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Beginner’s Guide To Trail Running in 2021

Whether you’re already a trail runner wanting to start trail running, or a beginner trail runner researching how to trail run, welcome to our comprehensive ultimate trail running for beginners guide. In this guide, we answer all the key questions and tell you what you need to know to start trail running, including what shoes to wear when running on trails, how to find trails to run on, how to trail run, and how to stay safe on the trails, as well as sharing our top tips and advice for new and beginner trail runners.

Click one of the links below to jump to specific sections, or scroll down to read the complete Beginner’s Guide To Trail Running:

Trail Running For Beginners – Table of Contents

10 frequently asked questions asked about trail running

1. What is trail running?

Trail running means running primarily off-road, such as on dirt and forest trails. Running trails can be as mellow as a 5k lap around your local city park or as extreme as a multi-day running adventure across remote mountain ranges.

2. Is trail running more difficult than road running?

Matterhorn Ultraks 30k - Beginner's Guide To Trail Running
Running Matterhorn Ultraks in Switzerland

In many ways trail running is more difficult than road running but it can be as hard or easy as you want to make it. Many people run on trails for the mental and physical benefits of running on softer, non-repetitive terrain, away from traffic and crowds – not to mention the joy of being in nature and climbing hills and mountains to be rewarded by the views.

Read more: in this dedicated post, Helen wrote on the differences between trail running and road running.

3. Do I need trail shoes for trail running?

For your first few trail runs you may not need specific trail running shoes, especially if, as I would recommend, you pick a relatively flat and even trail, such as a park path, fire road or bridlepath that doesn’t have many obstacles such as rocks and roots – and if the ground is dry and not too slippery.

Just like with any new sport, it makes sense to try it out a few times to make sure you love it before you go ahead and spend money on gear. Having said that, I’m sure you’ll love trail running, and therefore pretty quickly you’ll want to increase your enjoyment of running on trails by having dedicated trail running shoes that can give you the support, grip and durable features that you can trust when out on trail running adventures.

Read more: For our comprehensive guide to the best shoes for trail running, by type of trail and featuring many shoes we’ve tried, tested and worn out ourselves, read our Ultimate guide to the best trail running shoes.

4. How do you find good trails to run on?

Until you get more experience in terms of how to trail run on different types of terrain, ascents and weather conditions, I recommend you choose trails in parks or popular places with well-marked paths, facilities (toilets, rangers, drinking fountains, cafes) or a fun local trail race, rather than heading up the most remote mountain or coast path you can find.

This is for safety’s sake, and also as you may not have accumulated all the recommended safety kit and clothing needed to help keep you safe somewhere remote/exposed or technical. This article shares the best way to find new trails to run on for beginner trail runners and experienced trail runners.

Good examples of places to try are popular hiking paths, state parks, and local/city parks.

Read more: Our post ‘How to find good trails near me‘ shares some of the best ways to find trails to run on.

5. What is a good trail running pace?

Trail Running in Marin California - Beginner's Guide To Trail Running
Smooth (‘buffed’) singletrack trails are easier to get a faster pace on, but can be deceivingly tiring if they have a lot of gradual ascents involved!

‘What is a good trail running pace’ is a difficult question to answer, because it vastly depends on factors such as the terrain, weather, and elevation gain/loss (uphills and downhills) on your run. But, if comparing trail running to road running, then we find that on average, we run around 15-20% slower on trails than we do on roads.

One of the beautiful things about trail running is that actually, for many trail runners, it is not about the speed or pace you run at. Much of the time, I run by effort level, meaning, I run by how hard it FEELS based on experience.

On some days I’m feeling like I can run trails much faster than usual, and that can have everything to do with how wet and slippery the ground is underfoot through to how hard I want to push myself on that day, and of course my fitness levels. This can be a bit of an adjustment to make when you’re used to monitoring your runs by pace and splits, but trust me, it’s an easy one to make, and very liberating.

