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The first thing you’ll discover about running off-road is that it’s nothing at all like running on actual roads, or even in your neighborhood park. Trail running is all about freedom. It’s your chance to escape the stress of the real world, the constraints of your typical training, and the chaos of urban and suburban gridlock. But it’s also a great form of exercise, being a full-body workout that builds agility, aerobic fitness, and muscular strength. Here are seven trail running tips to keep in mind as you start your own trail running journey.
7 Trail Running Tips for Running Off-Road
1. Start Slow
Consistent pacing is a key element of road running, especially when you’re training for an upcoming race. But when you’re off-road, the best trail running tips advise ignoring your relative pace. If you normally run a seven-minute to nine-minute mile on the roads, you’re bound to run considerably slower on the trails because of the variations in the terrain. All trails are different, but they typically feature undulating terrain with a variety of technical challenges like roots, rocks, sharp turns, steep descents, stout climbs, and loose gravel.
2. Run for Time, Not Mileage
If you usually run three to six miles on the road in 30–60 minutes, plan to run the same duration off-road without worrying about the distance you’ll cover. Because of the hills and technical features on the trail, you might only cover three or four miles during a 45-to 60-minute run. But that’s OK; enjoy the time you’re out there and know that you were always in motion, whether running, walking, or hiking.
3. Mind Your Steps
When you’re running on the roads, your footsteps and gait are nearly identical from start to finish. But off-road, taking shorter strides can help you run nimbly and avoid tripping — especially going up and down hills. Focus your eyes on the trail a stride or two ahead so your brain and feet develop an agile rhythm. Eventually, that will become second nature, and you’ll be able to look further down the trail or even check out the scenery while you’re in motion. But when starting out, keep your eyes on the ground in front of you. Also, carry your arms slightly wider for balance, just as some animals use their tails when they run.
4. Get the Gear
While all you really need are running shoes, there is specialized trail gear that will improve your experience. Trail running shoes offer much better traction, more protection, and greater durability than your road running shoes, lessening the chances of rolled ankles, stubbed toes, and sharp rocks bruising the bottoms of your feet. Because the weather can change quickly, it’s wise to carry extra clothing and accessories. Depending on the conditions, that might mean taking a lightweight wind shell, a hat, sunscreen, and possibly gloves. And if you’re heading out before dawn or at dusk, wear a headlamp.
5. Run Safely
Running trail has a variety of inherent risks that running on roads does not. First and foremost, it’s best not to run alone on trails. If you run alone, carry a phone and let someone know your plan and check in after. The chances of injury or encountering wildlife increase greatly on the trails. Getting lost is easier than you might think, given that the natural surroundings look so similar at every junction. Secondly, make sure you know where you’re going. Even if you’re starting at a popular trailhead, it makes sense to look at a map and plan a route. And take a map with you, whether it’s a paper map or a phone-based map on an app.
6. Stay Hydrated and Fueled Up
As with any kind of run, it’s smart to hydrate and fuel up before you start. On shorter runs, that might mean just drinking some water before you leave your car at the trailhead. For off-road runs of 45–90 minutes, carry a small water bottle or lightweight hydration pack and carry an energy gel or some kind of easy-to-stow snack with at least 100 calories. For runs longer than 90 minutes, carry at least 20 ounces of water and several gels, or small energy bars in a hydration pack that’s big enough to carry a lightweight jacket and other accessories.
7. Stay on the Trails!
This is the most important tip. As you’re trail running, you might be intrigued by getting off the beaten path, but that’s not a good idea. First, going off-trail greatly increases the probability of getting lost, falling, and getting injured. Side-stepping down a steep slope on slippery terrain can seem fun, but it also likely means you’ll be trampling various forms of vegetation that are important to the ecosystem, which local land managers have worked hard to protect. Rest assured, every trail offers dozens of unique vantage points and the unique scenery changes with the time of day and the time of the year. Enjoy the view and get the most from your run by making these trail running tips a part of your journey.
Brian Metzler’s trail running tips come from firsthand experience. He is the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine and has run trail running races from 5K to 100 miles. He’s a trail running expert who completed the daunting Leadman competition in 2018 and finished the Leadville trail marathon, the Silver Rush 50-mile mountain bike race, the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, the Leadville 10K, and the Leadville 100 trail running race during a six-week span.