When I first began trail running, I read many times to train on trails before I raced on them. Makes perfect sense, right? Sure it does! But instead of going with what made sense, I went with what felt right. Instead of using my head, I went with my heart.
My first encounter EVER with a trail was a 50-mile ultramarathon. I trained on the road, tied up my road shoes, and showed up on race day determined to finish. The plan was simple: show up, run, and figure it out along the way.
So how did the day turn out?
Well, the day of my race I wiped out 3 times, stubbed my toes 30 times on 30 different rocks, and took a mouth full of muddy water. I also landed on top of my water bottle projecting the lid directly into my eye.
But, with all the lumps and bumps the trail had to offer, do you know what the craziest part was? I had a blast!
Finishing with a missing toenail, a beat red eye, and an extremely sore body was nothing compared to the incredible satisfaction I received from crossing the finish line. I finished with a mouth full of dirt and a smile on my face. And you know what? I wouldn’t have changed a second of it! Well, maybe the flying missile of a lid that almost cost me 50% of my vision.
Anyway, you may not be considering running an ultramarathon, but no matter the distance, when running trails the same principle applies. The principle is this: you earn EVERY single mile. Can you feel the fulfillment in that?
Trail running can seem intimidating when considering the many different factors to get started. Overwhelming yourself is easy.
What gear do I need? What shoes should I use? What’s the elevation gain? How much fluid should I bring? Will I get lost?
If this sounds like your thought process, then know you’re not alone. Talking yourself out of a new challenge is common. Our brain perceives new challenges as a threat. Our brain is not designed to be uncomfortable; it’s designed to survive. But know this: every one of your dreams is patiently sitting right outside of your comfort zone. In life we do not regret our mistakes, we regret never trying at all.
Remember, trail running is a sport made for all. Think about it; you perform the most natural form of human activity in the most natural place on earth. You run in nature! In that sense, you were born for trail running!
But it’s always wise to start with some basics to build your foundation. A basic set of tips that will direct you on the trails TODAY.
So here they are. Here’s 12 trail running tips for beginners. These tips will get you started and aid you throughout your new trail running journey!
1. Gaiters Are Your Friend
No, not alligators!!! Gaiters! They are by far the most convenient type of gear a trail runner can buy.
Gaiters attach to your shoe and act as a shield to prevent any rocks or dirt from entering into them. Sure, clearing rocks out of your shoes seems like a minor nuisance. But stopping every few minutes wastes time and interrupts your momentum. Time and energy, two critical factors toward your progress as a trail runner.
If you decide to run an ultramarathon, gaiters become a lifesaver. When running an ultramarathon, a small pebble in your shoe will eventually feel like a jagged boulder by the end of the race. So pick up a pair of gaiters and hit the trails protected!
Action Step: Buy a pair of gaiters online or at your local running/outdoors store.
2. Take It Slow
A common way to injure yourself quickly on the trails is going out too hard, too early. “Trail legs” take time to develop. Your body will need time to break down, adapt, and grow from the new stresses created by the trails.
Unlike roads, trails have short steeper hills. Also, the surfaces are more uneven, and it requires more of a technical stride. Your legs will be moving and twisting in ways it never had before. So give it time, ease into your speed, and watch as your body transforms into a trail running powerhouse.
Action Step: Decrease your pace by 20% compared to your road pace the first time out. Gradually increase your pace with each new training run.
3. Work The Hills
Let the trail dictate your pace. If the hill is runnable, run it, if it’s not, then hike it. By not over exerting yourself you will find a natural flow. Now instead of running, you begin to glide!
Action Step: Walk ALL hills on your first time out. Allow time for you body to adjust.
4. Lift Your Feet
Your stride will be different on the trails as compared to the road. The trail requires you to lift your feet higher off the ground to clear rocks and tree roots. The difference is subtle, but the more tired you become, the harder it becomes to lift them.
As a beginner, it’s important to remind yourself to lift up your feet later in your run. The more tired you become, the lower your feet hang. Low hanging feet increases the probability of clipping a rock or tree root. Lift up your feet or lift yourself off the ground after falling!
Action Step: For the first few miles exaggerate the height you lift your feet up. To build a strong mental connection, the images must be very memorable, because ordinary things are too forgettable. Exaggerating the motion will help you remember to keep them up as fatigue sets in.
5. Look Up and Go Down
If you look up, then you’re going down! Unlike the road, on a trail, you must keep your eyes glued to the ground. Trails have hidden rocks and roots with frequent direction and elevation changes.
So keep your eyes on the dirt, or fall, and get dirt in your eyes.
Action Step: Look at the ground 10-15 feet ahead of you at all times.
