The Beginner’s Guide To Trail Running

Do you want to start trail running but don’t know where to begin? Read our guide to learn about everything from essential kit to finding trails.

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If you’re looking for a challenge, a way to lose weight, get fit or an opportunity to get yourself into the great outdoors; trail running could be the answer.

In the next 10 minutes, our Beginners Guide To Trail Running will give you everything you need to know to get started.

We’ve structured the guide into categories, so feel free to jump right to the category that’s of interest to you.

The Essential Trail Running Gear List

Like any sport, there’s certain pieces of kit that you just can’t live without. And, that’s why we’ve created the essential kit list for trail runners. Everything from trail running shoes right through to compression gear to regulate body temperature and prevent pain.

#1 – Trail Running Shoes

Cost: $80-200 

Your most important piece of kit is going to be a pair of quality trail running shoes. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for shoes under $100 or have no specific budget, you’ll need your shoes to have some key features.

Grip

Most injuries on the trail are caused by slips and falls. A pair of running shoes with adequate grip is going to prevent most falls, and injuries. So, it’s worth putting a reasonable budget aside to get the perfect set.

There are different soles available for every type of runner. It doesn’t matter whether you run on dry fire roads, boggy forest tracks or prefer fell running; there’s a trail running shoe designed for every scenario.

Support

Naturally, you’re going to slip and slide on the trail. A good pair of trail running shoes will have enough support so that when you do slip, you don’t damage any muscles or ligaments.

Water-Proofing

There’s a good chance you are going to get wet on the trail, but that doesn’t mean your feet have to.

The best trail running shoes are water-proof. One of the most popular water-proofing materials used by shoe manufacturers is Gore-Tex.

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#2 – Trail Running Socks

Cost: $6-25

Your feet take an unbelievable hammering on the trail. This can lead to blisters and even athletes foot. A cheap and effective way of protecting your feet, is to invest in some quality trail running socks.

Hopefully, you’ve already gone ahead and invested in some high-quality Gore-Tex trail running shoes, and that will protect you from water on the trail.

However, your feet are still going to sweat. Quality trail running socks have moisture wicking fabrics that allow your feet to dry quickly, keeping you fresh right up until the end of your run.

We’ve reviewed the best trail running socks here.

#3 – Hydration Pack

Cost: $30-150

It’s important to stay hydrated on your run. And, if you’re planning to run on the trail for a few hours or more, it’s worth taking some essentials (food, drinks, phone, head torch). For this, you’re going to need a hydration pack.

Typically, we’d always be opting for a running hydration vest over a standard hydration pack (which are more suited to hikers).

In a hydration vest, there’s enough room for a few litres of fluid, and then a further 5-6 litres worth of capacity for all your essentials. And, the snug fit means that you’ll hardly notice it’s there.

We’ve already covered the best hydration packs and vests for running here.

#4 – Lightweight & Packable Trail Running Jacket

Cost: $30-150

It’s rare you’ll be hitting the trail for less than a few hours at a time. And, we all know how the weather can turn.

So, it’s always worth packing a lightweight waterproof running jacket. It doesn’t need to be anything too extreme, just enough to keep you warm and dry until you get home, if the heavens do decide to open.

We’ve reviewed some of the best running jackets on the market here.

#5 – Technical Trail Running T-Shirt

$25-50

Technical running tees offer comfort. In the heat, they are breathable and keep you cool. In the colder months, they help to regulate body temperature so you don’t get too cold.

And, when you sweat, the breathable materials allow moisture to dry quickly, keeping you fresh on your trail run.

You can check out our reviews of the best technical running t-shirts here.

#6 – Running Shorts

Cost: $25-85

Like your technical running t-shirt, running shorts will help to regulate body temperature, as well as allowing sweat to dry quickly.

We’ve reviewed the best running shorts here.

#7 – Compression Running Gear

Cost: $15-75

Trail running can be hard on the body. Anything you can do to help yourself during the run and recovery period is going to be a bonus.

Compression running gear is a fantastic way to do this. The compression that this type of clothing provides helps to evenly distribute blood flow. This means better oxygen distribution and therefore, a body that’s able to run faster for longer.

And, compression running gear isn’t just designed to help with muscle recovery. Many athletes use compression gear to help reduce pain.

For instance, a compression sock can help reduce ankle pain and blisters, whereas a compression knee sleeve can help to reduce knee pain.

Naturally, the improved distribution of blood also means that temperature is regulated better. That means keeping cooler in the warmer months, and warmer in the cooler months.

