The Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running

The Beginner's Guide to Trail Running
Photo: Pond5

Whether you’re stuck in a running rut, bored by your neighborhood routes or just plain hate the treadmill, it might be time to leave the road behind and head to the trails. And you won’t be alone: More than 5.8 million runners around the country have already discovered an all-natural running high in the great outdoors. According to a recent Sports and Industry Fitness Association survey, trail running in the U.S. increased by more than eight percent from 2011 to 2012. But fresh air and tranquility are only a few of the reasons people are running away from the busy streets and into the wild woods.

The Benefits of Trail Running

“Trail running burns 10 percent more calories than road running.”

Compared to hitting the pavement, trail running burns 10 percent more calories, while improving balance and agility. Runners get a tougher workout because the uneven terrain demands more lateral movements (think dodging branches and avoiding rocky patches) that keep the core engaged. Trail running also works different muscles with every step, while a shorter stride strengthens ankles and hips and reduces the impact on joints. Many runners, even at the highest level, incorporate trail running into their training to prevent overuse injuries.

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But endurance runner Ian Sharman, a trail running expert, certified NASM personal trainer and USATF coach, says trail running is also about adventure. “I first got started with trail running in 2004 when I saw Marathon of the Sands, a documentary about racing in the Sahara Desert,” says Sharman, who wasn’t even a runner at the time. “I called up a friend, convinced him to train with me, and 18 months after seeing the film I ran the Marathon des Sables.” Sharman has since completed more than 180 marathons and ultramarathons, most recently winning the grueling 2013 Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run.

How to Get Started

If you’re ready for an adventure of your own, follow Sharman’s lead as he shares some of the best tips beginners should know before hitting the trails. We’ll cover everything from gear to etiquette to conquering those hills — and how to stay safe every step of the way.

1. Blaze a Trail

You don’t have to trek into a deep, dark forest to begin. “Trail running includes anything that is off-road and away from paved surfaces,” Sharman says. “It could be as simple as a bike path or just running in the grass, dirt or sand.” Beginners can get started on flat terrain, perhaps with a cross-country run in the grass of a park. “Since you’ll still be around other people, you don’t have to worry about getting lost,” he says. From there, consider joining a local trail running group or find popular trails in your area. While it may seem intimidating at first, trail running “is a very welcoming, friendly community and something anyone who enjoys the act of running itself can do,” Sharman says.

2. Grab the Right Gear

While you’re probably not going to reach mud run levels of filthiness, you’re still likely to get pretty dirty in a more rugged environment, so wear clothing you don’t mind getting messy or ripped. As for shoes, whatever running sneakers you normally lace up are generally fine — again, as long as you don’t mind them getting dirty or wet. Many people think trail-specific footwear, much like a hiking shoe, offers runners more stability. But the act of trail running, with all its bouncing around, actually strengthens your ankles all on its own. “Specialized shoes do become important in trail running when you need more grip on trails that are muddy and slippery, or more cushioning for rougher, sharper terrain,” he says.

And just like any adventure, it’s best to come prepared with some basic essentials. These include water (usually in the form of a sleek handheld bottle or a hydration pack), bug spray and a headlamp if you plan to run when it’s dark outside.

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3. Put Safety First

If you do progress out of the local park and go more remote, think of trail running with the same precautions you would use for hiking, Sharman advises. Tell someone where you’re going and bring a map and cell phone (in the off chance you get lost). It’s also a good idea to run with a friend if possible and do a little research on what wildlife might be lurking in the area.

Sharman also suggests leaving headphones at home so you’re able to stay tuned in to your surroundings and mindful of other runners (plus, research says a strong connection to nature does the mind and body good!). As for keeping your eyes peeled, proper road running form generally means keeping your gaze tall, not down at your feet. But with trail running, you’ll need to be more conscious about where you’re stepping. As you run, look a few yards ahead of you on the trail to watch for trail markers — and so you don’t trip on tree roots or land head first in a muddy puddle.

4. Take It Slow (Or Even Walk!)

On smaller trails, it’s proper etiquette to be courteous to walkers and hikers. So don’t blow right by them just because you’re faster; maintain a safe distance between other runners and let faster runners go ahead of you.

“In road running and racing, it’s about competition and times, but trail running is a bit more relaxed and for fun,” says Sharman (the same guy who holds the record for fastest U.S. time in a 100-mile trail race, mind you). If you’re obsessive about crunching your Garmin’s numbers, recognize that trail running is more about effort level than splits and pace per mile.

Runners will usually be much slower on trails than they are on roads, due to the challenges of the natural terrain and its unforeseen obstacles that force you to slow down. In a recent race, Sharman says he switched from a 20 min/mile to 5 min/mile when he was faced with a massive hill. Unlike road racing, walking is not frowned upon or considered “giving up” and is seen as one of the most important ways of getting to the finish line. “Walking is a very valid part of trail running, especially the longer it gets or the tougher the terrain is,” says Sharman. “Many people, including myself, say they ‘run 100 miles,’ but very few people literally ‘run’ every step.”

5. Find Your High

Trail running may still sound challenging to beginners, but Sharman stresses that time away from the streets — and eventually up in the mountains — should be fun. “Once I’ve done a big climb, I just love the feeling of hammering it downhill,” he says. “It feels like playing and I don’t always feel like I’m playing when I’m just logging miles on the road.”

RELATED: From Day Hikes to Mount Kilimanjaro: Why More Women Are Hitting the Trail

When you’re on the trails, try to capture those special moments that get you most excited. It could be as simple as taking in a mighty view. Sharman has run all over in the world in scenic locations including the Himalayas, European Alps and of course, the Sahara Desert. But he says one of his favorite things about trail running is its unique vantage point to unearth the beauty of your own backyard.

“Around San Francisco where I live, I run a lot in Marin County,” he says. “I could be running along a trail and as I crest the hill, catch a glimpse of the very top of the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s the kind of magic you don’t always get in road racing.”

For more trail running tips, follow Ian Sharman on Twitter at @sharmanian. And to find a trail near you, visit the directories from the American Trail Running Association and

Originally posted October 15, 3013. Updated May 2015. 

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