Ready to Tackle the Trails? Start Here
Don't be intimidated by unfamiliar terrain. Here are 5 tips to get moving on trails when you've run most of your miles on the road.
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Trail running is an appealing way to log miles. Trails offer an escape into nature and a path to spectacular mountains, rivers, and forests. They’re full of soft terrain that can be gentler on your body than constant pavement pounding. And the trail community is full of excited runners who swear by the trailside scenery, the brain-boosting power of trails, and the aid stations full of quesadillas and potato chips.
If you want to see what all the fuss is about with trail running, but you have no idea where to start, or you’re worried about things like how to stay safe (or stay upright), we’re here to help. We’ve got some tips from seasoned trail runners and coaches who have been in your running shoes before—and can help you get off-road and onto the trails.
It’s OK to Feel a Little Scared
When you’re doing something new for the first time, it’s natural to feel some fear, says Danielle Snyder, a mindset coach and trail runner, who got into the sport through road running and now focuses on ultra-distance trail races and runs.
She suggests acknowledging your fear so you can normalize and work with it, instead of letting it hold you back. Don’t worry if the idea of trail running for the first time feels a little intimidating, she says. You’re not alone in feeling that way.
“It’s OK to feel a little scared,” she says. “Feeling fear doesn’t mean we can’t do something.”
Start with a trail that feels more comfortable to build confidence and courage, she recommends. Choose a busier trail, or one that’s closer to civilization, or find people to explore the trails with you as you’re getting started. The more you do something that feels scary or uncomfortable, the braver and more comfortable you’ll feel, she says. So, don’t get discouraged if you feel scared to start. The more you do it, the easier it will get.
Snyder says when she goes to a new area and is nervous about running on unfamiliar trails, she’ll start with small out-and-backs on one trail until she feels more confident branching out.
She says she also takes a few precautions to feel safer when she’s running by herself. She checks out trail reports to get a sense of how safe a trailhead is, she carries a small noisemaker with her while she runs, and she always tells someone what her running plan is so someone knows where she is and when to expect her to get back.
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Connect With a Group or a Friend to Show You the Ropes
When Liz Derstine, a runner and coach, decided she wanted to start trail running, she lived in Portland, Oregon. She knew there were amazing trails nearby in places like the Columbia River Gorge, but she felt too intimidated to plan out a route or check out the trails by herself.
“There were too many unknowns and I didn’t want to go somewhere new alone,” she said.
So, she went out with friends and groups who were more familiar with the trails. She also signed up for local trail races and then went back and did the courses as training runs. And now, Derstine is very comfortable venturing out on her own—and has even set solo speed records on long-distance trails like the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail and the 335-mile Pinhoti Trail in the Southeast.
“A great way to try out new routes and meet other runners is to find a trail running group in your area,” she says.
To find groups in your neighborhood, ask your local running store if they host a regular trail run, check out social media for local trail groups, or find a Trail Sisters chapter for a welcoming and inclusive community of trail running women.
Snyder agrees that connecting with a beginner-friendly running group is a great way to explore the trails. She adds that a trail running friend can help you learn the ins and outs of the sport. If you know someone who frequents the trails, ask if you can tagalong and chat with them about gear, fueling, and their favorite spots.
“One of the best ways to learn is to have a friend show you the ropes,” she says.
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Throw Out Time Expectations
As a road runner, you probably know exactly what kind of pace you should run for every single variety of run: from tempos to track workouts to easy days, you’ve got your paces dialed. But pace doesn’t work the same way on the trails, thanks to the varied terrain and undulating nature of the terrain. Leave all thoughts of pace at the trailhead, Derstine recommends.
“When it comes to trail running, you kind of have to throw time and pace expectations out the window,” says Derstine, who currently trains for both road and trail runs. She ran the Boston Marathon this spring and is now gearing up for a FKT attempt on a long-distance trail.
“I know pretty much exactly how long it will take me to go out for an easy six miles on the road. But my pace on trails can be anywhere from two minutes to twenty minutes greater per mile than my pace on roads, depending on the type of terrain I’m running on.”
So when you’re running on trails, don’t worry about what your watch says; focus on effort and enjoying the trail.
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Don’t Be Afraid to Walk
“Trail ‘running’ is a generous term,” says Derstine, who adds that she walks and hikes during many of her trail runs. And Derstine isn’t alone in that. Go to most any trail race and you’ll see everyone from the back-of-the-packers to the fastest elites doing some walking.
The reason that walking is so prevalent in trail running is because many trails are hilly, and walking can be the most efficient way to climb. Hiking up a hill can help you save valuable energy so you can run stronger in the later miles. And since some trails are more technical, with rocks, roots, and divots to navigate, walking can be a great way to move through more technical terrain with comfort and ease.
“Trail runs can involve tons of walking, whether it’s while going up a steep, or even a not-so-steep hill, or because the trail is so technical that it’s safer to walk than run,” says Derstine.
So, if you find yourself walking on a trail run, don’t let yourself think that you’re any less of a trail runner. Instead, give yourself a gold star for doing it right.
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Pick Up Your Toes
One of the biggest differences between road running and trail running is that there’s stuff on the ground that you need to run around.
“When it comes to running on trails, you’ll likely encounter rocks, roots, and constant little dips and turns, and you’ll find yourself making constant calculations about where to place each footstep,” says Derstine. “When I started trail running, my low-to-the-ground road runner shuffle was not cutting it, as my toes constantly clipped rocks and roots if I wasn’t paying attention.”
She realized she needed to adapt her stride to the trails so she could avoid unwanted spills. She worked to train her brain to pick up her toes a bit during each step, as if there’s always some unseen obstacle in front of her. Her coach told her to imagine pedaling a bike and remind herself to “pick ’em up, put ’em down.” That mantra has helped her run many trail miles with fewer faceplants along the way.
For a deep dive into everything it takes to transition from roads to trail, check out our Complete Trail-Running Starter Guide.