6. Wear A Hat
Most trails go through the woods. So expect to run underneath trees. While running underneath trees be sure to wear a hat to keep those little critters out of your hair. If you’re from the Northeast part of the US like myself, this will help prevent picking up any ticks. Covering your head in my neck of the woods is a must.
Also, even though the trees will provide shade, most trails go in and out of the woods so don’t count on the continuous shade. A hat will come in handy to protect yourself from the sun.
Action Step: When underneath trees where your hat backward to stay cool. When out from underneath the trees flip your hat forward to protect your face from the sun.
7. Carry Fluids
Trails take you deep into the woods with no stores in sight. So be sure to carry fluids. Carry fluids with a handheld, belt, vest, or hydration pack. When starting off most use a hydration pack. A common hydration pack holds 32 oz. The extra fluid will help until you become familiar with your fluid intake on the trails.
Actin Step: Determine your sweat loss rate. To do this weigh yourself naked before running. Next, run for one hour at race pace without sipping any fluids. If you must hydrate during your run then record the number of ounces you drink. Lastly, after the completion of your run, wipe yourself down off all sweat and weigh yourself naked again. Now you have your weight before your run, and after your run, this provides the difference in pounds. Convert the pounds to ounces and subtract any water intake. Your answer will provide the amount of water loss per hour. With this number, you will understand how much water you need on your next trail run.
8. Run Light
Don’t force your movement when trail running. I know, when out in the dirt with steep climbs it feels right to go hard. But the key is to keep it light. Don’t force your stride, don’t overextend your legs, and keep your cadence short and quick. Remember, you’re not “pushing down” when running, you’re “lifting up.”
Action Step: Picture the ground rotating below you as the earth spins on its axis. It’s like a treadmill! Lean forward and lift up your feet just enough to let the earth spin underneath you.
9. Use Your Arms
When facing technical trails keep your arms a little wider than usual. A wider arm position will provide added balance when running under branches and on top of rocks. Also, pump those arms when running uphill to gain extra momentum.
Action Step: When running uphill, begin each arm swing with your elbows at your ribs and pull your hands back towards your ribs. As your elbows swing forward don’t let them swing in front of your ribs. Repeat until you clear the hill completely.
10. Bring Along A Buddy
If the idea of being alone on the trails makes you uncomfortable, then bring along a buddy! You never know what you’ll find in the woods, and it’s always safer with two. Safety always comes first!
One time during an ultramarathon I saw a bear warning sign that said “30 Miles”. I didn’t know what was worse, having another 30 miles to run and still being nowhere near the finish, or being by myself for 30 miles on bear watch!
Action Step: Find a running buddy, join a trail running club, or bring along a dog, a BIG dog.
11. Trail Shoes Are Not Required
Yes, this contradicts the norm, but although trail shoes come in handy, they are not required. I’ve run hundreds of trails in road shoes, and although the traction is not excellent, it’s still rubber on your feet. What’s most important is getting out on the trails and putting in the miles. You can find a pair of trail shoes later.
The key is not to overcomplicate the process. Lace up your shoes and run!
Action Step: Without trail shoes, you may feel the rocky surface. To help, add a pair of cushioned soles in your shoes. It makes a world of a difference if using road shoes on the trails.
12. Have A Positive Attitude
Remember to have fun along the way! Approach your run with a positive attitude as you navigate through Mother Nature’s playground. Don’t forget to smile and do your best to stay in the present moment.
What’s the best way to stay positive and upbeat on the trails? Easy, be GRATEFUL. When you are grateful, it’s impossible to feel bad! Gratitude is valuable when facing the tough terrain on the trials and the tough terrain of life.
Action Step: Meditate for 10-15 minutes before your run. During your meditation focus on your heart and think of the many things you’re grateful for in your life! The gift of life at THIS moment is more than enough to be grateful. We are not our past, we are not our future, we are THIS present moment…Happy Trails!
Final Take Away
So there you have it, 12 trail running tips for beginners. These tips are NOT based on what some expert said you SHOULD know. These tips are based on my first time on the trails and what practical information would help most.
As you gain experience from trail running, you will build confidence. From this confidence, you will develop your own style. And from your own style, you will become your own expert. But it all starts with a few basic tips. So whether you decide to run a trail 5k, marathon, or ultramarathon, these tips will help you begin TODAY.
It’s a funny relationship we have with the trails. When I think back to all the trails I ran, the only instances that stand out are the times I fell flat on my face. But it’s not the actual act of falling that I remember. What I remember are all the times I picked myself back up and kept moving forward. Because in the act of overcoming adversity is when we grow as trail runners. In these instances, we grow from runners to trail runners, and from trail runners to TRAIL BLAZERS!
REMEMBER….In life we do not regret our mistakes, we regret never trying at all!
Ready to run an ultramarathon?
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