What is trail running? A runner running up in the mountains. Photo by Alessio Soggetti on Unsplash

What is Trail Running? Useful Tips to Demystify it in 2024

Last Updated on 27 January 2024 by Rebecca

Have you decided to take up trail running? Are you curious about what road running’s counterpart is like and fancy trying it?

Do you think a trail run involves running up high mountains with a significant elevation gain or for long distances? While it certainly can (that’s what I initially thought about trail running), this is not always the case.

So, if you’re keen to get a pair of trail running shoes on and don’t mind the odd tree roots you’ll likely encounter, read on, and let’s see if we can answer the question: what is trail running? In this beginner’s guide, we’ll uncover the world of trail running, exploring its benefits, essential gear, techniques, and tips, and how to find and prepare for your next off-road adventure.

Key Takeaways

  • Experience the ultimate physical and mental health benefits with trail running!

  • Gear up for an off-road adventure with the perfect shoes and accessories.

  • Join a vibrant community of fellow trail runners to share in your love for nature!

What is Trail Running?

Are you ready to leave the monotonous pavement behind and embrace nature’s beauty while breaking a sweat?

If so, have you considered becoming a trail runner?

Trail running, an exhilarating endurance sport, takes you through outdoor trails and often picturesque mountainous terrains with thrilling ascents and descents. This type of running deviates from road running, which usually takes place on paved surfaces like asphalt roads, providing a refreshing change of pace for many road runners. It’s a great way to escape the urban jungle and connect with the great outdoors.

Trail running has gained immense popularity over the past decade, with the number of organised trail races skyrocketing 12% annually year-over-year, offering trail runners a variety of terrains and challenges. Famous races like the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) take participants on a 106-mile journey through the majestic Alps, boasting an incredible elevation gain of more than 32,000 feet.

While I’ve never done the UTMB, this is one event I would love to experience as it feels like the ultimate trail runners event. I’ve done a traditional marathon that covers technical terrain, including the Glencoe Marathon Gathering in Scotland, which has an elevation gain of 5,275 ft over 26.2 miles and the XTERRA Snowdonia Trail Marathon in Wales.

Both were gruelling in their ways and needed a hydration pack to take on much-needed fluid, but the excellent weather conditions, the amazing support, and the community of runners completing the course made these events thoroughly enjoyable.

While trail running creates a unique experience, it also poses challenges including mountain running and navigation through ever-changing terrains. Trail runners must be prepared to tackle these challenges head-on, equipped with the right trail running shoes, and equipment, including a waist pack or hydration pack, depending on your personal preference, and mindset. As you venture further into the world of trail running, you’ll soon discover the physical and mental health benefits it offers, as well as the vibrant trail running community that awaits you.

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Terrain and Challenges

Trail running guides you on a lively journey through diverse terrains like established trails, running routes, and running trails, which include:

  • grass;

  • beaches;

  • rocky terrain;

  • steep inclines; and

  • obstacles.

Each presents distinct challenges and rewards. The ever-changing terrain not only tests your focus, agility, and balance but also engages more muscles and ligaments than road running. This helps reduce the risk of repetitive strain injuries common in road running, while also providing a reduced impact stress on your joints, thanks to the softer surfaces of trails.

As you navigate the hills, rocks, roots, and other obstacles that come your way, you’ll quickly realise that trail running is a full-body workout like no other. Running on different terrains helps build strength in your quads, glutes, and calves, develops mental resilience, reduces joint impact, and increases calorie burn. In essence, trail running provides an unparalleled opportunity for both physical and mental growth.

It’s one of the many reasons why I started trail running and why I think others should too.

Health and Fitness Benefits

Apart from the physical challenges, trail running significantly boosts your:

  • cardiovascular fitness;

  • muscle strength;

  • balance; and

  • mental well-being.

As you leap over tree roots, bound through dirt trails, and climb steep inclines, you’re not only giving your body a fantastic workout, but also enhancing your proprioception – your body’s awareness of its position in space.

Moreover, trail running allows you to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life, connecting you with nature and offering a sense of relaxation that’s hard to find in other activities.

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Essential Trail Running Gear

A close up of a trail shoe. Photo by Matthew Ball on Unsplash

To maximise the trail running experience, the right gear inclusive of proper footwear, clothing, and accessories, is necessary for comfort, safety, and optimal performance.

In the following sections, we’ll dive deeper into the essential trail running gear, from choosing the perfect trail running shoes to selecting the most suitable clothing and accessories for your off-road adventures.

Choosing the Right Trail Running Shoes

Selecting the right trail running shoe is a paramount aspect of trail running gear. Trail shoes, also known as trail running shoes, offer superior traction, stability, and protection on uneven surfaces, thanks to their thicker soles, compared to road running shoes. When choosing your ideal pair, consider factors such as:

  • The terrain;

  • Toe guards;

  • Durable uppers;

  • Waterproof upper;

  • Wide-spaced lugs for traction; and

  • The stability of the shoe.

