We spend an awful lot of time writing about trail running – how to run uphill, how to run downhill, how to deal with different terrain, which shoes to wear etc. In fact, there is so much information, it can be difficult to know where to start. You can sometimes get swamped with TMI (too much information). So, here’s our basic guide to trail running for beginners to help you get started. Please note, this website is full of useful information and answers to many of your questions. Have a browse around and discover lots more articles and useful information. Here’s the short version:
- Trail running has many benefits for the body and mind
- You can build great muscle strength and minimise injury
- It’s a great way to enjoy the outdoors
- You can run short or long distances – start with a few miles and build up
- Find new trails and places to run
- Decide whether you will run solo or with a group
- Get yourself the right gear – trail shoes, activity watch, shorts, head torch etc
- Gain experience, technique and wisdom
- The Benefits of Trail Running
Of course, there is so much more to it than that, so grab a cuppa and read the long version. In this article you will learn
- The benefits of trail running
- When, where and how far you should run
- The gear that you need for trail running for beginners
- How you will gain experience and technique
- The rules of trail running
There are so many benefits to trail running that make it a much different, and we think, more enjoyable experience than running on the road. The benefits are for the body and mind too…
Benefits of Trail Running for the Body
- Better for your joints – less impact as it’s absorbed through the softer ground
- Helps to develop balance and strength as you are forced to adapt your gait and change your stride while using different muscles
- Minimise injury (as long as you don’t roll an ankle or trip over a rock)
Benefits of Trail Running for the Mind
- Outdoor exercise and getting back to nature can be a great stress reliever
- Spending time in wooded areas is good for the brain and cognitive function
- It can be more relaxed and easy going that road running as you focus less on times
We also find that it’s a great way to spend a Sunday morning, exploring new places and taking on new challenges.
Deciding When and Where to Run
Where and How Far Will You Run?
Trail running is classed as anything that involves running off the road – there is very little tarmac, very little roads and practically no traffic (unless crossing a road to get to another trail). It’s just you and nature.The terrain you will run on will include grass (short and long), mud (especially in the rainy season), gravelly paths, rocky paths, wheat, barley and corn field (trust us it’s happened) and fields full of livestock. You may have trails on your doorstep, you may have to travel to find them. If you have friends that run off road, take their advice, check out their Strava routes, or use a handy app like All Trails which will give you a whole host of trails based on your location.
How Far Will You Run?
If you are new to trail running, you need to consider how far you will run. If you are a ten mile road runner, don’t go straight out and try and complete ten miles of trail. Trail running takes time, it’s slower than road running and it’s hard work, especially when you are not used to uneven and undulating terrain. We often say that if it takes you 2 hours to complete a half marathon on the road, you are probably going to complete 10/11 miles depending on the terrain off road. You will be running for the same amount of time and the training effects will be the same. I can do 20 miles at 9 minute miles in 3 hours on tarmac – when running off road I slow down considerably and it can take me around 4 hours. That’s with a decent amount of elevation and some challenging terrain.
Who Will You Run With?
If you are going out for your first run, go with a friend if you can. You may not always be able to make this work but there are several reasons we recommend running with someone else, especially when it comes to trail running for beginners:
- Safety – off the beaten track means you won’t see many people – perhaps the odd dog worker or farm worker. This is all well and good but if something happens to you, falling over for instance, there is no-one around to help.
- Knowledge – without my running coach (who introduced me to trail running), I would never have hit the trails that first time. He knew so many routes and so many beautiful places. I would never have found them on my own.
- Company – running alone is OK and sometimes it’s just what you need but having company, especially on those longer runs, is great.
If you are going alone, create a route plan beforehand, take a phone and tell someone where you are going and how long for.
What Time of Day Will You Run?
This is really important, especially in the winter. It gets dark really quickly during the autumn, winter and early spring months, Deciding to go for a a trail run after work, means you are going to lose the light quite quickly. If you are new to trails, and don’t know where you are going, you could get lost, injured or worse. We prefer to go early in the morning, especially when exploring as you have the whole day ahead of you. Safety and security should always be front of mind, especially when considering trail running for beginners.
Trail Running for Beginners – The Right Gear
While deciding when and where to run will probably be your first consideration, your next job will be to find the kit you are going to need. While road shoes are ok in some conditions (especially when it’s dry and relatively flat) but you will need to invest in a pair of trail shoes. This in itself can be a big job with an extensive range of shoes to choose from. We have spent years trialling shoes, reviewing them, swapping them mid ultra, swapping out one pair for another. We have only scratched the surface with so many brands, styles, models etc.
