Trail running is a wonderful voyage of discovery. It can take you to places you never would’ve gone. Get you up close and personal with nature. Test your mind and your body and free your soul. It can be, quite literally, a breath of fresh air.
In this article we’ll break down trail running for the uninitiated, give some tips on how to get started, what apparel might work best and how should you prepare for your first trail running race.
What is trail running?
Trail running is all about running in nature – ditching the paved roads and city lights and opting for softer terrain, steeper gradients, and a whole lot more fun.
You’ll run on a mix of terrains, similar to fell running, but usually on existing hiking trails and routes. (Fell running, on the other hand, is a lot more off-track, taking the beaten trail and often involves scrambling for grip over broken rock fragments.)
What is the difference between running and trail running?
Running on the roads can be somewhat monotonous – there’s very little you need to think about, aside from traffic. Trail running, on the other hand, requires much more concentration. A little extra fitness will also go a long way!
You’ll need to dodge branches, fallen trees and muddy puddles, and find the right footing on those steep unpaved descents. It’s time in nature – avoid looking at your watch and focus on those next few steps forward.
Why start trail running?
Although your local trails may be a little further away than your standard Tuesday evening loop, there are many reasons to trade the tarmac for grass, dirt and other unpaved surfaces.
Trail running is easy on the joints, the undulation of the trails keeps it challenging, and being in nature and absorbing your surroundings makes it incredibly rewarding and worthwhile – you might even do it solely for the views.
Moreover, running on uneven surfaces will improve your ankle strength, balance and flexibility. You’ll also develop stronger leg muscles for faster running. And let’s not forget variety – there’s more routes to explore, people to meet, and adventure to be had. Get out there and experience the benefits first-hand!
Trail Running Tips
If you’re just starting out on the trails, the rough terrain and steep climbs may have you worried. But don’t stress – we’ve put together some trail running tips for beginners:
Don’t become too focused on pace
Running on the trails means slogging up hills and tiptoeing down steep descents, so don’t get too bogged down when it comes to pace.
It’s better to run by feel or heart rate than your pace per mile or kilometre. Leave those numbers at the start of the trail and, instead, run by feel.
Fuel correctly for those longer runs
Trail running is often associated with those longer runs (more than 1 hour), so if you plan on escaping into nature for long periods, it’s essential to fuel correctly.
Eat something a few hours before running and top up your hydration as needed on the trails. That could mean drinking an electrolyte mix (great for longer runs in the heat), consuming gels, or even having a snack if you’re going extra long.
Know your way
Trail running is great – it gets you off the roads and into nature. But it’s a lot easier to get lost.
Research the trail before heading out for your run and, if possible, bring a GPS device with you, just in case you can’t find your way home or back to the car.
These days, many GPS watches and apps such as Strava can map your run and provide you directions, but if you lose signal, you’ll be on your own – so a little research goes a long way.
Wear the right gear
You’ll want to wear the right gear to make trail running more enjoyable. At the very least, we’d recommend investing in a pair of quality trail running shoes. But consider a waterproof jacket and a good pair of socks, too.
Running alone on the trails can be bliss – but you’re still running alone.
Let a friend or family member know where you’re heading and, if possible, share your live location using Beacon technology from your phone or GPS device.
If you can , why not run with a buddy? Soak in the trails and stay twice as safe.
How to prepare the body and mind for a trail race
Once you’ve dipped your toe in the water and had your first taste of trail running, you might be tempted to sign up for a local trail running race.
Please bear in mind that training and preparing the body and mind is a little different to your standard race – there’s a lot more to think about. So, we recommend the following steps to help get you on the starting line as ready as possible:
Train and trust your preparation
The best way to prepare for a trail race, mentally and physically, is to train.
Practice on the terrain you’ll be running on in the event, run plenty of trails in training and run intervals to not only become a faster runner, but to build mental strength.
Visualise your race
Okay, hear us out…
Visualisation is a powerful strategy that can help mitigate nerves and anxiety and improve focus. How do you want your race to pan out? It’s important to be realistic – but think through the start, middle and end of the event.
How will you react when the gun goes off? Will you push up the hills or coast the downhills? And how will that last mile feel when you’ve got nothing in the legs and you’re solely fuelled by ambition and the need to beat the runner behind you?
Visualise your race before you run it – you’ll build confidence, focus and know what to expect.
Control your excitement
It’s normal to be nervous and excited for your first trail race.
But don’t let the excitement get the best of you. That’s right, we’re on about the start. Don’t shoot off too fast only to slow down badly a little later. Pace yourself, know your own capabilities and stick to your plan.