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Quick Fire: 8 Trail Running Tips For Beginners

Looking for some quick-fire trail running tips to get you started? Everything from warm ups to hydration, we’ve got you covered.

#1 – Warm Up Properly

You might be chomping at the bit to hit the trail, but always warm up first.

A warm up is going to get oxygen pumping to all the muscles you’ll be using on your run. It’s also going to reduce the chance of you pulling any muscles or ligaments. And, any injury like this is going to mean days or weeks worth of recovery time.

Check out this warm up video from The Run Experience.

#2 – Reduce Your Pace

Running on the road is completely different to running on the trail. On the road, you’re battling to keep up that intense pace, and the terrain is completely predictable.

On the trail, every step could result in a slip or fall, you’ll have to negotiate branches and boggy patches.

So, it’s wise to start by knocking 20-30% off your normal running pace – you can constantly look ahead for something that might literally, trip you up.

#3 – Remember To Recover

You’ll be tackling slippery uphills and rocky downhills, and keeping yourself stable will require the use of muscles you don’t use regularly. And, that means you’re going to be aching after your first few runs.

One of the biggest mistakes that new trail runners make is that they don’t allow these muscles time to recover. During recovery, muscles grow stronger, and that means you’ll have more technical ability on the trail.

Don’t let them recover? Well, you’ll be exactly where you started – in pain and gaining no technical running ability.

#4 – Always Look Ahead

It’s a natural reaction to constantly look at where every step is being placed. But, you should be scanning ahead as well, looking out for any hazards and ways to avoid them.

Particularly on slippery trails, you might not be able to stop quickly, so looking ahead is crucial.

#5 – Aim To Finish Well Before Dusk

If predict your run should take an hour, don’t set off an hour before dusk – set off much earlier.

Anything from a minor injury, to getting lost and even a fallen tree could delay your run by an hour or more. And, once it starts getting dark, even with a head torch, navigating trails can be a nightmare.

#6 – Note Landmarks

Many trails are well marked, but some aren’t.

As you progress through the run, try and pick out some obvious landmarks that you’ll see on your way back.

This might be a fallen tree, a bridge across a stream, or a sign. These landmarks will help to ensure you’re on the right track when you head for home.

#7 – Stay Hydrated

Whether you use a hydration pack or vest, or prefer to just take a bottle; stay hydrated; especially in the warmer months of the year.

Typically, a trail run won’t last any less than 60-90 minutes. And, that’s a lot of time to be sweating and not replenishing lost fluids with a drink.

#8 – Capture Your Journey

Trail running has a big advantage over running at the gym or on the road; scenery. Whether it’s a beautiful forest or unique wildlife, taking a camera with you will help capture every moment.

If you’re looking for a quality running camera, try a GoPro with a chest mount.

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5 Easy Trail Running Techniques

Trail running isn’t the same as running on the road. You need to adapt. So, we’ve offered up some of the best trail running techniques to help you get started with trail running.  

#1 – Swing Your Arms

Swinging your arms in rhythm isn’t just a common technique to time breathing, it provides the body with momentum that otherwise, needs to come from your legs. It’s a fantastic way to save energy.

#2 – Slow Down Rather Than Stop

Some inclines on the trail are just too much. If you’re looking to build up your fitness, switch to a fast hike rather than stopping altogether. This will keep your heart rate up and in return will build up stamina.

#3 – Ditch The Lengthy Stride

On the road, you’ll be running at a consistent pace, with a large stride. When you hit the trail, you’ll want to change this up.

A long stride reduces agility, so when you’re approaching obstacles, you’re going to be off balance.

Shortening your stride will allow you to dodge obstacles, and if you slip on one foot, your other foot will counteract quickly to avoid a fall.

#4 – Improve Your Posture

Posture is another thing that is going to help improve your balance. Keep your shoulders and back straight as you run, and you’ll find a more natural balance point thanks to a better centre of gravity.

A lot of trail runners naturally slump forwards, and that pushes your centre of gravity off balance and invites a fall face first into the mud.

#5 – Put Your Elbows Out

When approaching potentially difficult terrain, it’s a clever idea to push out your elbows. This is going to provide extra stability in case you slip on rocks or mud.

Finding Trails

So, you’ve grabbed all your trail running gear, read our top trail running tips and you’re ready to go.

But, where’s the best place to find trails? 

Finding Trail Running Spots In The UK

If you’re looking for a trail running magazine, then I’d suggesting hopping over to Trail Running Mag.