These factors will help maximise your performance on the trails.

Finding the right fit for trail running shoes is essential for improved comfort and avoiding any pressure points. Additionally, if you plan on tackling rough terrain, consider hiking shoes with thicker, wider outsoles for superior traction. Remember, the right pair of trail running shoes can make all the difference in ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience on the trails.

I wear Salomon or Craft trail shoes as I find these provide better traction and more support for my feet whether I’m running up and down mountains, going on a hike, or doing speed work.

Clothing and Accessories

For trail running clothing and accessories, prioritise comfort, breathability, and weather-appropriate gear. Opt for lightweight, breathable fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and merino wool to wick away moisture, keep you dry, and provide maximum comfort during your trail runs. Clothing with stretch and flexibility is also essential for ensuring freedom of movement on uneven terrain.

Apart from clothing, essential accessories for trail running include:

  • Hydration packs;

  • Headlamps;

  • GPS watches; and

  • Waist packs to carry items like a first aid kit and your phone.

These accessories not only keep you safe and prepared, but also enhance your overall trail running experience, allowing you to focus on the beauty of nature and the thrill of the challenge.

Trail Running Techniques and Tips

A person running in the mountains. Photo by Brian Erickson on Unsplash

Proficiency in trail running techniques and tips is crucial for enhanced performance and reduced risk of injury.

Uphill and Downhill Running

Techniques for uphill and downhill running entail correct body positioning, stride modifications, and sustaining a steady pace. When running uphill, keep your body upright, engage your core, and lean forward, taking measured, shorter, choppier steps while maintaining an upright posture and level head. Utilise your arms to drive you forward and provide additional momentum.

For downhill running, follow these techniques:

  • Position your body perpendicular to the horizon, keeping your hips and shoulders aligned;

  • Maintain a neutral or slight forward lean to reduce downhill impact; and

  • Use your arms and head to maintain balance and control your descent.

By mastering these techniques, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle the ups and downs of trail running and take your performance to new heights.

Navigating Technical Terrain

Traversing technical terrain in trail running necessitates focus, agility, and quick adaptability to shifting conditions. As you cover uneven terrain, steep inclines, and obstacles, it’s essential to perfect your skills in anticipating the trail ahead, feeling the trail with your feet, and increasing your confidence.

To improve your agility and adaptability on technical terrain, you can:

  • Incorporate mobility and drills into your training routine;

  • Strengthen your legs through exercises and balance training; and

  • Gradually increase your time on technical terrain to build up your endurance.

By developing these skills, you’ll be better prepared to tackle the challenges and rewards of technical trail running, emerging stronger and more agile with each step.

Finding and Preparing for Trail Runs

Trail runners in a competition. Photo by Massimo Sartirana on Unsplash

Armed with knowledge of trail running techniques, gear, and benefits, it’s time to discover and prepare for your trail running adventures.

Researching and Selecting Trails

To discover your ideal trail run, resources like:

  • Trail Runner Magazine;

  • REI; and

  • Runner’s World UK

provide invaluable information, tips, and trail recommendations. When selecting a trail, consider factors such as distance, difficulty, location, and terrain, and assess your own fitness level and skill set to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

To gain a better understanding of the difficulty level of a trail run, you can use route rating scales, Strava route difficulty, and personal experience reviews. Set yourself up for success by researching and selecting the right trail run for you.

Training and Building Endurance

Trail running training incorporates a mix of road running, strength exercises, and hill workouts to develop endurance and strength.

Incorporate exercises like squats, lunges, and deadlifts into your routine and steadily increase the weight and intensity over time. Focus on running long, slow runs and gradually increase your mileage, splitting your time between on and off-road running to develop your trail fitness.

To build your endurance, consider incorporating interval training, which involves running short bursts of speed followed by rest periods. Gradually increasing your training volume by around one to four miles per week, with occasional reduced weeks for recovery, will help you steadily build your endurance and prepare you for the challenges of trail running.

The Trail Running Community

Runners in an event. Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The trail running community is a lively and supportive network of individuals passionate about exploring nature on foot. By joining local groups and clubs, such as the trail running association, participating in trail races and events, and connecting with fellow trail runners, you’ll not only enhance your trail running skills, but also create lasting friendships and memories along the way.

Joining Local Groups and Clubs

Membership in a local trail running group or club offers several benefits, including:

  • Social support;

  • Expert coaching;

  • Friendly competition;

  • The chance to uncover new routes; and

  • Engaging conversation partners.

Many running clubs are welcoming to runners of all levels and abilities, making it easy for beginners to get started and find their trail running tribe.