Run your own race
Whether a road or trail race, many runners have the tendency to sprint off from the get-go, only to drastically slow down, hanging on for dear life in the middle of the event.
Instead of following the pack at the beginning, run at your own pace. You can run a little faster to fight for position, but stick to a pacing strategy (that you know you can stick to from your training) for the best results.
The real race happens at the middle-end of the race – you’ll catch up and overtake the runners who went off too fast, and you’ll be in a great position to run faster at the end of the trail race (hello, negative splits).
How to train for trail running – without trails!
Suppose you’ve signed up for a trail race, or you’re planning on running the trails without any previous experience running trails. In that case, you might be wondering: how on Earth are you supposed to train without trails, without softer ground, steep ascents and rocky, adrenaline-inducing descents?
People who live in cities are often stuck with their local parks, tarmac and other hard surfaces. But we encourage you to find varied terrain to run the bulk of your training – run on the grass instead of the pavement, take the cobbles instead of the road, and perform plenty of strength training to prepare your body for the uneven terrain and other challenges that come with going off-road.
Is trail running better than road running?
Ultimately, it depends, you ask! But trail running certainly has a mix of benefits that road running simply cannot offer.
For starters, trail running is easier on the joints, it’s more challenging, the scenery is breath taking, and it gets you away from the hustle and bustle - it’s just you and the trails.
Switching up one or two of your weekly runs to the trails is a great start – you’ll experience the benefits of running off-road, the variety in scenery and terrain will keep you motivated, and your body and mind will undoubtedly thank you for it.
Trail running gear
While you can easily reach for your Garmin and your regular running shoes, you might have seen a few trail runners wearing slightly different gear. We’re talking hydration vests, backpacks, running shoes with more grip and extra layers for when the weather inevitably changes.
We’d recommend investing in basic trail running gear to make your runs away from the city and in nature all that more enjoyable. Consider investing in the following:
What are trail running shoes?
Trail running shoes are different to your regular pair of road runners. Typically, a pair of trail shoes contains more grip, are stiffer through the midsole and some shoes even contain rock plates and other support between the midsole and outsole to protect your feet from sharp rocks, sticks and other debris.
Can you wear trail running shoes on the pavement?
Yes! Although best used on the trails, you can wear a pair of trail running shoes on the pavement between trails or when running to the start of your local loop.
But if you’re looking to run fast and longer distances, mainly on the road, then your standard road shoes would be the better option.
Why do trail runners wear vests?
Running vests and trail running go hand-in-hand – almost as synonymous as Joss Naylor and his jam butties. (And if you don’t know who Joss is, you’re in for a treat – a fell running legend who set many long-distance records, known as “the King of the Fells” back home in the Lake District.)
Runners wear vests to carry extra water via hydration systems and extra bottles and to hold other essentials such as energy gels, snacks, emergency cash, and maybe a set of keys.
A vest is a practical solution for those long trail runs (more than 1 hour), allowing you to carry extra fluids and supplies without actually carrying them, well, with your hands.
Are hydration vests good for running?
Hydration vests are great for trail running – they allow you to run further and safer with plenty of fluids, snacks and even additional clothing for when the weather turns.
Typically, if you’re only heading out for a short run on the trails (45 minutes or less), then you’ll be fine without any fluids – unless it’s a hot or humid day, then you’d want to stock up and stay hydrated on the trails.
Is trail running a good workout?
Trail running is a great workout. It requires you to run up and down steep inclines, skyrocketing your heart rate and testing your endurance. You’ll improve your cardiovascular health and you’ll get in a mighty leg workout at the same time.
How long should a trail run be?
There is no golden rule of how long a trail run should be. You can run for as little as twenty minutes or upwards of three hours. It’s completely up to you.
Why is trail running so hard?
Trail running is harder than road running because of the undulating terrain, steep inclines and challenging descents. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of fun!
Is trail running good for your knees?
Trail running is much better for your knees than road running, placing less vertical impact through your knees (and other joints). If you have trouble with knee pain and haven’t tried trail running, it could just be what you’ve been looking for.
Go explore the trails!
If you have access to local trails, then we highly suggest lacing up and getting out there. They’re a ton of fun, easy on the joints, provide a much-welcomed change of scenery, and make for the perfect morning or afternoon training session. Or at least we think so.
And if you catch the trail running bug, which, let’s face it, is highly likely, then consider investing in a proper pair of trail running shoes and other gear to make your running that much more enjoyable!