Trail running for beginners – 8 things to know before you go

How do I choose my first running trail?

Full Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links for which, LERK Publishing, LLC., may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase.

Choosing your first trail

When trail running you should start with easy well-groomed trails. It might be a good idea to walk the trail first before attempting to run the trail. By doing this you can mentally note any things that might cause you to trip up your run. You can look for downed logs, potholes, low hanging limbs, etc. and then slowly graduate to the more steep, technical pieces to trail running.

If this doesn’t excite you then just slow down your pace just a little bit the first time and concentrate on your running form and line of sight. What I normally do is either walk to the point of destination and then run the trail back to where I  began. This allows you to enjoy the trail and its beauty and then get a good run in on the way out.

Don’t look at your feet

When you first start to run on trails you’re natural instinct is to look down at your feet. Don’t look straight ahead which is at 90 degrees from the ground. What you’ll want to do when you run through the trail is to look somewhere between 45 and 60-degrees from the ground up. Also, after you see the first obstacle in the path, you’ll mentally note it and prepare to maneuver around it you need to start looking for the next obstacle.

Trail running is a lot like skiing or snowboarding through the trees but a lot safer. I’m not going to say that you’ll never get injured or fall down. When you’re maneuvering through trees you have to constantly look at the next object beyond the tree or obstacle that is directly in front of you. Unless you’ve tree skied before, this can sound a little confusing. Think of it like this, your mind and body should already be maneuvering around the object in front of you while you’re looking at the next obstacle in front of you.

If you’re having problems with keeping your eyes off of the trails then try to slow down your pace and practice looking at the 45-degree mark. Look somewhere between a 45 and 60-degree angle from the ground up

Rules of the trail

I always yield to bikers and horses either upslope, downslope, sideways, or across the trail. Why? because you don’t want to be smashed into a tree, drop kicked by a horse, or run over. When you encounter other runners most trails ask you to let the running heading downslope have the right away because it is much easier for the uphill runner to slow down rather than the downslope runner.

Take out what you bring in

This one should be simple: don’t litter on the trail. Don’t leave any food items, wrappers, or trash behind. Not only are you helping preserve the trail and its beauty, but you’re also helping food-seeking critters steer clear of the trails. This is extremely important in mountainous areas where bears live. Bears can smell food from great distances. When a bear finds food at a particular site, they will come back and frequent that location again and again.

Gear – Shoes

Do you have to buy new shoes when you’re going to trail one? The simple answer is no. If you’re running well-groomed trails then you can use your normal pavements running shoes. If you plan on advancing to more technical trails with rocks and steep grades then you’ll probably want to buy some trail running shoes.

Trail running shoes have midsole support for technicals such as rocks, roots, fallen trees, etc. Also, the treads on your shoes have come longer cleats to dig into the trail on help maneuver rocks and other obstacles.

Here are some running shoes that have gotten some decent reviews:

Salomon Women’s X-Mission 3 W Trail Running Shoe (Amazon affiliate link)

ASICS Frequent Trail Men’s Running Shoe (Amazon affiliate link)

Running form

You’re running stance on trails will change whether you like it or not. If you can continue to run as you run on the road you will end up hurting yourself. You’ll need to adjust your running stance to a much wider stance. You’re going to want to spread your arms out a bit by widening your elbows. This will help you balance more on the technical parts of the trail.

Also, your stride will change as well, you’ll find that you’ll be extending your stride more often than on the road so that you can maneuver more easily around obstacles. Don’t forget to pick up your feet when on the trails. When you run on the pavement, your feet stay much closer to the ground due to the even surface. When you’re on the trails running close to the ground is a sure way to trip yourself up and go yard sailing, instead of running, down the trail.

Listen to your body

Try to aim for steady effort when running on the trails. Trail running is also about finding your rhythm. Since no trail is the same, you have to adjust your pace and effort. Running a slightly slower pace will help prevent nosediving into the trail and should help you maintain a steady effort.

Trail Running For Beginners Safety Tips

if it’s a long trail consider bringing the following:

  • a glow stick
  • Make sure you use no tie shoelaces (Amazon affiliate link) so that you don’t get your shoelaces snagged on something
  • small extra battery pack with charging cord
  • snacks such as an energy bar
  • Hydration pack with water
  • small 3 oz of bug spray
  • Ask local runner shops or clubs near you about any hazardous animals, plants that you might experience when you’re not in your hometown.
  • Don’t run with headphones, if you do run with only one so you can pay attention to your surroundings.
  • Tell someone where you’re going
  • lightweight thermal blanket (Amazon affiliate link)
  • bring a phone in case of emergency
  • know your route
  • write down your route and tell someone where you’ll start, where you’ll end, and approximately how long you’ll be.

Trail running can be a great way to adjust your training routine and shake up things when you’re running might get a little dull.

Check out my post on my first trail run in South Lake Tahoe, I took it super easy and it ended up being a great trail run.

RRCA Coach Scott Scott is a published author and RRCA certified running coach. 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 11th half marathon race. 

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