As part of their subscription, they offer access to over 1,000 OS maps of trail running routes throughout the UK.

There’s also free access to trail running routes over at Good Run Guide, on their Site or through the Good Run Guide App, available for free on the Play Store and App Store.

Finding Trail Running Spots In The USA & Beyond

If you’re in the USA, or planning a run anywhere else in the world, then TrailZilla is going to be your one stop shop for finding routes. You can find a trail almost anywhere using their online tool here.

TrailZilla is a website owned by Memory-Map® Europe. Starting back in 2000, they now provide maps to over 250,000 outdoor enthusiasts.

Trail Running Safety

Trail running isn’t the most dangerous sport in the world, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t chance of injury. Whether you run as part of a group, or prefer to run alone, take onboard our top trail running tips to keeping safe during your run. 

Food & Water

We’ve already discussed how wearing a hydration vest is important to staying fresh. But, runs can be much longer than you expect. Maybe you got lost, or twisted your ankle and can only walk.

Whatever the case, always carry extra food and water.

Keep Focused On The Trail

It doesn’t matter if you run at a high intensity level for 30 minutes, or at a steady pace for 3 hours; you will get tired.

It’s all too easy to slip, twist an ankle and fall. Most injuries on the trail come towards the end of a run, simply because fatigue sets in, and focus dwindles.

So, keep your head in the game, or stop for a quick break.

Pre-Plan Your Route

It’s nice to go whichever the wind takes you, but that’s asking for trouble.

If you’re not on a clearly marked trail, it’s easy to get lost. One of our local forests is over 18,000 acres. If you get lost in a place like that, it could take hours (or longer) to find your way out.

So, look at the route before-hand. As a safety precaution (especially if you run alone), take a map and a compass.

Inform Someone Of Your Plans

Once you’ve got your run mapped out, and you’ve got an estimate of how long it will take, let somebody know your plans.

Give them an idea of when you expect to be back. If you don’t contact by a certain time, they’ll know something is wrong and they can call for help.

Don’t Sneak Up On Wildlife

Apart from myths, in the UK, we have little in the way of wildlife that poses any real danger.

However, I know that’s certainly not the case in many other places in the world.

Typically, wildlife is going to be more scared of you than you are of it. So, why do animals attack? It’s a defence mechanism.

If you catch an animal unaware because they’ve not heard you, and they suddenly find themselves backed into a corner, they feel the need to fight their way out. And, that’s bad news.

So, stick to the beaten trails and don’t be scared to make noise if you do see wildlife.

Take A Sat Or Cell Phone

If you’re with a quality network provider, there’s a chance you’ll get signal on the trail. I’d suggesting testing this out by running with a partner, or walking the route first. 

If you can’t get signal on the trail, it’s a wise move to take a sat phone.

Some trails are really off the beaten track, so it might be hours or days before you see someone. If that’s the case and you fall and are unable to walk, you’ll be in big trouble, especially as you’ll have limited water and food, and nothing to protect you from the elements.

Breathing Techniques For Trail Running

Trail running is more difficult than road running for one reason; regulating breathing is a much bigger challenge.

The terrain on the road is consistent, inclines are minimal at best, and there’s no worry about jumping fallen trees or negotiating bogs, so pace stays steady. 

At various parts of a trail run, you’ll be running at high intensity and pushing different parts of the body, so breathing correctly is important to help you avoid stitch.

The biggest problem with stitch, is once it sets in, it’s a real pain to get rid of.

Breathe Through Your Mouth, Not Your Nose

The first breathing technique you need to get down is to start breathing through your mouth, not your nose. The nose only allows restricted air flow, and that means your muscles are being starved of oxygen.

By breathing deeply and consistently through your mouth, you’ll be allowing your body access to optimum levels of oxygen, and reducing the chance of stitch.

Focus On Breathing

I ride and watch motocross; a lot. It’s a high intensity sport with many top athletes keeping their heart rate at 180+ for 30-45 minutes.

There’s one thing that pops up on the pit boards of these rider’s time and time again; “Breathe”.

They literally forget to breathe for 5-10 seconds at a time or more, and I’ve done it too. And, that’s 5-10 seconds of oxygen that you’re never going to get back.

Remember to breathe.

Breathing Rhythm

Runners at the gym or on the road might using a breathing timing technique using steps. For instance, inhale over the space of two steps, and exhale over the following two.

But, that doesn’t really work for trail running. Steps can be incredibly inconsistent due to inclines, negotiating mud, and even climbing rocky patches.

