The Beginner’s Guide: How To Start Trail Running

Get into nature and enjoy the many trail running routes available to you. If you’re bored of running on the roads or you fancy a new challenge, why not try swapping pavement for the trails? Maybe this is the year you learn how to start trail running.

And if your running has become stale or a little monotonous, running trails might be the right way to reignite your running spark.

Instead of heading out into the wilderness unprepared, this beginner trail running guide will answer:

  • How should a beginner start trail running?
  • What type of gear, equipment, and footwear do you need?
  • Technically, how should you be running on trails?
  • How does a beginner find the best trail to run on?

We’ll answer these questions and more, preparing even the most beginner runner with the best tips for how to start trail running.

Our Trail Running Expertise

This content was contributed to and reviewed by UK based trail runner Flora Beverley

Flora has been trail running and ultramarathoning since 2018. Flora has run over 10 trail race ultramarathons from 50Ks to multi-day ultramarathons.

Her most recent finish was the 2023 Dacia UTMB Mont Blanc 55K OCC.

Flora contributed expertise from her journey over the last six years of her evolution from beginner to semi-professional trail runner.

Sporty mountain woman rides in trail during endurance trail when learning how to start trail running.

How Do You Start Trail Running as a Beginner?

As long as you have access to trails and a pair of running shoes, beginners embark on their first trail run whenever they feel comfortable (although, once you’re sold on the sport, we’d definitely recommend upgrading to trail running shoes and other essential trail running gear – more on that later).

Before your first time out, here’s our very short list of what you should be mindful of:

  • Make sure you pick a beginner-friendly route
  • Familiarize yourself with your trail running gear
  • Keep your expectations for your first run low

These three are especially helpful if you’re coming to trail running from road running.

What To Know Before You Hit the Trails

While running is a basic sport, trail running is a bit more complicated than road running. 

With trail running, you’re often running in more isolated areas, on changing terrain, and at varying elevations. 

With all those factors, there’s more knowledge required for gear and route selection for running safety when learning how to start trail running. 

Invest in a Pair of Trail Running Shoes

Although standard road running shoes will work for your first time out, a pair of trail running shoes are designed to serve you much better.

The difference: road running shoes are often lightweight and designed to be comfortable on relatively flat surfaces.Trail running shoes are designed to handle rugged and uneven terrain. 

How does it do this? Trail shoes wil multi-directional lugs on the outsole, or bottom, which helps provide traction on loose or soft terrain. Lugs help prevent slipping while on uneven, unstable, and slick surfaces. 

Further, the toe box and upper of the trail shoe shoe are typically reinforced to provide protection against rocks, sticks, and other debris that might try and poke your foot.

How To Pick Your Trail Running Shoes

“I always recommend selecting comfort over weight when choosing a trail running shoe,” said Beverley. “Ideally, you should be able to find a shoe that’s high-cushion and provides the highest traction in any terrain, but if you plan to be on your feet for hours on end with training and racing, you want to pick the trail shoe that’s the most comfortable.

With all the trail running she does, Flora has a trail running shoe rotation. Some shoes are wider, some heavier stability trail running shoes, some extra-grippy shoes for bad weather or technical running, and still yet, she has lighter-weight racing shoes.

“I alternate which I’m wearing depending on the distance, terrain, and speed of the run. This may not be your first priority as a beginner trail runner, but as you start to trail run with more consistency, you’ll want to invest into a rotation like you do your road running shoes” 

Flora’s current running shoe rotation:

If there’s one piece of kit you should invest in before trail running, we’d highly recommend that it’s a pair of quality trail running shoes.

Related: The Best Hokas for Half Marathon Runners

Types of Trail Running Shoes

How do you find the right pair of trail runners?

Like with any running shoe, to find the perfect pair of trail running shoes, we recommend visiting your local running store to get a gait and foot analysis. 

You may find that your foot is wider than you thought and may be better suited to a wider shoe. Similarly, you might overpronate and benefit from a stability shoe. 

While a gait analysis may seem a little over the top, wearing the right trail shoes can help prevent injury, improve performance, and maximize comfort on the trails.

Once you have this information (which you may already know), then it’s a little easier to find the right shoe.