Trail Shoes for Beginners
There are trail shoes for wide feet, waterproof trail shoes, carbon plate trail shoes, trail shoes for muddy conditions, shoes for racing shorter stuff, shoes for longer runs. Where do we even begin? Websites like Sportsshoes.com are great for discounted versions of the latest models where you can pick up shoes like the Salomon Speedcross 5 for a steal. Do some research, ask for recommendations and shop around. You will soon find a pair that suit you and if you don’t get it right first time don’t worry – not everyone finds their ideal shoe first off. Just be sure to go up a half size/full size so that you have enough rooms, pick a good pair of socks and don’t stress when they get dirty!
The Nike Pegasus GTX is a great contender when it comes to wide fit, waterproof trail shoes and is just one example of the type of trail running shoe you can get. This particular shoe will keep your feet dry in wet conditions and can deal with rocky terrain with impressive grip and durability
When starting out I just used my Garmin 235 which was great. Of course, I then got charmed by the beauty of the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro and the fact that I could load my routes up and the long battery life and I had to have one. This has changed trail running for me because I am now much more confident going out alone with a route to follow. I can also track back if I go wrong. I am much more confident knowing how far it is until the next turn for example. We have listed the best Garmin running watches for trail runners here.
Once you have found your feet on the trails, and got more into it, you want to think about a running head torch. There are many to choose form. I still run with a £15 Amazon purchase which is quite heavy but it works for me. If you are going to run off road in the dark, a head torch is a must.
A Hydration Vest
Again, there are lots and lots of running vests available. We have our preferences. Big fans of the Salomon S-Lab but equally, I have a tried and trusted £30 vest from Amazon which has seen me through upwards of a thousand miles and is still going strong. When considering kit for beginner trail runners, it’s definitely worth a look.
Like any kit, you will get what you pay for. We have been fortunate and have purchased kit that has stood the test of time but then I have spent money on kit that I wouldn’t recommend. It pays to shop around but Amazon is always great for water bottles, gels, hydration kit etc.
If you are going to run for more than a few miles, or are out in hot temperatures, you need to have kit with you including water and fuel. If you are going to be out and about in mountainous terrain be sure to take waterproofs, a whistle and a foil blanket too!
Experience, Technique and Confidence
Once you have a route in mind, your trail shoes on and all the equipment you need, you then just need to get out there and run. At first, you may feel uneven on your feet (core strength training will help), and you may find some elements of it frustrating. I remember being obsessed with my watch when i first started and getting a little bit impatient at gates and styles. I soon got over that and now the only think i am interested in is how much climb was in the run and learning how various parts of my routes link up with other routes.
Trail running confidence comes with experience. We joke that you aren’t a proper trail runner until you have fallen over but we want you to avoid that. Slow it down on tricky sections, take care over rocky terrain, be very careful when running on slippery leaves in autumn (usually rocks and uneven terrain lies beneath) and just be cautious. Take smaller steps and always think a few steps head – don’t look down at your feet – you won’t see what is coming. If you are running behind someone, follow their footsteps.
Running downhill is an art in itself and rather than try and explain the ins and outs of it here, we refer you to our downhill running guide. You will find tips and tricks to help you run down hill efficiently. There is so much freedom when running down hill with confidence, it will definitely help you become a quicker, and stronger, runner. It can often be the difference in your position in a race.
Top Tips from the Community
When we shared this article to Reddit on 29/03/23, we asked for their top tips for first time trail runners. Needless to say, true to their form, they were full of amazing and useful tips. We have taken a collection of them for you below. You can find the rest on the thread here.
‘Ankle stability and strengthening exercises are worth the time and effort’
‘Learning to hike uphill fast is a very important skill for a trail runner. In some situations hiking is as fast as running but more energy efficient.’
‘Throw metrics out the window and just run at the pace you can comfortably be at (metrics will come later when you are more seasoned)’
‘Trail running does not cause black toenails. Shoes that are too small while running downhill cause black toenails.’
‘You are always going to need toilet paper when you don’t pack it.’
‘Learn to be efficient on the downhills, they are hard, technical, and can make or break your races.’
‘Even if you are running with other people let someone know your intended route and approximate timings. Learn to use a map and a compass.’
It is definitely worth joining a Reddit forum or a Facebook group specifically for trail running, it is a great place to ask any questions you might have.
Trail Running Rules
When it comes to trail running for beginners, there are a few rules you need to follow:
- Leave only footprints and take only pictures
- Shut gates behind you – livestock can escape
- Be careful and follow the rules when going through livestock fields
- If you see litter and you have a belt, pocket or vest, pick it up and take it with you
- Enjoy the views and take in all that nature has to offer
- Ignore the watch (unless it’s telling you which way to go)
For us, trail running is a chance to escape, switch off and just enjoy the great outdoors. Whether it’s a quick 5 mile blast after work, or a full morning exploring, we love it. We enjoy it. For us, road doesn’t hold the same appeal. The key to it is to enjoy it. Don’t worry about times, speed, distance etc. Just have fun. If you find out advice on trail running for beginners useful to you, please feel free to share your comments.
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