6. How do you run uphill on trails?

I’ll let you in on a little secret, known to trail runners all over the world… if an uphill is very long or steep, or you’re running a long overall distance and need to preserve energy, then many of us WALK uphill. Yes, that’s right, it’s more efficient to adopt what we call a ‘Power-Hike’ than actually trying to run up those hills. So if you’re wondering how to trail run uphill quicker than you are currently on your runs, then you really need to learn how to power-hike, rather than run steeper gradients. A power-hike isn’t a casual stroll, it’s a purposeful hike where you look up the hill, lean into the gradient, put a hand on each thigh, and POWER your way uphill with focus and pure grit. Good power-hikers can climb uphill much faster than other people can run up, but it takes practice.

7. Is trail running dangerous?

Like any sport, trail running has its risks, and if you go out running on trails, particularly as a new trail runner or beginner, it is important to understand how to stay safe when trail running. Key steps you can take to stay safe are to ensure you are well-prepared, with enough water and essentials in the event of a run taking longer than planned (which happens ALL the time), knowing what wildlife encounters you may experience, where you are going and how to get back and telling someone where you are going and how long it should be before you’re back. Even better, go trail running on new trails with friends or a group who know the area. See below for an article all about this topic.

Read more: Is trail running dangerous? How to stay safe on the trails.

8. How do you run on trails at night?

If you are new to trail running then I would recommend starting out with trail running during the day – and making sure you head out with plenty of time to finish your run in daylight hours! But, trail running at night can be fun, if you’re well-prepared. At the very least, you’ll need a good quality headlamp suitable for trail running, and we strongly suggest knowing the area you’ll be running in very well, or going with someone who does, to reduce the chance of getting lost – as those trails can look very different at night. Also, it goes without saying that having a decent map and compass and/or a GPS watch is something we always recommend. See below for our full guide on how to trail run at night / running in the dark.

Read more: The ultimate guide to trail running at night: getting started, the benefits, and staying safe.

9. Can you run trails with your dog?

Yes! If you have a dog that is fit and healthy enough and of a build suited to running the types of distances you may want to run, then trail running with your dog is an excellent way to spend quality time with your furry friend and both get some exercise in (assuming the trails you intend to run on allow dogs). Like with people, dogs need to build up the mileage and shouldn’t do too much too soon – and puppies shouldn’t do much running until their joints have finished developing, to reduce the risk of long-term injuries resulting from running impacting on growing bodies. We suggest checking with your vet that your dog is clear to run trails with you.

Alastair and Kepler Bon Tempe Lake trail and kale web wm 1
Our dog Kepler is young and so his trail adventures are kept short and we go at his pace.

It’s important to be prepared to look after your dog’s needs during your run, such as carrying enough extra water, food and an emergency first aid kit for them (you can store it in your hydration pack). Remember that even if you’re not too hot or thirsty, your dog is unable to sweat and so care and good judgment must be exercised to ensure that you keep them safe, healthy and protected from risks such as dehydration, heat stroke, hypothermia, exhaustion, and injuries such as cut paws.

Read more: How to trail run with your dog

10. Is trail running bad for your knees and ankles?

We are personally of the view that running, in general, is not bad for your knees and ankles, if you do not over-train or build up your time and mileage quicker than your body is trained for. Obviously everyone is different and has their own physical ability and we all start from a different point in terms of strength, flexibility, weight, balance, and level of conditioning through other sports (or having not done any at all, like me before I started running). Running is a very natural thing for people to do – we did, after all, evolve with a physique that is designed to be capable of long-distance endurance running. We are all born to run.

Having said this, I experienced significantly more training injuries when running predominantly on roads (pavement / tarmac / concrete) than I do now I run mostly off-road, even though I run significantly greater distances than I used to. Part of this is because I have more training under my belt, and my body is more efficient at running in terms of my form, but part of it is undoubtedly because trails are generally softer surfaces, and less repetitive in terms of impact on your feet / ankles / knees / body in general, because no two footsteps really land the same, and you have to vary your stride length to move effectively around uneven terrain.

For more background on why we were ‘Born to Run’, have a read of this fantastic book, that will change the way you think about our bodies and our capabilities as far as endurance running is concerned.

