How To Run In The Mountains – A Beginner’s Guide

People often forget that running can be done in a variety of different ways. As runners, we’re often guilty of this as well. While there are plenty of benefits to running indoors on a treadmill or out on the road, running in the mountains also offers many unique benefits and challenges.

Mountain trail running happens away from paved roads and involves a wide variety of terrains. With plenty of inclines, declines, and obstacles to overcome, mountain running has a lot less focus on speed. Instead, your focus is to overcome trail obstacles, thereby challenging your muscle strength and often balance as well.

In this guide, you’ll discover everything you need to know about running in the mountains. We’ll cover the pros and cons it offers, how it differs from road running, and even the essential gear you’ll need to get started.

What Is Mountain Running All About?

First of all, let’s be clear on what running in the mountains is all about. This type of running falls into the category of trail running, which means any kind of running away from paved roads.

Still, mountain running, in particular, is becoming increasingly popular in the running community. That comes as no surprise, as this running form offers a unique combination of challenges and benefits.

Related: Before you hit the trails running – give yourself a running form check-up.

Why Do People Love Mountain Running?

Here’s one major reason why many runners prefer mountain running: here, the goal isn’t necessarily about finishing faster than everyone else. Instead, this activity is about running in the wild and being close to nature. That in itself makes this a unique and memorable form of running.

Plus, running on challenging mountain terrain where the focus isn’t on speed means that you’re only competing with one person: yourself. That factor alone makes this form of trail running exciting for those who prefer challenging themselves and overcoming any previous limitations.

Lastly, of course, is the unique physical challenge. As mentioned before, trail running means being off paved paths. And doing it on a mountain, with its random combination of inclines and declines, provides an unpredictable challenge with lots of surprises along the way.

So, as you can see, the unique combination of running in nature while challenging yourself on unpredictable terrain makes for an exceptional running experience that’s hard to find elsewhere.

What Are The Pros And Cons Of Mountain Running?

Still, mountain running comes with its fair share of benefits and drawbacks. Before you decide to go on your first mountain run, consider the following.

Benefits Of Mountain Running

Here are some of the benefits you can expect from this type of trail running:

  • Being One With Nature: Trail running on a mountain means that you’ll be moving in nature, with your feet in the dirt and Mother Nature all around you.
    Unlike running in urban environments, you won’t have to worry about noisy cars on the road or recycled air inside a gym.

Here, your lungs will pull in the freshest air there is, and the only noises you’ll hear are that of animals and insects.

  • Reduced Impact: Trail running in general means that you’ll be moving on natural soil instead of paved surfaces. These surfaces offer your legs and feet plenty of cushioning while still posing a fair challenge to your muscles as they push you forward.
    Bottom line: that means your muscles will get an excellent workout, and you won’t have to worry about hurting your joints, tendons, or anything else.
  • Speed Is Not An Issue: Running can sometimes be intimidating to newbies and people who can’t run very fast. But when it comes to trail running, especially on mountainous terrain, the playing field is leveled (in terms of speed).

The random inclines and declines mean that speed is not a factor. Instead, the focus is on challenging yourself and completing the trail run successfully, no matter how long it takes.

Drawbacks Of Mountain Running

Now that you’ve seen the benefits of mountain running, it’s time to consider the drawbacks that you’ll experience:

  • Injury: Even though mountain trails are gentler on the joints and runners aren’t going at maximum speed, there’s still a significant risk of injury with this form of running. Firstly, you’ll have to navigate dangers on the path like rocks, branches, and anything else in our way.

Related: 8 Common Running Injuries – Prevention and Treatments!

Besides that, the ever-changing terrain of inclines and declines sometimes hide dangers. For example, tripping and hurting your ankles is a risk when you’re running on a trail.

  • Getting Lost: Being out in nature also means that you face a risk of getting lost, particularly when it gets dark. Unfortunately, mountain paths aren’t well-lit, and there are very few signs (if any) to guide you back to your starting point.
  • Difficult From The Start: Trail running doesn’t challenge you on speed, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier. The mountain, along with its trail of inclines and declines, will not change for anyone. So, you’re in for a challenge regardless of if it’s your first day running or if you’re a seasoned runner.

