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How to Start Trail Running

If you've never tried trail running, you're missing out! A top ultra runner shares her top tips for getting started on the trails.

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It’s fall, which for triathletes traditionally means it’s time to start thinking about how to attack the off-season. While it’s hard to think of an off-season after no actual season, it’s still a great time to pursue some fun-focused training. Thanks to the cooler temps and pretty autumn foliage, now is a great time to start trail running. Very few workout options offer the variety, aerobic and strength benefits, and views that come with pounding the trails. 

While road running and trail running share some similarities, there are important differences. Wandering off-road can feel intimidating but, like all things in endurance sports, arming yourself with the right knowledge and tools will make all of the difference. Amelia Boone, a 37-year-old obstacle course racing world champion and ultra runner, shared some of her favorite tips for maximum fun and safety when you start trail running. 

Grab the Basics

One of the best parts about running is the simplicity of it. There’s no heavy-duty or expensive equipment to worry about—just you and your route. But there are a few things Boone suggested having to make your time on the trail easier and more enjoyable. 

“Toilet paper stuck in your bra or shorts is a must-have,” half-joked Boone. “But make sure you pack it out.” While Boone was partially kidding, it’s good to remember that depending on the trail system, there may or may not be access to bathrooms, so make sure you’re prepared to keep yourself, uh… clean. 

On a more serious note, Boone addressed the common question of: Do I really need trail running shoes?

“You actually do not need trail running shoes,” said Boone. “You can run tamer trails in road shoes.” 

If you’re attempting technical trails with significant amounts of rocks, roots, and rivers, you may want to invest in specific trail shoes that feature lugs (i.e. rubber protrusions on the sole that offer better grip), a rock plate (i.e. a stiff piece of plastic in the midsole to prevent sharp objects from penetrating the sole), and a stiffer woven upper. 

Boone also noted that hydration packs are a very individual decision. Boone herself prefers models that allow the runner to keep actual water bottles secured on the front of the pack, while others may prefer the more traditional backpack bladder-style. 

Lastly, it’s critical to take into account that nature is not predictable. Safety should always be top of mind when trail running, whether on a local jaunt or high in the mountains.

“I always bring a heat sheet, hand warmers, and headlamp in my pack,” said Boone. “For me, the most important things I carry are all safety-related.” 

If you’ve got decent road shoes, a way to carry water, and a backpack to carry some first aid equipment, you’re likely already prepared to start trail running. 

Don’t Worry About Pace

Triathletes are no stranger to religiously analyzing their data and keeping an eagle eye on their pacing and metrics. With trail running, throw all that out the window. 

“Just know you’re going to be a lot slower when trail running,” commented Boone. “And if that bothers you, put some tape over the pace metric on your watch.”

With trail running, efficiency is key. This means that sometimes instead of running uphill or trying to run through a sketchy rock field, a better tactic is actually to power hike. While this may lead to slower paces than road running, power hiking is metabolically more efficient and will keep your heart rate and energy expenditure in check.

Quick Feet

Going downhill during a trail run is also quite different than tactics used in road running. 

“The big thing is having quick feet,” noted Boone. 

Looking ahead and scanning the upcoming terrain is crucial. Your feet should move almost as quickly as if doing speedwork in a ladder. Small steps not only protect your joints and lessen impact, but speedy feet give you the freedom to quickly change direction, hop onto another rock, and avoid tripping. 

Boone also strongly advised that trail runners practice leaning forward and quickening their cadence when charging downhill, and to not lean backward and brake. Leaning backward, Boone explained, will “thrash your quads” and leave you with achy knees. Gravity, take the wheel!

Pick a Trail—and Be Polite

Now that you have equipment and the right approach locked in, it’s time to pick a trail. 

It’s best to start out on a less-technical trail first. Look for trails with moderate elevation gain and packed dirt or gravel. Once you’re comfortable there, graduate to routes with more challenging elements. No matter the level of the beaten path, be sure to follow basic trail etiquette. Going for a scoot in the wild means it’s fairly typical to encounter horses and mountain bikes. Always, always yield to horses was Boone’s number one note. Mountain bikes should give right-of-way to runners, but if it’s safe for the runner to hop off the trail, sometimes that’s easiest. 

“If you come upon hikers, give a shout that you’re coming up on their left,” said Boone. “And be sure to smile and wave and thank them for their courtesy as you pass them.”