A much better way to time breathing when trail running is to figure out a timing rhythm that allows you to inhale deeply, and exhale in the same way.

Try it out. Inhale deeply over the space of three seconds, and then exhale deeply over the space of three seconds. Find a timing rhythm that suits you.

Whatever you do, don’t take short breaths, you won’t be getting the optimum amount of oxygen.

Food On The Run

If your average trail is less than 80-90 minutes long, there’s a good chance that you won’t need to eat on the run.

But, if you prefer to make a day of your run with some regular stops, or plan to run for more than 90 minutes at a time, it’s a clever idea to take some snacks with you to replenish some of the calories that are dropping off.

Running Gels

You don’t want anything too heavy. Whatever you consume is going to take a while to digest and in the meantime, it will be bouncing around in your body. 

And, this is where energy gels for runners come in. A typical energy gel will offer around 90-120 calories. Whilst this isn’t much, it could be just enough to sustain your intensity right up until the end of the trail.

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Dried Foods And Energy Bars

Dehydrated and dried foods like nuts and apricots are always a good shout. They weigh almost nothing and give your body that little extra boost.

However, most people want that small injection of energy, not just calories, and that’s where a good energy bar is going to help.

Trail Running Training Plan To Lose Weight

There’s no doubt, trail running is an excellent way to lose weight. For anyone that loves the outdoors, simply running around local roads just isn’t fun. And, when something isn’t fun, our commitment to it slowly dwindles.

So, the key is to have a trail running training plan, but not to make it so hardcore that it’s a chore. 

The more fun your training plan is, the more likely you are to stick to it.

High Intensity Interval Training (HITT) & Trail Running

HITT is a form of training that is used in many sports. How the training plan is setup really depends on the specific end goal.

Essentially, HITT workouts are where a runner sets a pace between 60-80% of their maximum. This is the pace that will be used for most of the workout. At certain intervals, they’ll throw in a different challenge and up the pace to 80-100% of their maximum pace.

By getting the heart rate up in such a brief period, the body burns more fat in less time, which is why a lot of trail runners looking to lose weight use HITT as part of their training plan.

This type of training also helps to boost your metabolism, so you’ll even be losing weight when you sleep!

So, how can you incorporate HITT training into your trail run to lose weight?

Hill Climbs

Set a route on your run that includes hill climbs. If the route is 30 minutes, try and mix in 4-5 hill climbs that take 30 seconds-2 minutes to ascend. This is the part of the run where you’ll be hitting your maximum pace.

5 On 1 Off

If you’re going on a long run, you won’t want to be throwing in HITT the whole way through; your body won’t be able to cope.

So, start small. For every 5 minutes running at 60% of your maximum pace, throw in 1 minute of running at near your maximum pace. Doing this just 2-3 times in your run will make all the difference.

Recovery

High intensity interval training puts a great deal of stress on the body. The benefits of HITT only become apparent after recovery. Muscles will need time to repair and once they do, they’ll come back leaner and stronger than before.

The trick here is to consume a meal containing high levels of protein within a few hours of your training. Protein will help the muscles repair, if the muscles are given enough time to rest.

For your body to adequately recover, it’s worth having a 3-4 day break from HITT during the first few weeks. This can be decreased to around a 2-3 days break as your body becomes accustomed to your new found running ability.

BONUS: Best Trail Running Websites & YouTube Channels For Noob Runners

Websites

Finding Trails

You can find some trails in the UK over at Trail Running Mag and Good Run Guide.

For those Worldwide, there’s TrailZilla.

Finding Trail Running Races

If you’re looking to enter a trail running race in the UK, there’s a big directory over at the Trail Running Association.

And, for you guys over in the USA, there’s the American Trail Running Association.

Finding A Partner For Trail Running

Looking for someone to go trail running with? Meetup.com connects likeminded people across the globe.

In the trail running category, they now have over 400,000 members and over 800 Meetups to choose from.

Checkout the current Trail Running Meetups here.

YouTube Channels

Salomon Trail Running

Looking to check out some extreme trail running videos? Look no further than the Salomon YouTube Channel here.

Rock Creek Runner

There’s some great running advice over at Rock Creek Runner. Everything from ankle exercises to choosing the right gear for your next run.

Running Wild

If you’ve been searching anything related to running, trails or mountain racing, you’ll have stumbled across Running Wild. Well worth checking out.

What’s Next?

Thanks for reading out Beginners Guide To Trail Running.

If you’ve not already, check out some of our other articles related to running.

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