A family running on the trail again.

A Beginners Guide to Trail Running

If you’re accustomed to road running, trail running is an entirely different monster. Before you head off on your first trail, there’s plenty to learn, such as how to run, where to find routes, what type of gear you need, how to prevent falls and much more.

Fortunately, if you’re looking to get into trail running, you’ve come to the right place! We’ll cover all the basics to help you prepare for your first successful trail run (and hopefully others, too!)

What is trail running?

A couple running on a trail.

Trail running can be many things, depending on how far you take it. However, most often, it’s classified as any off-road running. 

For instance, you might enjoy running trails around a pond at your neighborhood park. Or, a more extreme version of trail running is tackling the trails up a mountainside in a remote area of the country.

Both examples above are different forms of trail running. Still, if you’re wondering how it compares to road running, it’s typically a bit more challenging due to the hills and uneven terrain you encounter. Regardless, you can make trail running as hard or as easy as you prefer.

What are the pros and cons of trail running?

A couple running on a trail next to a stream and mountain.

There are plenty of great benefits of trail running, such as:

  • Getting out and exercising in nature
  • Exploring new places
  • Enjoying amazing views
  • Staying fit in a fun and exciting way
  • Developing your mental endurance
  • Exercising with fewer people around and more natural noises (fewer distractions)
  • Having a lower risk of overuse injuries due to the softer ground surface

Some of the cons of trail running include the following:

  • Tackling more uneven and challenging terrain
  • Potentially getting lost
  • Generally running at a slower pace
  • Having a higher risk of falling or rolling an ankle

How to go trail running: Basic technique

A woman on a trail in the forest.

When you’re trail running, following a few basic rules regarding your technique can help you stay safe and enjoy yourself:

  • Keep your balance and avoid falling by maintaining a short stride. Taking small, frequent steps will also help make it easier to run downhill.
  • Avoid staring at your feet. Instead, look 10 to 15 feet on the trail ahead of you to watch for upcoming obstacles like tree roots or rocks.
  • Maintain a straight posture, whether you’re running uphill or downhill. Arching your back forward or backward can make breathing difficult or cause injuries.
  • When in doubt, walk. If you feel like you can’t run over rugged terrain, that’s okay! There’s no set rule that says you have to. Do what you feel most comfortable doing.

The more you do it, the easier trail running will become. Tackling challenging terrain with a group of trail-running friends is also a great way to get the hang of it if you’re feeling uncertain and need some backup.

What kind of gear do I need for trail running?

Two runners with wearing gear.

We highly recommend coming prepared when going trail running! Unlike with a quick jaunt around your neighborhood park or an indoor run with Vingo, you’ll be exposed to the elements for extended periods and may be in unfamiliar locations. As a result, you’ll need the following gear and supplies:

  • Plenty of water: Always pack extra water, regardless of the time of day, season, or how long you plan to run. A handheld water bottle, waist pack, or hydration vest are good options.
  • Snacks: If your trail run is less than an hour, you probably don’t need to bring any food, but keeping a granola bar or energy gel stashed on you when you go out never hurts. For longer runs, opt for simple, high-energy snacks for athletes, like energy bars, gels, or chews, since they’re easy to bring along with you.
  • Navigational tools: Of course, you don’t want to get lost while you’re running, so bring a GPS, paper map, or your phone with you.
  • Your wallet and ID: In emergencies, it’s a good idea to always have your wallet, ID, and debit or credit card on your person.
  • Fitness watch: If you care about tracking your progress or metrics like heart rate, distance, speed, etc., a fitness watch can help you monitor and keep track of these things.
  • A light: If you plan to go trail running at night, a headlamp or handheld flashlight can help light your way so you can see obstacles on the trail in front of you and farther ahead.
  • Sunscreen and a hat: Protect your skin and eyes from the sun while you run, especially if you plan to be out on the trails for an hour or longer. If you’re running during the peak of summertime, it’s also a good idea to run early in the morning or in the evening when it’s cooler.
  • Small first aid kit: If you’re running in a remote location, consider bringing a small first aid kit too. Having band-aids, gauze, and other treatments for potential bug bites, scrapes, and cuts on hand is never a bad thing!

Wondering how to pack all that? Check out our blog on how to carry all your gear while running for pro tips.

Where to find local trails

A women on a trail at sunset.

If you’re new to trail running, you might wonder how you can find the best local trails. It can all feel quite overwhelming! 

The easiest way to start is to find trails in well-marked local parks and have easy access to facilities like water fountains, bathrooms, and nearby restaurants or cafes. Choosing an easy-to-navigate trail for your first time is best because it allows you to focus on your technique, running form, and breathing instead of worrying about navigating.

Once you start feeling more confident in your trail running at local parks, you can broaden your experience by searching online websites, forums, and apps for trail runners. Many runners share locations and directions to the best trails in their area, making it easy to branch out and try new places.

You can also contact local running clubs or check their websites for a curated list of trails in the area.

General tips for trail running

One of the best things about trail running is that you don’t need much gear or knowledge to get started. Practicing your form and getting used to navigating rough terrain just takes some time.

The following tips can also help you get started, stay safe, and have plenty of fun as you broaden your running expertise.

Run with a buddy.

Two people high-fiving after their run.

If you’re less experienced, going trail running with a partner is safer. It’s also more fun and motivating when you don’t go it alone. If you’d rather run alone, tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.

Be aware of the local wildlife.

A runner on a trail in the forest.

Educate yourself on the local wildlife before you head out. For example, if you’re in an area with many ticks, dress appropriately and read up on handling tick bites. Or, if you are running in an area known for its rattlesnakes, make sure you know what to do if you encounter one.

Be respectful of nature.

A runner on top of the hill looking down celebrating.

Wherever you go trail running, don’t leave behind any evidence you were there. That means no dropping plastic wrappers or organic materials like apple cores or banana peels. Also, bury your waste if you venture off the trail for an emergency bathroom trip.

Share the trail.

Two runners on top of the mountain after the run.

Be aware that you might encounter other trail runners, equestrians, dogs, or ATVs on the trail, too. 

Bring your dog.

A guy running with a dog on a trail.

Speaking of dogs…bring yours along for the run! It’s a fun way to spend quality time with your fur baby, and it’s good for both of you to get out in the sunshine and fresh air. Just monitor your dog’s well-being closely and ensure they’re getting enough water too.

Trail running alternatives

If, after you run a few trails, you find that it’s just not for you or you don’t prefer the harsh outdoor elements, Vingo might be an excellent alternative. 

With our free running and cycling app, you can explore virtual locations like Iceland and Japan and enjoy all the sights and sounds (without the bugs, extreme heat, or muddy trails).

Create a customized avatar with a selfie, pick out your favorite running shoes and gear, and then choose from dozens of exciting running routes to explore from the comfort of your home. Vingo works with any treadmill; you don’t need fancy equipment or sensors to get started. 

Key Takeaways:

Trail running is a fun, free, and exciting way to diversify your running routine. Before you head out, refer to this beginner’s guide for the best tips on what to bring, where to go, and how to stay safe.

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