Bring the Right Gear Along

Walk into any trail, running, or walking store, and you’ll see just how much gear there is. 

You don’t need all of it — but some gear is mandatory for some trail running events and races. Longer races, such as UTMB and other ultra-runner events are more strict on what kit you need, requiring a whole pack of supplies from a survival blanket to a whistle and a reusable bowl.

We’ve categorized the gear requirements into mandatory and optional trail running gear for the purpose of regular trail running; not racing. 

If you are planning on running a trail event, always check their required kit beforehand:

Mandatory trail running gear for beginners:

  • Trail running shoes
  • Smartphone
  • A 1 liter water bottle
  • Gels and snacks
  • A headlamp
  • Trail running vest or backpack

Optional trail running gear:

  • A first aid kit
  • GPS running watch with live tracking
  • A knife or pair of scissors
  • Cap, bandana, and/or beanie 
  • Hydration pack or hydration vest (personal preference)
  • Whistle
  • Extra layers 
  • Electrolyte tablets

The longer your event, the more gear you’ll need to bring. For example, if you’re only running 5km on the trails, you likely only need enough kit for a few hours. 

On the other hand, if you’re attempting a multi-day event, you’ll need food, extra water, and several layers of clothing, and extra kit to stay safe (as a beginner, don’t worry too much about this). 

Use your own discretion, and as already mentioned, if attending a trail running event, always follow their kit guidelines.

Trail Running Nutrition Best Practices

“For trail running, I eat and recommend a lot more ‘real’ food, such as oat flapjacks, biscuits, and nuts. That’s partly because my pace is slower, so I can tolerate it, and partly because this is what you would end up doing in a race situation. 

There are only so many gels you can consume during a 6 to 10 run before your stomach rebels. 

I tend to eat every 45 minutes to one hour on runs over 90 minutes,” says Beverley.

Related: The Best Trail Running Gear

Runner athlete with beard running on the trail in the mountains who has learned how to start trail running.

How to Pick a Good Trail to Run

It’s easy to get ahead of yourself when picking a new trail to run on. After all, if you’ve completed a half marathon on road, you can probably handle a 10-miler on a trail, right?

Trail running hits you, physiologically, much harder than road running. The terrain takes more energy to stabilize on, you’re often running at or gaining elevation, and your pace isn’t as steady. 

All that means you should start easier than you might think: If you’re completely new to trail running, it’s best to choose a trail with a relatively easy terrain and elevation profile. 

“If you’ve never run on trails before, start out with wide, groomed forestry paths and easy walking trails,” advised Flora. “Adding too much elevation, technical, energy-sapping terrain all at once is a recipe for injury and, at the very least, a miserable experience.”

Flora’s Trail Selection Hack: Look for trails in National Parks, mountain bike trails,  or other popular hiking spots.

These trails end up being beginner friendly. They’re designed for all ages, abilities and are consistently well-maintained. 

If you’re not near any of those, here’s what you should be looking at when it comes to trail selection.

  • Terrain type
  • Incline
  • Decline
  • Elevation gain
  • Distance

Terrain Type

If picking terrain that’s rocky and particularly steep, you won’t be able to run as quickly compared to hard and flat ground.

The terrain type will vary depending on where you live, and it will even likely change several times on a single trail. 

Read the comments and reviews under each trail for insight into what the terrain and trail are like.

This is especially helpful in the spring, when other trail runners and hikers often leave comments about mud or snow still on the trails.

Incline and Decline

Trails will naturally increase and decrease in their steepness — known as inline — and descension — decline — throughout a run. The amount of incline and decline you’ll want on a run is a highly personal preference.

But one thing to consider: While you may think a big decline is best, running downhill exerts a lot of force through the knees.

If you don’t like running up and downhill, consider a trail’s “average gradient,” which is the average incline and decline of the total run. 

The steeper the trail, the higher the gradient. (Though, you can always walk the inclines and declines, of course.)

Typically, your average trail ebbs and flows, up and down. If one section of the trail is particularly steep, it may influence the overall gradient to make the trail seem steeper than it actually is. It’s a good idea to assess the elevation profile of the trail to understand better just how steep it is.

