Beginner's Guide to Trail Running (Part One)

If you’re looking for a fun way to get in shape, relieve some stress, and connect with nature – or if you’re just looking to change up your regular running routine – trail running is a great choice. It doesn’t require a ton of gear, and it’s easy to get started. In this article, we’re going to discuss:

    • The benefits of trail running – and how it can be very different from road running
    • Trail running techniques & little adjustments you’ll need to make if you’re used to running on pavement or a treadmill
    • And how to find trails near you

So let’s get into it!

Trail Running Benefits

First, let’s cover a couple of benefits to trail running that you may not have thought of.

Number 1: Trail running is actually great for your joints because you’re running on a softer surface. Running on dirt and grass has significantly less impact than a harder surface like concrete. Your joints will thank you for this.

Number 2: Another benefit is that, not only is trail running easier on your joints, but you’ll actually strengthen your stability muscles. Thanks to the uneven terrain, you’ll have to use all of those little stabilizing muscles in your feet, legs, and hips, that you don’t normally put to use running on even surfaces.

And kind of a bonus benefit that stems from this is that trail running increases your proprioception -- this is just a fancy way of saying that you’ll gain a better sense of your spatial awareness. This helps you with everything from balancing, to moving, to operating a car.

Number 3: And perhaps the most obvious benefit of trail running is the relaxing effect of reconnecting with nature. No offense to treadmills or paved streets, but being out in nature –the smells, the sounds, the gorgeous scenery – it has a rejuvenating effect that you can’t get anywhere else.

Next up, let’s talk about the techniques & some little adjustments you’ll need to make for running off-road.

Technique: How Running on Trails is Different from Road Running

Timing & Planning

When scheduling your runs, you should plan on being out longer than you think. For example, if it typically takes you 20 minutes to do a 2-mile run, then you should plan on a 2-mile trail run to take 30 or even 40 minutes to complete. This is because an unpredictable and changing terrain will affect your pace.  

For one example, if you map out a relatively smooth dirt path to run on, but then it rains and now you find yourself running on a muddier trail, you simply won’t be able to run as fast. And there are plenty of other factors that cause trail runs to take longer. Just know in advance that you’ll likely need to double the amount of time it would typically take you to run a certain distance.

Where to Focus Your Gaze

A big mistake plenty of new trail runners make is staring at their feet, in order to dodge rocks and other debris. The problem with this is – as any runner who’s made this mistake will confirm – this won’t give you enough time to anticipate & react to debris, and you’ll inevitably trip and fall.

What you want to do is set your gaze roughly 10-20 feet out in front of you, this gives you time to prepare and adjust your stride to the upcoming obstacles. And then you’ll naturally use your peripheral vision to step around. Don’t make the mistake that so many of us have by staring at your feet. Instead, set your gaze about 10-20 feet – or about the length of a car – in front of you, so that you can scan the ground for upcoming obstacles.

Quicken Your Stride & Take Shorter Steps

This sort of goes hand-in-hand with scheduling longer run times. Because unlike running on a paved path where you can maintain a steady pace, depending on the specific trail you run on, you’re going to have to slow your pace and take shorter steps.  

This will help you react to the changing terrain, and obstacles like rocks, roots, and steeper hills. This is one of the main differences with trail running -- you simply can’t maintain a steady pace like you could on a paved route, and you should mentally prepare in advance for it.

Running Downhill

Another common mistake some new trail runners make when going downhill is that they want to land on their heels to slow down. This can work fine on a paved road, but not so much when dealing with unpredictable terrain. A better method is to bend your ankles, lean slightly forward, and try to land midfoot.

This eases the impact on your joints and helps stabilize you. You can also flare out your elbows to give you better balance -- similar to a tightrope walker holding one of those long sticks.

Okay so you know the benefits of trail running, and the techniques to help you get started, but where exactly do you find these trails?

Where to Find Trails

Thankfully it’s never been easier to find running trails near you. Here are a couple of great resources to check out:

    • AllTrails: There are great apps like the popular AllTrails app, that’ll show you all the best trails in your area. This app also allows you to map your own trails and share them with others. Plus a nice feature is that you can download routes so that, in a pinch, you can use GPS navigation even if you don’t have a signal.

    • Trail Run Project: Or you’ve got the Trail Run Project app, which is sort of like the Yelp for trail runners. Not only do they list photos & descriptions of the trail distance and elevation, but they also let people who recently ran the trail share their feedback on it, so you’ll know what to expect.
    • Blue Ridge Parkway Hiking: If you happen to be near the Blue Ridge area, you can check out Blue Ridge Parkway Hiking. They list the trails in order of milepost, along with the elevation. And they even rank each trail from “easy” to “moderate” to “strenuous” so you can better choose and be prepared.

All 3 are great trail-finding sources, and you should definitely check them out.

Now that you know where to find your next trail to run on, next up in part 2, let’s talk about the different types of trail running shoes, how to pick the best one for you, and some beginner tips to help you get started...

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