The Mountains are Calling: 10 Tips To Transition to Trail Running

When trudging along your regular running route no longer inspires you to lace up, it might be time to give trail running a try. Numerous studies attribute increased happiness and well-being to those who spend time in nature. But, once you trade concrete for dirt, you won’t need a study to tell you that. But are you worried about making the switch? Well, we’ve got some trail running tips to ease your mind. Remember, if you can run on roads, you can run on trails. You’ll just have to change a few things.

We consulted trail running experts Nancy Hobbs, founder of the All-American Trail Running Association, and Ellen Miller, former U.S. Women’s Mountain Running Team coach, for their expertise on making the transition. Here are their top ten tips:

two men trail running with mountains in background

TraPhoto by Brian Erickson on Unsplash

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1. Time over distance

The number one tip to remember when transitioning to trail running is that miles won’t be covered in the same amount of time on trails as on roads. “Don’t worry about mileage, but the amount of time you want to be out,” says Hobbs. While miles may be the primary measure for road running, trail racing and training are often structured around time on your feet rather than distance covered.

2. Invest in the proper shoes

Special shoes aren’t required, but you’ll likely want them (and be happier with them). Trail shoes are quite different than road shoes and typically have more traction, stability, and features like drainage systems and toe bumpers. Hobbs and Miller recommend investing in trail shoes if you intend to spend a lot of time on trails. If not, look for a hybrid that you can use on both roads and trails.

What about other gear that’s worth considering? Hobbs always runs with gloves, and Miller is a proponent of gaiters to keep rocks out of your shoes. (Learn how to choose which gaiters are right for you.)

Read More: Women’s and Men’s Trail Running Shoe Roundup

close up of runner's legs in action on the trail - processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset

Invest in the proper shoes to transition to trail running. Photo: Anna Callaghan

3. Ditch the headphones

One of the most crucial safety tips for trail running is to avoid wearing headphones. In fact, wearing headphones on the trail is a two-pronged safety issue. First, being unable to hear someone coming toward you on the trail could result in a collision or unwanted interaction. Second, I find that listening to music makes it harder to focus on the trail’s obstacles unless you need a power song to get up a sustained climb.

You will, however, want a phone (or a map) to keep route information handy and to be able to call for help if needed. It’s also a good idea to let someone know where you’re going, or better yet, bring a friend along.

Read More: Book Review: The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running

4. Be okay with running slower

Unless your town is mainly hilly, trails will have more elevation gain and loss than your usual running path. So while you may be able to crank out an eight-minute-mile (1.6 km) around a neighborhood park, you’ll likely be running slower on trails.

woman on a trail in a forest

Be okay with running slower or walking; expect to feel better when trail running. Photo: Anna Callaghan

5. Prepare to feel better

Running for a long time on roads can thrash muscles and joints, but dirt trails are often more forgiving. Cruising singletrack necessitates frequent changes in motion. So, instead of the repetitiveness you get with roads, the trail’s natural obstacles lead to different types of movement where no foot strike is the same. This varied movement helps runners increase core strength and the tiny muscles in the feet and lower legs that must react to tree roots and rocks.

Read More: Ask The Coach: Summer Training For The Snowshoe Racer

6. Tweak your form

While Hobbs pursues the topic of form at length in her book The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running, you can make a few adjustments that will help get you started.

When running up steep hills, slow down, switch to baby steps, and plant your whole foot to avoid torching your calf muscles. When running downhill, be loose and try not to put the brakes on, or you’ll thrash your thigh muscles. Also, let your arms come up light and wide (kind of like wings) for balance, and stay on the balls of your feet for greater control. Moreover, it always helps to keep your lungs open by running tall.

Read More: Ask the Coach: Tips for Running Downhill

woman taking a break to watch the snow on a lake

When not focused on the trail, give yourself time to take in your surroundings. Photo: Anna Callaghan

7. Expect to walk more

While taking walk breaks may be looked down upon among road runners, walking has proven benefits on trails (and even on roads). Walking is a strategy in trail races to avoid wasting energy on extremely steep terrain or when navigating loose rocks and scree.

The rule of thumb is to walk when running becomes inefficient. Plus, walking allows you to take in your surroundings. “Part of being in the woods or on the mountains is to enjoy where you are,” says Hobbs. “And if you’re at a road race going full out, you don’t get that experience because you don’t want to stop.”

Read More: Run, Rabbit, Run: Transition from Running to Snowshoe Racing

8. Focus on the trail

While running through trees has meditative qualities, be careful not to lose focus. “Roots may reach up and grab you, and rocks may slip underneath your feet,” says Hobbs. Focusing on the trail’s natural obstacles will keep you standing (and your ankles intact). The time also seems to go faster when you focus and concentrate on each step. Keep your eyes on the trail and stop if you want to admire the views.

man running on trail with view of the mountains

Be careful not to lose focus on the trail and to stay hydrated. Photo by Brian Erickson on Unsplash

9. Stay hydrated

If you go out for over an hour, think about the potential conditions and the duration of your run. It’s a good idea to always have gel or electrolyte replacements on hand, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the trail.

Read More: Ask the Coach: How To Stay Well Hydrated While Running

10. Enjoy!

Miller appreciates the opportunity to connect more deeply with nature when on the trails near her home in Vail. “There’s a purer connection when your feet are on dirt, and you’re running near trees,” she says. You can consult the writings of explorers like Muir and Abbey if you’re after more profound inspiration, but chances are you’ll find your own peace in the wild. So what are you waiting for to get started?

What are your tips and recommendations for trail running? Let us know in the comments below!

This article was first published on Oct 27. 2014 and was most recently updated on July 27. 2022. 

Read Next: Transition: Trail Runner to Snow Runner

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Anna Callaghan

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