A Beginner’s Guide To Trail Running Mastery (9 Quick Tips)

Trails are for hiking. But did you know they’re for running too? With the proper technique, right gear, and a little route planning, nearly anyone can give trail running a try. It’s a great way to challenge yourself, plus you can see new sights and get closer to nature. Read on, and we’ll tell you all you need to know before hitting the trail yourself.

What Is Trail Running?

Trail running is a sport that can be described as a mash-up of running and hiking. Unlike runners who stick to paved roads and paths, trail runners plan their routes across all types of terrain, including hiking trails. If you like to run and are looking for a bit more adventure and variety, trail running might be for you.

How to Do It

If you know how to run, you know how to trail run. Mostly. There are some modifications you should make to your technique and some strategies that are worth knowing.

While the basic principles are the same, trail running requires more agility and dynamic moves than road running. Here are some general tips for perfecting your trail-running technique:

  • Shorten your stride. Paved roads are relatively smooth and often flat, but trails are usually uneven and can have obstacles like tree roots, rocks, or water. If you shorten your stride and take shorter steps, you’ll be more agile and able to respond quickly to things in your path. In other words, it’s a good way to ensure you’ll stay on your feet.
  • Scan the trail. While it’s tempting to keep your eyes on your feet as you run on rough terrain (or stare at the scenery!), it’s actually more helpful to set your sights on the trail. Try to keep your eyes on the path about 10-15 feet in front of you, continuously scanning for obstacles. That way, you’ll have sufficient time to react or take a slightly different route.
  • Swing your arms. It’s best to keep your arms free and let them swing naturally at your sides. They’ll help you maintain balance and can protect you if you fall or meet a low-hanging branch. If you’d like to carry water or snacks, you can use a hydration pack or waist pack.
  • Keep a straight back and shoulders. It’s tempting to lean forward when running up hills and lean back when running down them but in both cases it’s better to keep your back as straight and upright as possible.
  • Adjust your uphill stride. When you’re headed uphill, shorten your stride even more than usual.
  • Keep your balance downhill. When you’re running downhill—especially over rocky ground—stick your elbows slightly out as you swing your arms. This will help you stay balanced. Also, take quicker, more frequent steps to keep your feet under your center of gravity.

What To Wear

For the most part, trail runners wear standard running attire with a few key differences.

  • Trail shoes: Although you can wear road shoes on a trail run, trail shoes have some distinct advantages. If you plan to make trail running a habit, you’ll want a pair of shoes that are specially designed for rougher terrain. Trail shoes have a more rugged design than road shoes with features like lugged soles (for grip) and toe caps and rock plates (to protect your feet).

Best Trail Running Shoes

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  • Socks: Moisture-wicking socks are best, so look for socks made from merino wool or synthetic fabrics.

Best Trail Running Socks

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  • Technical clothing: As with most outdoor sports, you’ll want to wear synthetic, breathable fabrics you can layer if necessary. Running tights, shorts, t-shirt, tank…the details are up to you.
  • Hat: A baseball hat made from moisture-wicking material is good for sun protection while a beanie is ideal for cold weather running.

What To Bring

Trail running often uses longer routes or takes you deeper into nature. Plan to bring water and, depending on the weather and route length, some snacks and an extra layer. (And of course, don’t forget personal items like keys or a phone.) A handheld water bottle is okay for short runs, but for longer runs, consider one of these:

Hydration backpack: Hydration backpacks are about the size of a small daypack and do the double-duty of carrying your water and providing a place to stash items like keys. Choose your backpack size based on how long you think your average run will be.

Hydration vest: If backpacks aren’t your style, you can also use a hydration vest. Designed to fit close to your body, these vests also carry a hydration reservoir or water bottles and—like hydration backpacks—often have built-in straws.

Waist pack: A waist pack secures around your waist like a belt and is typically designed to hold two water bottles. A waist pack is a great way to free up your hands and minimize the weight you’re carrying while also making sure you have water on hand.

Where To Go

Hiking trails are some of the best places to go trail running. Most county parks and state parks have at least a trail or two and often more. One advantage of using hiking trails is that they’re usually well-mapped and distances are already calculated for you. These days, it can be pretty easy to find maps of local parks and natural areas online. Check out the maps of some parks in your area and you might be surprised at what you find.

Forest roads and gravel roads of all types are also places to run. They tend to be wider and smoother than hiking trails so they’re especially good for beginners or for testing out new gear.

If you’d like help finding routes, it’s also worth contacting a local trail running group or using a trail running website like one of the following:

No matter where you go, it’s important to know that trail running often takes longer than the same distance on a road so make sure you allow yourself extra time. (And don’t be too hard on yourself if your pace is slower than usual.)

Once you have some experience under your belt, you could try an organized trail run or race. Head to trailrunner.com to find a race near you!