trail running guide

How To Start Trail Running

The Beginners Guide by #TeamNathan

Are you ready to start trail running, but not quite sure where or how to begin? Then you’ve come to the right place. Trail running can open up a whole new world beyond the paved surfaces of a city! But taking the first few steps can be quite challenging—that’s why many beginner runners avoid it. Although trail running is similar to running on the roads, there are some differences to make note of. To help you get started, we pulled together a list of our best trail running tips that will guide you. Most importantly, have fun on the trails, and be careful. But fair warning: They say that once you go to the dirt, you never go back….
trail running beginners guide

Trail Running Explained

So what’s trail running all about? This adventures type of running involves running on anything that is unpaved and/or natural, mostly taking place on softer, more cushioned surfaces like dirt paths and grass. In general, a good trail surface should offer natural obstacles like roots and rocks, should be unpaved or provide great scenery – away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Trail running offers a broad range of challenges, including steep hills to climb (or hike), technical terrain to negotiate, etc. This helps you improve your running like nothing else. Moreover, according to research, trail running can burn up roughly 10 percent more calories than road running. Ten percent might not seem as much, but it does add up. Last but not least, running on the unpredictable terrains engages the smaller, intrinsic “helper” muscle groups—especially in the hips and core.

trail running explained

Get the Right Trail Running Gear

Whatever your preference or personal ideology, we think everyone can be a trail runner, especially with the help of a good pair of shoes. The two main things to consider before purchasing trail running shoes are what type your feet need (think stiff or pliable, neutral or stable, wide or narrow, high or low heel-to-toe drop) and what type of shoes the terrain you run demands. With the latter, try to think about whether the trails you encounter are technical or smooth, flat or steep, have loose or firm footing, and whether or not you cross water.
Rigid shoes with deep lugs (5mm+) are best on technical trails with poor footing, but they’ll also be far less forgiving, even uncomfortable, on road runs. Hybrid shoes have shorter lugs (2 to 4mm) and a softer on-road feel than their burly siblings, and are well-suited for soft singletrack and local wooded trails that don’t make you slow to a walk due to unsure footing.

Whether training for an ultra or heading out on a casual trail running jog, the right running hydration pack will carry all the gear and water you need for a successful run. There’s been an explosion of running vests and hydration packs in the past few years. Not only does that mean there are more options, but they’re also more comfortable and functional than ever before! Improved designs have led to less bounce and chafing, and more comfort mile after mile. At NATHAN, we offer women’s specific hydration packs, men’s specific hydration packs and unisex trail running backpacks. Check our blog post about How To Choose a Running Backpack to find the right model for you!

For clothing, choose the same technical clothing you wear on your daily runs. This should consist of clothing made from synthetic, moisture-wicking fabric. We also recommend leg sleeves or compression like the ones from McDavid to protect your skin. Moreover, compression socks optimize blood circulation and reduce the risk of muscle injuries.

Take a headlamp, waistlamp or a flashlight with you, especially if you’re planning to any sort of trail running when it’s dark—whether at dawn or late in the evening. Check out our NATHAN visibility gear!

How To Start?

Begin by choosing an easy, short, and relatively flat route to start your trail running routine, and as you get stronger, up the ante by expanding your trail adventures into longer, more technical terrains. Even if you live in an urban area, it’s not that hard to find nearby local trails. Reserves and parks are a great venue to get started. Check the local network of gravel roads and dirt trails that many towns and cities. Use Google earth, or online resources like TrailRunProject.com

Your first trail runs are likely going to feel like the first time you went running, and it’ll probably suck. This can happen even when you’re an already established road runner. On your first few runs, aim for 60 to 70 percent of your usual pace, paying attention to landmarks, and watching for obstacles along your way.

Adjust your pace according to the terrain and maintain a consistent effort level as you climb uphill. When in doubt, walk. Running over downed trees or through mud and sand takes some time getting used to, and it’s best to progress slowly. Tackling obstacles will get easier as your body gets stronger and more seasoned on trails.

Hydrate All The Time

Bringing hydration with you on a trail run is a must, as you never know how long it is going to take to complete the workout. Some days might take longer than others. Proper hydration is key when running. This is especially the case during trail runs, where you can you find yourself alone in the wilderness far away from urban life. As a guideline, drink at least ½ liter per hour of running, but, of course, drink more if you feel like that you need more.

There are three ways to carry fluids on the run: handheld, hydration belts, and hydration packs. Find what works best for you then grab it and go.

Trek With Poles

For steep, hilly, or mountainous trails, consider using trekking poles to boost aid with balance and boost your hill-climbing strength. Using poles reduces the total impact on the knees and hips, and even helps you burn more calories. Plus, you can put rubber pieces on the sticks and use them on the roads, too. You can fix them at the trekking pole attachment points of your hydration pack / trail running backpack.

Check out the Trail Mix 12 L to learn more. Also hydration belts like the Vapor Krar hydration belt offer quick attachment/ release trekking pole attachment points.

Focus on Proper Trail Running Form

Proper running technique is a game-changer because it can make the difference between making it to your destination or falling hard on your face during a trail workout.
Therefore, consider the following tips:

1) Use your arms: Keep your arms (elbows) a little wider for added balance on more technical trails with tree roots and rocks. Your stride is a little different than on the roads because you will need to clear rocks and tree roots and lift your feet a little higher off the ground. You also may need to hop left or right to bypass things on the path like tree branches so pump with your arms as you move to maintain momentum.

2) Practice your trail skills: Just as running intervals will improve your speed, running obstacle repeats on the trail will help create new neuro-pathways in your brain and boost your technical trail running skills.
For example, run 10 to 15 minutes to warm up, then find a technical stretch of the trail and run repeats, focusing on form and finding your line.

trail running form

Trail Running Safety

Like any other outdoor sport, trail running has its dangers, and if you plan to spend any length of time on remote trails, it’s key to know how to stay safe.
Tell someone where you’re running and let them know when they should expect to hear back from you. Some of the NATHAN trail running backpacks are equipped with a safety whistle, this is aslo required when taking part in a trail race.

Take the new NATHAN SaferRun Alarm with you. This tiny siren can alert others in case of an incident. In case of emergency, a quick pull of the rip cord triggers a 120 dB alarm alerting passers-by and discouraging potential assailants. Audible from over 180 meters and as loud as an ambulance siren. Find more safety tips in our blog post about safety tips for solo runners.

There you have it. The above tips and guidelines are all you need to get started with trail running. Now It’s up to you to take action on what you have just learned. The rest is just detail.

Keep Running Strong – We Run With You!

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