Read more: 5 Ways to Improve Running Form and Prevent Injuries

broken arrow skyrace race photo - how to trail run - Beginner's Guide To Trail Running
Trail running has the potential to make you very happy!

10 tips and pieces of advice for new trail runners and beginners

Sometimes we don’t know what we need to know, so we don’t ask the question! Therefore, we’ve summarized a comprehensive list of all the nuggets of advice we wish we had been told when we were beginner trail runners and were starting to learn how to trail run – which includes things we hadn’t even thought of, until we found ourselves in situations or experiences that have sometimes led to us learning the hard way. This trail running advice for beginners is designed to save you going through the same learning process.

1. How to trail run: Avoid falling over/tripping when trail running

To avoid falling over when trail running, our top tips are to:

  • SLOW DOWN – don’t worry or even think about your pace when on the trails. It’s more important to allow yourself some time to practice your technique and running form when you are new to trail running.
  • TAKE SMALLER STEPS AND PICK YOUR FEET UP – smaller steps help you keep your center of gravity over your feet, reducing the likelihood of you slipping. Taking smaller steps rather than large strides also helps reduce impact-related running injuries, as you’re spending less time in the air and so landing on each foot has a smaller impact. And picking your feet up, especially when tired is an easy way to reduce accidental root/rock kicks.
  • FOCUS – on what you’re doing, in the moment. Look ahead at the terrain, plan where your feet will land and think about how quickly you will make your steps. Look out for potential hazards such as large obstacles, loose rocks or sticks that might move when you step on them, and other more unusual things such as large wildlife up ahead that you may need to avoid.

Before you spend money on trail running shoes and gear, do some research and think about the types of trails you like to run on, or that you are likely to spend the most time running on. Some trail running shoes are best for wet, soft and muddy ground, as they have large lugs (and therefore better grip in slippy wet conditions) and can be waterproof – but these shoes are not necessarily going to be comfortable or perform well on dry, packed hard dirt trails, or rough rocky mountain trails – there are other trail running shoes that are best for those types of trails. Having the right type of trail running shoes will help reduce the chance of you falling over due to losing grip.

Plexus Co. (dba Chirp)
Plexus Co. (dba Chirp)
Plexus Co. (dba Chirp)
Plexus Co. (dba Chirp)

Read more: our ultimate guide to the best trail running shoes summarizes our expert-reviewed picks of top trail running shoes for each type of trail, to help you choose which is the best for the type of running you’ll be doing.

2. Trail running will make you humble

This beginner’s guide to trail running wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t share this little nugget with you. If you want some perspective on life, and to appreciate how big and beautiful the world is, then trail running should help you…

Matterhorn Ultraks 30k Alastair -  Trail Kale - how to trail run - Beginner's Guide To Trail Running
These steep Swiss mountains Alastair’s running in here are definitely humbling to run on. So tough, yet so beautiful!

Sometimes it will be the terrain, other times it will be the climate, and yet other times it will be the sheer magnitude and beauty of nature. You know what? Whatever it is, it’s REAL. It’s not on the internet or in your mind: Being out and moving in nature, whether it’s your local park, the desert, the forests or the mountains, makes you feel alive, free, and also really small, which helps with gaining perspective on life’s other challenges and preoccupations. It’s good to feel humility, and it’s good to exert yourself a bit, get a bit dirty (or very dirty), and breathe fresh air.

3. When trail running, take more water and food than you think you need

Even experienced trail runners get caught out without the right kit from time to time, but the goal is to be prepared for the unexpected, and reduce the risk of running out of the essentials – water, first and foremost, but also some food or energy gels are good to have, especially if you’re doing a long run. When you run out of water you run the risk of becoming dehydrated and collapsing, if I had a dollar for the number of times I have seen runners collapse during an intense mountain race on a hot summer day…

If you don’t take on enough salts/electrolytes then you run the risk of getting muscle cramps, which can put you off running for a long time afterward unless you know how to overcome them or better yet, prevent muscle cramping. Learn how to prevent muscle cramps while running.

