or camelbacks.
What you need for your arsenal will depend on your own preferences, the distances you’re running, and the location you’re running. Drier, desert environments will require more hydration and wetter, cooler ones might require less.
For those just getting started with trail running and sticking to an-hour-or-less runs, one water bottle should be enough and you can carry this in your hands as you jog for an economical solution.

Other Gear

Depending on where and when you’re running, you may need additional gear. Wet locales might need breathable rain jackets. Desert runners should consider wearing gaiters to protect against spiky plants and slithering critters. 
If you’re getting into longer distances - the half marathon, marathon, and especially the ultra marathon mileage - you’ll need more gear in general and more specialized gear for your running goals.
Socks, shoes, hydration, clothing, anti-chafing, fuel, watches/location trackers, hats, sunglasses - seriously, the longer distances you run, the longer the list of gear you might invest in grows.
At the beginning, keep it short and simple.

Planning

Planning out a trail running excursion may take a bit more prep than a road running excursion.
If you can’t leave directly from your front door and end up on a trail right away, you’ll have to drive or take public transit to where the run will start. Any amount of commute - whether you drive yourself, carpool with a running partner, or take public transit - will require more and different planning than leaving your house and heading straight for a run.
You’ll need to consider the weather - and not just the current weather happening along the run, but also the weather from the previous day or two. If it’s rained recently, your trail may be muddy. If it’s winter, there might be snow or ice or slush to contend with. Depending on the season, there may be rattlesnakes (keep your eyes and ears peeled and wear gaiters in the desert!).
Knowing the path you intend to take and whether you’ll be doing an out-and-back, a loop, a lollipop or even a point-to-point requires more knowledge than simply lacing up and heading out the door. Until you’re familiar with the trails you’re on, make sure you spend time a day or two before your run scoping out the surroundings and what kinds of trail splits you may come across and where to go at each intersection.
You won’t always have cell service to check a map or call for help if something goes wrong so be mindful of where you are and have a plan ahead of time.

Trail Running Technique

As I mentioned above, trail running is more technical than road running. There may be rocks or roots, unlevel trails, hills, and other things to keep an eye out for. Your technique for both running types might be similar but there are a few things to keep in mind on the trails.
Keep your stride short. You’ll be looking 10-15 feet ahead of you on the trail to stay aware of what obstacles are coming up and keeping your strides shorter will give you a better ability to dodge and weave around different elements on the trail. You’ll be better able to keep your balance and avoid tripping over the natural aspects. In road running, you may be able to lengthen your stride but on the trails you want to keep your core over your feet as much as possible.
Use your whole body. Swing your arms, use your center of gravity to help you maneuver around and keep your balance on windy, hilly, technical stretches of trail. Trail running involves more than just your legs and feet. 
Slow down. Hills - whether you’re going up or down them - may require a slower pace. Frequently in trail running, runners will walk inclines that are even slightly more than “gradual.” Walking up the hills helps you stay sure-footed and saves your energy for the running portion itself. If you walk quickly up the hills, you can keep your heart rate at the same level it was before the hill which is great for trail running training. Downhill sections will also require even shorter, more frequent steps. This helps reduce impact on your knees and will keep you from tripping over obstacles.
Stretch. I don’t know the science behind it but it seems that most runners just do NOT like stretching - myself included, I’m not pointing any fingers that I can’t also claim. If you find that you like trail running and want to continue to do it, you have to keep your body loose and limber enough to make it work. And that means stretching. Trail running stretches are just like road running stretches in that you want to make sure your hips, knees, and back are being regularly attended to so that they can keep working for you.

………………

Trail running is easily one of my favorite activities and I hope this guide has helped you feel more confident in giving it a try. 
It’s a very customizable activity in that you can go wherever your feet take you, you can explore areas off the beaten path, and you can go for as short or long a time as you please. You can take this exercise through all four seasons with the right gear and mindset.
Trail running teaches you to be in-tune with your body, your surroundings, and the lies your mind is telling you to get you to quit. 
Where are you going to go run next? 

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