Elevation Gain 

There are two things to consider with elevation when trail running: What elevation you’re starting at, and how much elevation is gained over the total distance of the route. 

For example, the Loch via Glacier Gorge Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park has 324m (approx 1,062 feet) of elevation gain in 8.7km. 

That’s a lot of elevation gain for such a short distance — especially for a beginner.

If you’re new to trail running, we suggest starting with less elevation gain and working your way up to those higher-elevation runs. (e.g., a 2.6km run with 69m (approx 226 feet).) 

Using AllTrails, you can add a filter to show an elevation profile that is more suitable for someone who is not used to running on the trails/running hills.  

It can also be helpful to look for trails that start at a lower elevation overall, since gaining 500 feet means more if you start at 9,000 feet compared to 4,000. Also, it is important to be aware of where trailheads and access points are at all points of the course.

Distance

The total distance of a trail run can be deceiving — it’s not the same as running on the roads. This is mostly because trails often involve more elevation gain. 

For example, if your typical 5 mile weekday run takes you 1 hour, the same distance off-road on a trail could take you upwards of 90 minutes.

When choosing a route, account for total distance and elevation. 

The more elevation gain the trail has, typically, the shorter the distance you should choose. As you get better at trail running, you can do longer runs with more elevation or perhaps some more technical trails, too.

Where to Find Trail to Run

Finding what trail to run is easy thanks to the many route-planning apps out there. For example, one of the most popular trail guides apps, AllTrails, has you enter your town name, city, or park. 

The search results will show the top trails in your chosen area. The number of available trails obviously depends on your location, but if there’s a popular local trail nearby, chances are it’s on the app. 

For example, with a quick search for “Rocky Mountain National Park,” there’s a total of 214 top trails to choose from.

Related: Our 15 Favorite Trail Races in the US

We highly recommend using the filters on the search results to show easy trails or those with a conservation elevation gain if you’re a beginner, to avoid accidentally running too hard of a trail on your first few runs. 

What’s the Best Running Technique on Trails?

The most ideal trail running technique is very different than road running technique.

You may find it useful to shorten your stride to maintain balance and keep your feet beneath you — and certainly not under you — at all times.

Flora’s advice for beginner trail running techniques?

  • Focus on obstacles and safety more than pace
  • Slow down, walk if you have to
  • When in doubt, adjust your cadence
  • Run for time, not speed
  • Adjust to the Trail Underfoot
  • Always be thinking about safety

“Road running feels a lot freer than trail running. I know there will almost always be stopping points en route that allow me to eat, drink, use the bathroom and get help if needed. 

For trail running, especially in new locations – expect to be self-sufficient as much as possible and always be preparing for the worst-case scenario (which, again, is what you would do in a race situation, so it’s good practice).”

Pay Attention to Obstacles More Than Pace

Unlike road running, there are a lot more obstacles — from broken branches to rocks, puddles, and even wild animals and snakes. But don’t let that put you off! Scan the trail ahead of you and adjust your stride as needed.

“Trail running is a lot more draining on the body. It requires micro-adjustments by your muscles on every step,” says Beverley.

Adjust Your Speed

Speed isn’t nearly as important when trail running, largely because you’ll need to slow down a lot more often to dodge rocks, climb hills, or jump across streams.

However, it is super important to know how to adjust your speed to a) not burnout and b) to stay safe. 

To adjust your speed, adjust your stride. 

You want to trail run with a more controlled stride, taking smaller steps. Don’t reach out too far from the body with each stride. Instead, focus on taking smaller steps and landing with your feet beneath you.

The same principle applies when running uphill or downhill. 

A lot of beginners tend to take giant leaps when running downhill, but this is really hard on the knees and it can be dangerous. Instead, take controlled, small steps, with each stride landing beneath your center of mass.

When trail running, running by heart rate zones may be less reliable than during road running than perceived exertion. Any incline, either ascents or descents, will impact your heart rate in a way that’s not 

Adjust Your Cadence

We have an entire post on cadence and how to find your optimal steps per minute (SPM) when running. However, while running on the roads may demand a higher cadence, the ideal SPM is thrown out of the window once you hit the trails. This is because the terrain, elevation, and ground undulations naturally impact your cadence.