Road Running Vs Trail Running; What Are The Differences?

For someone accustomed to running on roads or other flat terrains, it can be pretty challenging to imagine what trail running is like.

So, even if you’re an expert road runner, here are some crucial differences you must be aware of before switching to trail running:

Related: Check out my first trail run in South Lake Tahoe (extremely easy terrain)

#1 Emphasis On Strength More Than Speed

One of the most significant differences between road and trail running is the emphasis on speed and strength. As we’ve seen earlier, mountain trail running involves navigating rugged terrain. So it’s less about running at the fastest speed possible.

Plus, trail running demands more strength from your muscles to keep you balanced as you move uphill, downhill, and navigate obstacles. As you might imagine, both small and large muscles in your feet and legs are working hard during a trail run.

Still, most people don’t realize that their core and upper-body muscles are also working hard at the same time. Your core and arms, in particular, are continuously engaged to keep your body balanced on a trail run.

#2 Shorter Strides

When running on a flat surface like a road, your strides tend to be of average or longer lengths. But, again, this is a matter of speed, as faster runners typically have longer stride lengths.

However, on a trail run, your strides will be much shorter as you navigate a constantly changing terrain. Most of the time, you won’t be on a flat length of ground that allows for longer stride lengths.

#3 Arms And Core Are Crucial

Running is an activity that involves most of the muscles in our bodies and not just the ones in our feet and legs. For instance, our core and arms engage with each stride to ensure that our bodies remain upright and balanced.

While that’s true to some extent for road running, it’s even more crucial with mountain trail running. Seeing as how the running surface is variable and often at an incline or decline, our cores and arms work extra hard at all times to prevent us from falling over.

Related: Why Are Core Muscles So Important To Runners?

Related: 10 Best Core Exercises For Runners

#4 Navigation

Last but not least, one more significant difference between road and trail running is navigation. When running on a paved road, it’s very straightforward to know where you are at all times. Better yet, your chances of getting lost or not being able to find your way back are very low, especially with road signs and strong cell phone signals all around.

However, that’s not the case with mountain trail running. Even in broad daylight, it’s possible to lose track of where you came from and how far you’ve run. Needless to say, that challenge becomes even worse when it starts to get dark, as there’s likely no path lighting or signages anywhere.

Even though cell phone signals might be weak on a mountain trail, many runners instead carry GPS devices to help them find their way if necessary.

Are There Any Rules For Trail Running?

Here’s one thing to remember about mountain trails: if you know of a trail that’s excellent for running, then the chances are that other runners know about it as well. With limited space and many runners, a few unwritten rules are necessary to keep things orderly.

Here are the five most important rules for trail running:

#1 Stay On The Trail

First and foremost, always stay on the beaten path. Even though you’re running out in nature, there will be a designated trail for runners to use.

Staying on the trail makes it much easier to find your way, thereby reducing your risk of getting lost. Even if you do, being on the trail makes it easier for others to find you.

So, no matter how tempting it might be, never stray away from the trail.

#2 Respect Other Runners

The path can sometimes be narrow, and you’ll come across runners who are moving slower than you. Always respect other runners and call out if you need to pass them. A simple “On your left/right” is enough to let them know you’re coming so they can let you pass.

#3 Keep The Trail Clean

Keeping the trail clean is a community effort. The first way you can help out is to keep your trash on you, like energy bar wrappers or anything else. Then, once you find a proper trash can, you can unload your trash.

Plus, pick up any trash you see on the trail whenever possible. When runners help each other out, the trail stays clean for everyone to enjoy.

#4 Run In Pairs Or Groups

As mentioned before, running on a trail is often a challenge against yourself. Still, it’s always an excellent idea to run in pairs or small groups.

For starters, mountain trail running with friends is much more enjoyable than doing it alone. But more importantly, if you get lost or injured, you’ll have friends who can help you get to safety.

