So, you want to start trail running.
Welcome to a world of freedom and discipline, perseverance and adrenaline. Anybody can be a trail-runner, and the experience is unlike any other.
Running on trails can be as simple as jogging down unpaved park paths to as technical as running in mountain hiking areas. Whatever your goals are- here’s everything you need to get started with trail running.
One special thing about trail running is the small amount of specific gear needed to get out and get moving. You probably have many of the needed gear items in your closet already, and trail runners only carry a shortlist of necessities with them. Invest well in the few things, and your trail time will be well worth it.
1. Trail Runners
While you can use street running shoes for unpaved, flat paths in near-perfect conditions, you will likely want a hybrid or full trail runner to tackle rocks, mud and uneven surfaces.
Trail runners differ from street runners in two main areas: structure and soles. While road shoes tend to be flexible, trail running shoes are more stiff to protect your steps from abrasion and sudden changes. Secondly, the soles of road runners are more flat and made from a hard, slick rubber. This rubber is designed to last for as long as possible on concrete and asphalt, but it easily becomes slick on trails. To remedy that, trail runners have lugs, which are taller protrusions from the shoes’ soles. Lugs are made from a soft rubber, which claws into gravel and dirt and grips well on wet and muddy surfaces. Lugs are not made for anything off-trail, however, because the soft rubber wears down quickly on paved routes. You should decide on your running shoes based on your trail running goals.
If you plan to run on mixed trails and paved paths, shoot for a soft hybrid shoe. These have mixed soft and hard rubbers with slightly more aggressive lugs than road runners, and are perfect for mixed running. For this running goal, look for shoes that maintain a comfortable amount of flex on hard roads and lugs around 2 mm. These are great to run to a trail and on it, or on less-groomed pavement.
If you plan to be running on gravel or paths similar to Forest Service roads or local hikes in the woods, shoot for a stiffer hybrid with mixed rubber and lugs around 3 or 4 mm. Though you can opt for a more aggressive shoe, the rigidity of a hard trail runner will feel awkward on tightly packed dirt and gravel, while a softer structure will give you comfort and flex on the run.
If you picture yourself running on technical hiking trails, a rigid trail running shoe is the safest call. Look for lugs around 5 mm to dig in and stick on slippery rocks and roots. Added bonus- these can make great lightweight hikers as well!
When running distances, hydration is key. Like with your shoe choice, the most practical hydration system for you depends on your trail running goals and personal preferences. There are three time-tested and effective options to quench your thirst while running.
First, handheld water bottles are designed to feel natural in your hand while running and squeeze to allow you to drink without taking a break. These are great especially if you have the opportunity along the way to refill, as they typically cannot comfortably hold more than 16oz. Some bottles are compatible with single-bottle water filters, like the Sawyer Mini. If you are running near water and are comfortable using the squeeze-filter system, this could be the lightest option for you.
Hydration belts are popular for many distance runners, with multiple small bottles secured to a slim-profile belt. These are an excellent option if you are going a mid-distance without resupply, or for long runs with a chance to refill. The multiple bottles give runners the choice of having both water and an electrolyte/energy beverage with them, a serious reason to consider the belt even with another system. The negative of hydration belts is that some do not fit comfortably and snugly on all body types. Ask at your local gear shop which hydration belt best fits your profile.
Lastly, hydration packs like Camelbacks are the best way to carry large amounts of water without sacrificing comfort and on-the-go accessibility. These fit close to your back and can be integrated with trail running vests and packs as well as with many hiking backpacks. If you anticipate running distances with no opportunity to resupply, a hydration pack is your best choice.
For trail running, wear comfortable, sweat-wicking athletic clothes that allow you maximum mobility. Your gym clothes or hiking clothes should work, assuming they are non-cotton and breathable. Swap out hiking pants for leggings, running tights or shorts. Be sure to carry an extra layer, even on warm days, as temperatures can change suddenly and your body will cool faster the more you sweat. In cooler weather, you will want lightweight gloves, a Buff or neck gaiter, and a beanie.
Got your gear ready? Its time to pack up your ten essentials. Yes, you still need the big ten, even when you are moving light and fast. This slightly adapted list is for anything from local hikes and Forest Service roads to technical trail running. Do not start on the trail without these items!
Of course, you know the basics of how to run. Trail running calls for special attention in a few areas to keep you safe from falls and injury, but these are simple to practice and make into habits.
The first adjustment to make is your stride. While some circumstances call for longer strides in road running, short, quick steps are the most sure-footed when running off road. Shortening your stride will allow you to respond instantly to obstacles and sudden changes, maintaining stability even through tough technical sections.
Next, keep your gaze on the ground ahead of you. Though it can be tempting to look right at your feet, doing so will land you face-first into the trail. Practice looking ahead and trusting yourself to make small, steady strides.
Lastly, keep your arms moving for best balance. Imagine an invisible string at your fingertips. You want the string to go from the front of your hip up to your ear as directly as possible. This motion helps you maintain speed and balance, and matches your upper body with your lower body’s stride.
Your mentality about trail running will influence your experience on the trail. Trail running can be difficult, and it requires you to be in a specific type of physical fitness. Do not get discouraged if you find yourself struggling to hit a confident short stride or wheezing for air. Keep trying! If you need to walk, then walk to catch your breath or get through that rocky section- but push yourself to rise to the challenges you face. Trail running, to me, feels freeing and empowering, even when I know that I should be in better shape! Enjoy it and see setbacks as opportunities to get stronger and spend more time outside. Who doesn’t want that?
Let us know how your fall trail runs are going in the comments below!