I’ve been known to go out with the intention of spending a couple of hours, and spending almost three hours because it was hotter than I expected, I was slower than I had intended, and I spent an extra hour hiking around in the heat – maybe because it can be energy-sapping, or maybe because it was such a beautiful day that I didn’t want to rush my route. In these situations it’s important to have a snack and enough water with you – and also, of course, let someone know you’re ok and just going to be out a bit longer than planned.

4. A race vest is a great investment, even when you are a beginner trail runner

If you are an experienced road runner who is used to running half marathon distance or longer, but a beginner when it comes to trail running, you may want to start hitting the trails for a couple of hours or more. If this is the case, then once you have your trusty pair (or pairs 🙂 ) of trail running shoes, then consider investing in a race vest (a.k.a. a running hydration pack). This running-specific backpack is a must-have for long trail runs, as depending on its volume, you can use the race vest to carry everything you need from a couple of hours up to a full day out on the trails. A race vest is pretty much always the answer to questions that are along the lines of ‘how do I take/carry XYZ on my long trail runs?’.

Examples of the types of gear you may want or need to carry with you when trail running (and store in your hydration pack) are: a warm layer, waterproof jacket, food, water bottles, phone, keys, running first aid kit, hat and gloves.

what to wear trail running - the best trail running gear.


5. What every new trail runner needs to know about trail etiquette

In the absence of any ‘formal’ or specific rules relating to the trail you are running on, please exercise common sense, good judgment and we suggest that beginner and experienced trail runners follow these guidelines to respect the trails and other trail users:

  • It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Leave No Trace. That’s everything from trash (including banana skins), which you should carry out with you, to the output of any emergency bathroom stops, which should be well away from the trail, and ideally buried – with no paper or anything left behind.
  • Give way to other trail users when you are trail running, especially if they’re traveling uphill, and always if they are with horses or on horseback. While in some places bikers are supposed to give way to pedestrians, often it’s easier, as a trail runner, to quickly step out of the way and let someone on a mountain bike go past you, than just assuming/expecting them to stop for you (not to mention, safer for both of you).
  • Run through puddles! Why? Because it’s fun of course and quicker than going around them. But from a trail etiquette perspective, it’s also better for the trail because if you step around a large puddle, then you’re likely stepping on the side of the trail and making the trail wider.
How to trail run - Beginner's guide to trail running by Trail & Kale

6. Remember to enjoy the process of trail running, not the end result

One of the biggest things that trail running taught us both is how to be patient. As a beginner trail runner, I had to learn that climbing a steep uphill is always hard (probably why I enjoy it so much), and it takes time (but it’s worth it when you get to the top… and get to run down the other side).

Running a race that takes you a long time, whether two, four, eight or more hours, requires a lot of self-control to avoid burning out (a.k.a. ‘bonking – for a definition see this post), which, in turn, requires you to be patient with yourself and learn to enjoy the journey, rather than just rushing to the end of the run.

7. Hiking poles are not just for hikers and ultrarunners

Using hiking poles for trail running is a legitimate and, in steep mountain races, particularly in Europe, encouraged thing to do, whether you are a beginner trail runner or seasoned ultramarathon runner. Trail running poles have many benefits, including:

  • Making uphill climbs on steep (eg mountainous) trails, easier
  • Allowing you to get into a rhythm when climbing uphill
  • Helping with balance on steep descents by allowing you to probe for stable ground before committing with your feet.

If you are recovering from a running injury, particularly with parts of your body such as knees and ankles, using trail running poles, or at least carrying some lightweight folding running poles with you (just in case), can be a great help.