To discover local trail running groups or clubs, you can:

  • Explore your favourite parks and trails for information about running clubs;

  • Get to know other runners in your area; and

  • Use websites like Meetup and Facebook Groups to locate local running clubs.

By joining a trail running group or club, you’ll gain invaluable support, motivation, and camaraderie on your trail running journey.

Participating in Trail Races and Events

Taking part in trail races and events gives you a fantastic opportunity to put your skills to the test, push your limits, and meet other trail running enthusiasts. Some of the most exhilarating trail running races and events around the globe include:

  • Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in France, Italy, and Switzerland: Known as one of the most challenging trail races in the world, it takes participants on a 106-mile journey through the stunning Alps.

  • Western States 100 in the USA: This 100-mile endurance run through California’s Sierra Nevada mountains is the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race.

  • Marathon des Sables in Morocco: Often called the toughest foot race on Earth, this six-day, 251km ultramarathon is approximately the distance of six regular marathons.

  • The North Face Endurance Challenge in Costa Rica: This event offers a variety of distances, from 10km to 100km, through the beautiful landscapes of Costa Rica.

  • Kepler Challenge in New Zealand: This 60km mountain run takes place in the Fiordland National Park and is known for its stunning views and challenging terrain.

  • Patagonian International Marathon in Chile: This marathon takes place in Torres del Paine National Park, offering breathtaking views of the Patagonian wilderness.

  • The Big Five Marathon in South Africa: This unique marathon takes place in the Entabeni Game Reserve, offering runners the chance to race alongside Africa’s most famous wildlife.

Safety and Injury Prevention

Someone holding a crutch in front of a white background. Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Safety and injury prevention form critical aspects of trail running. Ensuring you warm up and cool down properly, carry essential safety gear, and remain mindful of your surroundings can help you avoid injuries and enjoy your trail running experience to the fullest.

Proper Warm-Up and Cool-Down Routines

Warming up and cooling down form integral components of a safe and efficient trail running routine. A proper warm-up should consist of dynamic movements for all major muscle groups, such as:

  • walking around;

  • lunge matrix;

  • leg swings; and

  • Achilles wake-up.

Spending five to 10 minutes on your warm-up helps prepare your body for the physical demands of trail running and reduces the risk of injury.

Similarly, a cool-down routine is vital for helping your body transition from intense exercise to a resting state, avoiding sudden changes in heart rate and blood pressure. Cool-down exercises for trail runners can include:

  • Dynamic stretches, such as leg swings and walking lunges;

  • Static stretches like calf stretches and hip flexor stretches;

  • Foam rolling; and

  • Gentle yoga poses.

These exercises can be beneficial for relieving tension in the muscles and facilitating recovery.

Carrying a First Aid Kit

Carrying a first aid kit and safety essentials like bandages, a rescue whistle, and a headlamp, contributes to a safe and pleasant trail running experience.

A lightweight, but effective first aid kit should include band-aids, sterile wipes, moleskin, athletic tape, antiseptic, and a rescue whistle. Additionally, for extra precaution, consider including blister treatment patches, electrolyte tablets, and a compact thermal blanket for unexpected weather changes.

In addition to carrying a first aid kit, prioritise the following when trail running:

  • Wear the right trail running shoes and gear;

  • Remain aware of your surroundings; and

  • Maintain a steady pace to prevent injuries and enjoy a safe, successful trail running journey.

With the right preparation and safety measures in place, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle the challenges and rewards of trail running.

Final Thoughts

Trail running is a rewarding and challenging sport that offers numerous physical and mental health benefits, as well as the opportunity to connect with nature and a vibrant community of like-minded individuals.

By equipping yourself with the right gear, mastering trail running techniques, researching and selecting the perfect trails, and prioritising safety and injury prevention, you’ll be well on your way to discovering the exhilarating world of trail running.

Hopefully, this article has answered the question: what is trail running and has given you plenty of information to get started.

So, lace up your trail running shoes, hit the trails, and embrace the adventure that awaits you. What is trail running? It’s an amazing sport, and just like me, you’ll wonder what took you so long to discover it in the first place.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines trail running?

Trail running is an all-around non-stadia sport that involves running in nature, away from surfaced roads. It works the legs, but also the upper body, allowing people to move outdoors and enjoy fresh air. Trail running can be done anywhere!

Is trail running harder than road running?

Trail running may be perceived as more difficult, but the softer surfaces of trails can give your joints a break from the unforgiving energy return of concrete and asphalt.

What essential gear do I need for trail running?

To hit the trails confidently and safely, make sure to have the right trail running gear: shoes, breathable clothing, a hydration pack, a headlamp, and a GPS watch.

How can I find the right trail running shoes?

Take into account terrain, waterproofing, traction, and stability when selecting the right trail running shoes for you – so you can optimise your performance and achieve your goals.

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