Whether you are looking to run short distances on your local trails, want to train for an upcoming race, or even have aspirations of running an ultramarathon, everyone new to trail running needs to start somewhere.
I am no professional athlete; I love trail running because it gives me the opportunity to push my body in beautiful landscapes, helps me get in tremendous shape for hiking adventures, and gives me the opportunity to see and explore more in a day. Much like thru-hiking, there is also a wonderful community that surrounds trail running.
I wasn’t always a trail runner. In March of 2020, one year before my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I started going for short, 3 mile jogs at my local state park, and soon became very intrigued by the sport, and started to take it more seriously.
Trail running quickly became one of my favorite outdoor activities, and was my main source of training for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
After completing my thru-hike, I decided to go all-in on trail running, and ultimately fell in love with the sport. Winning a local 25K trail race lit the fire, and I have since then completed my first marathon, and will be taking a crack at the 50K distance this June.
Remember, there is no wrong time to start trail running, even and especially during mud season. It means less crowded trails, and running on dry dirt this summer will be that much easier and more appreciated.
It is also never too late to begin your trail running journey. People think that all runners start running at a young age and continue to run all the way up through high school and beyond. This is not true, and I know of many great runners who didn’t begin running until after their college years. It isn’t uncommon to see 40, 50, and even 60 year olds crushing trail races and ultramarathons.
So, no matter who you are, or where you are … If you are eager to hit the ground running, but don’t know where or how to start, then reading this article is a great start.
Start Small and Build Up
Trail running puts much more stress on your legs than hiking. Hiking is a low-impact activity, meaning you will typically have one foot on the ground at all times, causing minimal pounding on the quads and knees.
However, running is a high-impact activity, meaning that you will have both feet off the ground simultaneously, causing much more strain to your quads and knees upon impact. It can take time for your leg muscles to get used to high-impact activities, so starting off easy when beginning to trail run is important for injury prevention.
I started off with three mile runs about three to four times a week for almost a month. My legs were typically sore from my efforts, but they soon strengthened up. I then began to tackle four mile runs, then six mile runs; while incorporating speed training into my workouts.
Starting off with too much mileage can lead to injury, which isn’t fun for anyone. Even if you are a veteran thru-hiker, beginning with smaller mileage and working up to longer distances is highly recommended.
Have Different Pace Expectations
It is important to drop any high pace expectations when first starting out with trail running. A 7-minute road mile might translate to a 10-minute trail mile, if you are running on rocky and rooty terrain with lots of elevation change. Don’t get discouraged by slow splits, especially on rugged terrain.
I barely even paid attention to things like pace and splits starting off. I just ran at a speed that I felt comfortable with and focused on enjoying my runs. After getting used to running on more technical terrain and building my endurance up, I then was able to push the tempo and began focusing on my splits and pace.
Your pace and effort is also determined by terrain. You can cruise at a much faster pace on smooth single track with minimal elevation change than you can on technical, hilly terrain. Your trail running workouts should be based on your effort level instead of pace and mileage splits.
Don’t Hesitate to Hike During Your Runs
This is an important one. If you are just starting off with your first trail run and are feeling gassed toward the end, you should not feel ashamed to hike to your finish. As I mentioned earlier, it takes time for your running muscles to strengthen, and pushing them too hard early on in your training can result in injury.
Starting off with a mix of running and hiking is a great way to not overdo it early on in your training. Alternating every mile or two between hiking and running might be smart if you are just starting out, especially if the terrain is technical and hilly.
Hiking the uphills is never frowned upon in trail running. If you watch almost any trail race, you will notice that many runners power hike on the uphills, while running the flats and downhills.
If you feel comfortable running uphill on rolling, hilly terrain, then go for it. Just know that there is nothing wrong if you decide to hike one or two of those hills to conserve your energy.
Have the Proper Running Gear
You wouldn’t embark on a day hike or a backpacking trip without the proper gear, so why would you go out for a trail run without the right gear? Wearing proper shoes and clothes can be the difference between running your best race or suffering an injury.
Most people that come into my running store complain of foot/ knee pain because they are not wearing the proper footwear. Plantar fasciitis, inflamed bunions, and ingrown toenails are common injuries caused by improper footwear.
Know the terrain you will be running on. Will you be out west running on smooth single track, or on the East Coast running through more rugged, technical terrain? The amount of cushioning and support that your feet need will vary based on the terrain.
Running gear includes much more than just shoes. For longer running adventures, I would invest in a running vest, hydration bladder, and a headlamp. Don’t be shy to bring poles along with you too for mountain running. Extra cushioned socks like Injinji or Darn Tough can go a long way in adding comfort as well.
Incorporate Strength Training
Trail running requires a combination of speed and strength, much more so than road running. Trail running in itself is a great way to strengthen your leg muscles, but you will also benefit by adding some strength training to your weekly routine.
This can be as simple as 30-minute strength sessions twice a week. Classic leg strength workouts include squats, lunges, deadlifts, and calf raises, among many others. You will see more results when incorporating some form of strength training to your regiment.
Stronger legs typically equate to the ability to run longer. Once you start doing long training runs, you might notice your legs tire much quicker than your overall energy levels or your cardio endurance.