Instead of trying to hit a goal cadence, aim to learn how to adjust your natural cadence to suit the trail you’re running on. 

For example, if you’re descending rocky or slippery terrain, small, quick steps are ideal; focus on your feet landing underneath your body and not out in front of you. 

It’s worth noting that trail running may actually improve your road running form and cadence because it’s harder to run uneven hills than it is to run flat pavement. Your muscles and biomechanics also compensate for the trails, firing more muscles than usual and building strength in the legs and core.

Run for Time, Not for Speed

On trail, ditch the speed and average pace on your GPS watch. After all, one minute you could be tackling a 10% incline and the next a 15% decline, which is a big shift in speed and pace. Also, looking at your watch every 30 seconds doesn’t help your run whatsoever so forget the habit.

Adjust to the Trail Underfoot

Like we mentioned earlier, a single trail often moves through many different types of terrain — it can be packed down, then suddenly muddy, then suddenly rocky, then slick rock. 

The trail underfoot will no doubt affect your running technique and speed. If it’s wet and slippery, you won’t be able to safely run as quickly (though a good pair of trail running shoes will keep you running confidently here). 

If it’s rocky, you’ll need to slow down to better stabilize and avoid rolling your ankle.

Always scan ahead of you when running and pay attention to the conditions ahead. Most of it is common sense, but good awareness and experience make all the difference, especially in tough conditions.

Always Prioritize Safety

Safety should be your number one priority when trail running, especially when running solo. After all, you’re probably in an isolated area with many people around, certainly without easy transportation out should you slip or get lost. 

We suggest planning your route in advance and letting a friend or family member know where you’re going and how long you expect to be. 

You can also share your live location with the same people so they can track your run in real time. Apps such as  Strava Beacon or Garmin Connect are great tools for live tracking.

“I always take 500ml of water, electrolytes, snacks (I always keep emergency snacks in my bag, even if it’s just for taking in a nice view). I bring a portable charger, a mini-medical kit, and KT tape for unexpected blisters and chafing.”

For winter running, Beverley recommends a headlamp, additional layers, a wind-breaker, gloves, and ear warmers – when you’re not wearing them, they don’t add too much additional weight.

Her most important piece of feedback: “Safety gear doesn’t always have to be for you. It can be very useful if you come across another runner or hiker in trouble.”

Additionally, for extra safety, you should:

  • Dress for the weather — and bring extra layers in case it gets very cold or hot.
  • Bring more water than you think you’ll need.
  • Pack snacks in case you end up staying out longer than expected.
  • Bring a map and compass — and know how to use them.
  • Pack a headlamp.  

Related: Best Products for Running Safety

Athlete trail running at Lac De Chéserys, with the Mont Blanc in the background.

Can You Start Trail Running Without Any Running Experience?

Yes, even if you don’t road run, you can start trail running. When starting out, you might find it useful to run/walk. For example, you can run for 5 minutes, walk for 5 minutes, and repeat. 

Many beginner runners find this approach very helpful when learning how to start trail running. 

Many beginner trail runners will opt to participate in trail running races or trips like Rogue Expeditions, beginner-friendly trail running trips hosted globally.

Whether it be the Dolomites in Italy, or Alpe-Adria in Slovenia and Croatia – Rogue has been leading tours for nearly a decade creating a welcoming opportunity to experience the art of trail running.  

How Do I Get in Shape for Trail Running?

You can get in shape for trail running by run/walking or by running. You don’t need to be able to run far to begin, you just need to be committed, disciplined, and ready to put in the effort. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it.

Incorporating strength training into your weekly training can hugely help your efficiency on the trails. Exercises that improve the strength of your quads and posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings and calves) can be especially useful on hilly and uneven terrain.  

What Are the Benefits of Trail Running?

There are many benefits to trail running. For example, it’s a great aerobic workout, it builds leg strength, and you get to experience the best of nature!

How Do I Find Trail Running Races?

You can find trail running races by checking the race calendar and by searching “trail running race + your town or city.” 

What Is the Best Way to Start Trail Running?

The best way to start is to get out there and run (after finding a suitable and safe route). Even if you have run your first few outings in regular road runner shoes, that’s absolutely fine!

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