Trail Running for Beginners: The Definitive Guide To Off Road Running

If you’re new to off road running and wondering how to start trail running and what you need to know before you go off and run a trail for the first time, then you’ve come to the right place! Our definitive guide to trail running for beginners includes all you need to know about trail running, including how to trail run, trail running tips, key running gear for beginners and information on finding trails to run.

In this guide we’re answering all your biggest questions about how to start trail running. We’re starting by answering the first questions most people have about trail running, including, quite simply, ‘what is trail running?’, and sharing all you need to know about trail running basics and how to trail run when it comes to finding trails, pacing yourself and technique, so you can have the best time out there running trails. I

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f you’re new to our website then we have loads of trail running gear reviews, trail running tips posts and inspiration for destination trail races across the site, so stick around after you’ve read this post on how to start trail running for more advice and ideas for future running adventures.

Click one of the links below to jump to specific sections, or scroll down to read the complete Guide to Trail Running for Beginners:


Trail Running For Beginners – Table of Contents


What Is Trail Running?

Trail running means primarily off road running, such as running 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 mountain running adventure across remote terrain.

Is Trail Running More Difficult Than Road Running?

If you’re new to trail running but already have experience with regular running on pavement and roads then you may be wondering how trail running compares to road running and what the key differences are.

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

To answer the common question which is ‘is trail running more difficult than road running?’, then yes, in many ways trail running is more difficult than road running… BUT with that said, trail running can be as hard or easy as you want to make it.

While a motivation for many runners when running on roads is to improve speed and pace over a certain distance, and work hard to beat PRs, the motivation for many trail runners is different.

Trail Running for Beginners: The Definitive Guide To Off Road Running 1 - Trail and Kale | Trail Running & Adventure

Many people choose to run a trail rather than on pavement for the mental and physical benefits of trail 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. Some trail runners choose not to wear a running GPS watch at all, and run for the pleasure, with no eye on their time or pace.

The differences between trail running and road running are covered in more depth in this post.

Read more: The differences between trail running and road running are covered in more depth in this post.


How To Trail Run: Trail Running Tips and Basics

This section covers trail running basics, including technique, trail running pace, how to avoid falling over when trail running and trail running tips to help you move safety and efficiently when running trails.

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 commonly asked question by new trail runners who already have experience running on pavement and are looking to get a feel for how fast trail running paces are compared to their normal road running pace.

What makes a good trail running pace is actually 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 trails around 15-20% slower than we do on roads.

As touched on above, 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.

How Do You Run Uphill On Trails?

I’ll let you in on a little secret when it comes to a good trail running uphill technique, known to trail runners all over the world: If an uphill trail 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 what a good technique is for trail running 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.

How To Trail Run Downhill

If you’re new to trail running you may assume that trail running downhill is the easy part! It’s true, it is usually easier when it comes to cardio intensity, however trail running downhill can be hard on your body, 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

For these reasons it’s important to practice downhill trail running, by finding some trails to run with hills that you can train on and build up your strength and proprioception / balance.

Another way to improve strength and stamina for downhill running when you’re not 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.

How To Avoid Falling Over When Trail Running

Many people researching how to start trail running express some concern about the risk of falling over when trail running. Some helpful trail running tips to reduce your chances of tripping and falling over when running trails are:

  • 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 buy a pair of trail running shoes and other trail running 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.

Read more: Why you fall over trail running, and how to avoid tripping

Take Plenty Of Water When Running Trails

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

Even experienced trail runners get caught out without the right gear 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, which happens surprisingly often on hot summer days even in countries with relatively cool climates.

As well as getting dehydrated if you don’t drink enough water when running, 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.


Trail Running For Beginners Gear Guide: Trail Shoes, Clothes and Running Hydration Packs

So you’re a seasoned runner looking up how to start trail running, or new to trail running and running in general. Either way, you’re wondering what shoes to wear for trail running, what special clothes may be necessary, and curious to understand what other trail running gear is commonly used by trail runners, and why.

In addition to this trail running for beginners guide, which focuses on how to trail run and other trail running basics, we’ve written a set of comprehensive and regularly-updated guides to the best trail running shoes, clothes, and accessories to wear.

However – before you read our trail running gear 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 off road running, and work out what accessories you may need, depending on the type of running (duration, terrain, distance, climate) you are doing.