#5 Safety First

Last but not least, always remember to practice safety first. Before your run, do your homework and find out what the trail is like. These days, you can find plenty of forums online where other runners share their experiences, much to your benefit.

Plus, always make sure your gear is in good shape. Things like shoes, headlamps, and other gear (which we’ll cover in the next section) are crucial for a safe running experience.

Here is a great beginner’s guide specifically for brand-new trail runners:

Beginner’s Guide To Trail Running – 8 Things To Know Before You Go

What Gear Do You Need For Trail Running?

At this point, it should be clear that running on roads or other surfaces is different from trail running on a mountain. So, because of that, you’ll want to rethink your running gear as well.

Here are some essential items you’ll want to have when taking on trail running:

If you plan on running in rockier locations, you’ll want to consider more durable shoes with protective features like toe guards.

  • Socks And Undergarments: Running and sweat are two things that naturally go well together. Unfortunately, trail running means you’ll encounter extra moisture as well. So, consider moisture-wicking socks and undergarments as well. I highly recommend Balega Socks (Amazon Link).
  • Jacket: Will there be a chance of rain or low temperatures on the trail? If so, get a jacket that can stand up to those weather conditions. You don’t want to be caught out there cold and wet. Check out my review on the best waterproof rain jackets.
  • Hats And Sunglasses: Direct sunlight can be as annoying as damp weather. So, pack a hat and sunglasses just in case. But, as they say, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Don’t forget your mineral-based sunscreens for runners. Take a peek at my review on the best mineral-based sunscreens for runners.
  • Check out my review on the best waterproof rain jackets.
  • Tech Gear: Even if you’re sure that cell phone reception is terrible on the trail, pack your smartphone anyway. In an emergency, you might be able to call or at least text for help. Plus, it’ll serve as a handy flashlight for if it gets dark, and you can take photos and videos of your journey, too.

What About Gear For Overnight Trail Running Excursions?

It’s not unusual for runners to go on overnight trail running excursions. On such trips, you’ll want to include all of the items mentioned above, but also add things like:

  • Better Lighting: The light on your smartphone is suitable as a backup, but you’ll want some serious lighting to see the trail ahead of you. Headlamps are a convenient option to keep your hands free, but packing a powerful flashlight and spare batteries will also do the job.
  • Food And Water: Unlike a daytime run, an overnight excursion means that you’ll spend many more hours on the trail. So, bring extra food and water.

Related: Sneak a peek at my running gear recommendations!

Water is pretty straightforward. But for the food, try to focus on calorie-dense items that have more energy in a smaller package. That way, you’re not lugging around more items than you need to.

  • GPS Device: It’s also an excellent idea to have a dedicated GPS device with you on overnight excursions. Sure, your smartphone also has a GPS feature. However, a dedicated GPS device will still work even in the roughest terrains where there is a weak or no cell signal at all.

Related: Looking for a good mountain/trail running smartwatch? – check out my review

Final Thoughts

Mountain trail running can be pretty exciting, and it’s undoubtedly an excellent way to keep running interesting. Still, the best thing you can do is to start small. Choose the most accessible mountain trails you can find and get yourself used to the unique trail conditions there.

Then, if you find that trail running is something you enjoy, work your way up to more challenging locations.

Related: What Should I Wear When I Run? A Beginner’s Guide.

Coach Scott's Credentials: He has published over 20 books including, Beginner's Guide to Half Marathons: A Simple Step-By-Step Solution to Get You to the Finish Line in 12 Weeks! (Beginner To Finisher Book 3), which has become an Amazon International #1 bestseller. Scott specializes in helping new runners become injury-free race finishers. He recently completed his 17th half marathon race. 

 To sign up for a FREE half marathon training schedule, log sheet, and pace predictor CLICK HERE.

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References

https://www.ispo.com/en/trends/everything-you-need-know-about-trail-running

https://www.tangelohealth.com/trail-running-101-pros-cons/

https://www.shape.com/fitness/training-plans/trail-running-or-road-running

https://www.nike.com/my/a/trail-running-essential-gear

 

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