Read more:

8. Running downhill is sometimes more strenuous than running uphill!

Running downhill can be the greatest contributor to DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) than those challenging uphills. This is for a few reasons:

  • Gravity and height: When running downhill, your strides are likely to be longer because you are running faster downhill than on the flats or uphills, and you’re not only running forwards but also down, so the impact on your body is greater by the time your foot hits the floor.
  • Eccentric (downwards) quad muscle contractions: we often feel the worst post-downhill run muscle pain in our quadriceps (front of thighs), due to the weight-bearing they have been doing while also helping you bend your legs

A way to improve strength and stamina for downhill running is by doing strengthening exercises such as leg squats, lunges and ankle strength and flexibility work, as well as building up your running distance gradually, a maximum of 10% more distance (or time) each week. Some examples of the exercises you can do are in this video of me using a BOSU.

9. Running with other people is a great way to find new trails to run on

Matterhorn Ultraks 30k Helen Finishing Trail Kale
Trail running races offer unique opportunities to run in beautiful parts of the world, with other people and on marked routes.

When you are a beginner trail runner, it really helps to have other people, particularly those with some experience of trail running, to support and guide you on your first few runs, or when running in a new place. The benefits of running with other people include:

  • Commitment
  • Company
  • Safety
  • Trail know-how

Whether you are an experienced or beginner trail runner, another great way to learn new trails is by signing up for a local trail race. Many race organizers offer 5k trail races, through to 10ks, half marathons, marathons and ultras.

10. Trail running races may be longer (or shorter) than the stated distance

Because there is less emphasis on finish times in trail running than road running races (unless, of course, you’re looking to win the race or set a new course record), and every trail running race is different due to the varying terrains and elevation/ascent/descent of each course, no two trail races can truly be compared.

Given this, and the fact that it is very difficult to accurately measure some trails for distance, a race may be stated as a half-marathon (13.1 miles), but actually be 12.5 miles or 14 miles. Hey, that’s part of the fun of running trail running races, ok?! I’m telling you this now, so you don’t get shocked (or – gasp – angry!) if you reach 13.2 miles and still can’t see the finish line of your first trail half marathon. It’s ok, you’ll get to the end soon, just maybe not as soon as you’d thought. Just don’t shout at the race director when you get back to the finish line, it’s not cool (I’ve actually witnessed this on more than one occasion) – don’t be that person 😉

What are the best beginner trail running shoes, clothing, and accessories for beginner trail runners?

So you’re a seasoned road runner looking to start trail running, or a beginner trail runner or hiker looking to run on trails. Either way, you’re wondering what shoes to wear for trail running, what special clothing may be necessary, and curious to understand what other accessories are commonly used by trail runners. You’ve come to the right place!

In addition to this beginner’s guide on how to trail run, we’ve written a set of comprehensive and regularly-updated guides to the best trail running shoes, clothing, and accessories to wear. However – before you read our guides, bear in mind that if you are new to trail running, or a beginner trail runner, then you do not necessarily need to run out and spend lots of money on a full suite of trail running clothes and accessories. These are all things that you can accumulate as you gain experience and develop your love of trail running, and work out what accessories you may need, depending on the type of running (duration, terrain, distance, climate) you are doing.

Our top picks for priority trail running gear are:

  1. a good pair of trail running shoes
  2. a waterproof jacket (for people in most parts of the world where precipitation is possible/like)
  3. a hydration pack/race vest (for the reasons described in the advice section above)

Glossary of Trail Running Terms

We decided to put together our A-Z trail running glossary because let’s face it, there are so many funny terms that get thrown about in this community, and they all deserve to be shared! So, the next time you meet someone new on the trails and they mention words like bonk or code brown, you’ll actually know what they’re talking about ?.

Being so passionate about trail running, we have focused on terms you may come across relating specifically to trail running, as well as some of the more ambiguous general runner lingo.


Happy trails!

We hope you have found this beginner’s guide to trail running helpful. Let us know if you have any questions about starting to trail run in the comments below! Also, if you a more experienced trail runner, please share any other great tips for new trail runners.


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Hey, I'm Alastair. I started Trail & Kale to share the mental & physical benefits that trail running and nature had given me. This site now inspires hundreds of thousands of people all over the world to trail run, hike, adventure more, and live a healthy plant-based lifestyle. It's also a place to learn how to chase your dreams, untether from convention and live more self-sustainably.

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