Essential Trail Running Basics When It Comes To Gear

In order of priority, here are the three top pieces of trail running gear we recommend buying first:

Do I Really Need Trail Shoes For Trail Running? Are Regular Running Shoes OK?

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, if you’re new to trail running then 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 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.

How To Carry Water And Gear When Trail Running: What Is A Running Hydration Pack?

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

If you are an experienced road runner who is used to running half marathon distance or longer, but a new to trail running you may want to immediately start running trails for a couple of hours or more. If this is the case, then once you have a pair of trail running shoes, then consider investing in a race vest (a.k.a. a running hydration pack).

This type of running 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 hydration pack (also known as 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?’, and that includes carrying all the water and food you may need to carry with you running.

Other Trail Running Gear For Beginners

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.

We recommend a waterproof jacket as one of the priority pieces of trail running clothes to buy first because for many people, in many climates, if you’re subject to wet, windy and / or cold conditions then wearing, or at least carrying a waterproof jacket with you on your trail runs becomes a necessity to help you stay comfortable and enjoy your trail run without unnecessary exposure to the weather.

RELATED TRAIL RUNNING GEAR GUIDES:

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:

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!
  • 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:


How To Find Off Road Running Trails

So you’ve read our trail running tips in the how to trail run section above, and know what you need to know about how to start trail running, but the next question you probably have is how to find good 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.

An easy starting point for trail running until you get more experience in terms of how to trail run on different types of terrain, ascents and weather conditions is to 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.

By running somewhere that’s easy to get around and not too challenging or remote, this means you can focus on the act of trail running, rather than being concerned with working out where you are and what direction you need to go.

A local park could also be a helpful place to start if you have not accumulated all the recommended trail running clothes and gear you should carry with you to help keep you safe somewhere remote/exposed or technical in terms of tricky terrain underfoot.

The best ways to find trails to run on by looking them up online are explained in our dedicated post on how to find running trails, which is perfect for beginner trail runners and experienced trail runners as well as hikers.

As well as using the tips and apps explained in that post, going trail running with other people is another great way to find new trails to run on. When you are new to trail running 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 on new trails. The benefits of trail running with other people include:

  • Commitment
  • Company
  • Safety
  • Trail know-how

Whether you are an experienced runner or new 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.


Other Trail Running Tips and FAQ If You’re New To Trail Running

Is Trail Running Dangerous?

Like any sport, trail running has its risks, and if you go out to run a trail, particularly if you are new to trail running, 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, if you are new to trail running go off road running 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.


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!

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.

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

How to trail run - Beginner's guide to trail running by Trail & Kale

One of the biggest things that trail running taught us both is how to be patient. When I was new to trail running, 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).

Trail running can be hard, and it will make you humble. 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.

It’s also worth having in mind that running a trail race can take you a long time, whether two, four, eight or more hours, which 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.

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.

This is why it can be amusing to a trail runner if you ask them what their half marathon or marathon time is, or how long it takes to run a 50k, because the time will depend on so many elements and differences between different trail races and even the same race run in different weather conditions.

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 😉

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 when it comes to trail running gear. 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.

Can you go trail running 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.

If you have a dog or are getting a dog and hope to take them trail running and on other adventures then we also have a load of adventure-dog content featuring our trail dog Kepler, including how to trail run with your dog, how to calm your dog down after exercise, and adventure dog gear essentials.

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 choose off road running over hard surfaces, 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 running 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.

If you are new to trail running then one of the biggest trail running tips I can share is to take it easy on your first few runs. Like when you do any sport for the first time, you may be surprised, even if you are already a runner, how tiring it can be when you work your body’s muscles differently on off-road 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


Glossary of Trail Running Terms

The trail running world is full of jargon, like most sports, so if you’ve come across some words or abbreviations and are curious about what they mean then you can probably find them in our glossary of trail running terms.


Trail Running For Beginners – In Summary

We hope you have found this ultimate guide on how to start trail running helpful and that it has given you the trail running tips and advice you were looking for if you’re new to trail running. If you still have questions about how to trail run then drop us a comment below and we’ll get back to you!

For more trail running tips, gear guides and inspiration, stick around to read more! You can also connect with us on Instagram and don’t forget to check out our YouTube channel for running short films, trail running tips and reviews of trail running shoes and other gear.

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