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If you’re new to trail running, getting started can feel overwhelming: There’s tons of trail-specific gear, a whole new set of rules to learn, new techniques to keep in mind. But more than anything, it’s important that you’re enjoying yourself when you hit the dirt. We spoke to eight of the top trail runners out there to get their trail running tips and find out the lessons they learned the hard way—so you don’t have to.
Running Tips from Pro Trail Runners
Neely Spence Gracey
Professional runner, three-time Olympic Trials qualifier, founder and coach at Get Running
“You will see your pace decrease on the trails, especially as you run at higher altitudes. But slowing down and focusing on effort instead of time has made me faster. I usually run on roads, and while technical trails aren’t for me—no roots or rocks!—crushed cinder paths and smooth single-track trails are great.”
“I wish I knew more about nutrition and fueling, especially once I started racing. When I went to UC Santa Barbara, my runs went from road to the beach to single-track, and I was surviving on a college diet of popcorn, frozen yogurt, and beer. I’ve since learned the importance of hydrating, eating before I bonk, and having recovery fuel, like a post-run protein drink. It also would have been nice to know not to run in the deep, soft sand; I made things harder on myself than I needed to!”
Cofounder and managing partner at Big Run Media and Believe in the Run
“Study the course and prepare appropriately before you head out for a trail run or race, since trails seem to have a lot more hills. A few years ago, I signed up for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler (TNF50) in San Francisco without ever looking at the elevation profile. All of my training was on the flat roads of Baltimore. At the finish line, 10,456 feet of elevation gain later, my quads were wrecked.
Walking up hills is not only cool, but strategically sound. If you’re a road runner, you’re probably used to powering through the hills (and hating it). Well, I’ve got some good news for you: On trails, power walking up steep hills is often just as fast as running, and it’s much less tiring. You’ll find yourself ready to charge down the descents and pick up the pace on the flats. So, take that walk break and enjoy the climbs.
I had no idea that aid stations at trail races were so amazing. From the people manning the stations to all the food options—I’m talking gummy bears, pretzels, chips, salted potatoes, PB&J sandwiches—they are fun pit stops.”
“I came to trail running from racing on roads and tracks, which taught me that running well was about power and strength. Trail taught me that power is nothing without efficiency. When I finally learned (from more experienced trail runners) that the secret is to ‘gear down’ by taking very, very small steps and increasing my cadence, whether on hills or other types of terrain, it was a total game-changer for me.
That ‘unlearning’ of what worked on roads, but doesn’t work on trails, was good for my ego and taught me a lot about patience.”
Related: Your Trail Running Starter Guide
Elizabeth W. Carey
Running coach and co-author of Girls Running
“Walking is OK, even beneficial. One of my first trail-running mentor-buddies shared the motto, ‘Walk if you can’t see the top.’
On trails your effort level and pace will fluctuate with the terrain. Throw what you know about mile splits or pace per mile out the window and learn to take whatever you gather from your GPS watch with a giant grain of salt. Pack extra snacks and eat them. Too often trail runners bonk (or, like, actually fall) because they’re low on fuel. Food doesn’t just keep your legs moving, it also keeps your brain alert and mood improved.”
Running coach and founder of Happy Fit Mama
“You will fall. A lot. And will have the scars to prove it. It’s normal. It happens to everyone. The good news is that you get better at navigating those tricky obstacles the more you run. Shortening your stride and keeping your eyes down, scanning the trail 10-15 feet ahead of you will help you pick the path of least ankle-twisting possibilities.
Forget about pace. You will run slower on trails than on the road, especially as a beginner. It takes time to build up your speed and confidence. Base your runs on perceived effort rather than what your pace is. Going for time rather than mileage is also a good place to start. If it takes you 45 minutes to run five miles on the road, aim to run for 45 minutes on the trail. You may not make it five miles, but the effort will be similar.”
Author of Outlandish: Fuel Your Epic
“I dove headfirst into trail racing, but often as a way to justify the long hours I wanted to spend on trails in the mountains and desert. I’ve come to realize that running for pure passion is all the justification I need. Although I love the feeling of moving fast, removing the pressure to perform really allows me to immerse myself fully in the landscape and experience of running.”
Youngest winner of the Tahoe Rim Trail 100-mile run
“Find shoes that fit your feet (and body) correctly. This will save you from not only getting the worst blisters of your life, but also from potentially getting other injuries from those shoes that don’t quite fit right. You want a shoe that holds you midfoot securely, allows for a comfortable amount of room for your toes, and leaves about the width of your thumb between your big toe and the very front of the shoe. I would recommend heading to a local running store, where they can help you find the right shoe and fit for your foot.
Don’t compare yourself to what others are doing. It is super easy to get on social media, or even run on a busy trail, and see how fast/long everyone else is running. This is not a worthwhile comparison game to play.
No need to dive in headfirst. Take it from me—I went from zero miles (literally never ran except for in middle and high school gym class) to 100. I got all the overuse injuries to prove it, and it took a while for me to find a sustainable relationship with running. Set realistic and sustainable goals that won’t break you physically or mentally in the short term.”