I’ve been doing more trail running recently, purposefully seeking out new routes using the AllTrails app and getting friends to run with me. My fitness is far from where it used to be. But I am loving that on the trails pace doesn’t matter so much. It’s totally acceptable to walk the uphills and let’s face it, there’s no running ‘fast’ in slick mud or hopping over styles.
I hope to include more trails into training plans as I go for big goals next year, as a way to get easy miles and long runs, to improve leg strength and stability.
Trail Running Tips for Beginners
Plan your route
One of the hardest things when you start trail running can be simply knowing where to go. You might have all your favourite routes nailed on the roads but how on earth do you find your way around the woods or the fields, and how will you get home without Google maps?!
If you just want to experience running on trails without worrying about navigation, an out and back might be a good place to start. This could be a trail alongside a river, around a lake or on a converted railway line, perhaps.
There are also lots of really well marked trails out there. Take a look and see if there is a National Trail near you – these are all super well signposted for the most part, so you can easily follow a section. Lots of woodland and forests have colour coded marked walking routes around them too – perfect for trail running! I know that Forestry England are starting to map out more and more of these. Look up your local forest here, and it’ll tell you which routes are available.
Forget About Pace
Trail running will feel totally different to running on the road and you’re unlikely to hit the same paces. Lots of things will slow you down – whether it’s sliding around on muddy ground, walking up the hills, pausing on rocky downhills or stopping to navigate. It can be disheartening if you’re used to running 8 minute miles on the road and then suddenly you’re averaging more like 15 minute miles but don’t worry – it’s still making you stronger!
Every trail and every trail run will be different, which makes it super hard to compare them. This is actually really refreshing. On the roads it can be easy to constantly have at the back of your mind what pace you think is a ‘good’ one, even on supposedly easy days. On the trails you can forget about looking at your watch all the time and focus on the important things like enjoying the scenery, eating your snacks or chatting to your run buddies instead.
Invest in trail running kit
You definitely don’t need any special kit to try trail running. Especially during the drier months your road shoes will be fine on more tame trails. So give it a go before you go splashing out on any new kit.
But once you’ve been a few times and hopefully fallen in love with flying around the trails, there are a few bits you can get to make off road running easier, safer and more comfortable…
Trail running shoes
The first thing you’ll want to invest in! Specialist trail running shoes offer you increased support and grip, giving you a great chance of staying upright on tricky technical terrain. They’re also usually more durable, designed for all the plunging into muddy puddles. And bashing against rocks you’re going to put them through. Pick a dark(ish) colour and don’t be too precious about them! I’ve been running in the Salomon Wildcross and really like them. My friend Ellie has written a full review of them here.
Unlike running on the roads where you’ll often pass places to grab water and snacks if you need them, you’ll likely need to go self-supported on the trails. A hydration pack is a great investment. You can carry water, snacks, spare layers, waterproofs, map, power bank for your phone. Everything you need to stay safe, no matter how far you want to run. I did a whole post on water carriers for runners which includes some suggestions.
Waterproof running jacket
When you’re running at pace on the roads, you’ll often find you stay pretty warm even on the coldest and wettest days. On the trails, when you’re moving more slowly and walking sections, you may find you need a bit more protection from the elements. A lightweight, waterproof and windproof running jacket will make those runs in torrential rain a little less miserable. It’s also great to stick in your bag as an extra warm layer. An essential just in case you do have a fall or get lost. Try looking at the OMM Kamleika Jacket or The North Face’s Futurelight Packable Jacket.
Heading out into the wilderness on your own can feel a little daunting (even if that is just your local country park). Trail running can be so much fun but there are a few things you can do to feel safer…
- Take more food and water than you think you’ll need: it can be hard to predict how long a trail run will take and if something were to go wrong (if you rolled an ankle, for instance), it may take you a while to get back to civilisation. Pack extra snacks and more water than you think just in case.
- Pack spare layers: for longer runs, especially if you’re heading somewhere remote, take spare layers, ideally including a waterproof. You never know what the weather might do!
- Go with friends: You’ll find the trail running community is super sociable, and for good reason! There’s nothing better than sharing those magical moments on the trails with some pals. And it’s also great to have some support.
- Learn to navigate: although GPS navigation tools are great, if you’re getting more serious about trail running, it’s worth learning even basic map and compass skill. This is essential if you’re heading to more remote locations, such as mountainous areas.
Walk up the hills!
If you’ve ever heard somebody anybody talk about “running” a mountain route or somewhere else particularly lumpy, you may wonder how on earth they run up those hills. Here’s the secret: they don’t. The best kept secret of trail runners (and ultra runners even more!) is that they probably walk up most hills. For shorter runs that may be particularly steep or long inclines (anything you can’t see the top of is a good rule of thumb!), or all the hills on longer runs.
Even in races, you’ll often see those at the front of the pack walking hills. Running up them can waste a lot of energy for not much reward. And you may find your average pace is lower by conserving this to use on the flats and downs.
Where are your favourite trail runs? Do you prefer full on mountain trails or gentler river runs?