Tips for New Trail Runners: Moving From Road to Trail

August 21, 2012 9:00 am 8 comments

If you are new to running trails, leaving the pavement and hitting the dirt may seem intimidating. Even if your ultimate goal is road running, getting out on the trails can be a great complement to your training. The softer and irregular ground surface is more forgiving on the feet and the joints. You will find that you can load on the mileage with less chance of injury. And getting away from traffic noise and exhaust fumes makes running a much more peaceful experience. Chances are, once you start running on trails, you’ll find that you prefer them to pavement!

Here are twelve tips to help you transition to the dirt:

  1. Get yourself some trail running shoes. Not only do they have more aggressive treads than road runners, to keep you from sliding around in the gravel or the mud, they also have more sturdy soles. You are less likely to injure the bottom of your foot if you step on a hard root or a rock. The upper part of trail shoes is also tougher, too, to protect you from stubbing your toe or grazing your foot.
  2. Loosen up. Don’t be nervous. Keep your body relaxed. If your body is tense, you are more likely to stumble or fall. (But what if you are really nervous? See point #3).
  3. Recon some routes. If you are really new to trails, do some fast hikes to get used to moving over irregular terrain. Start with less technical routes until you feel comfortable. Find a route that you like, and run it over and over until you memorize it, Then you can get used to moving your body on the rough ground, and practice picking up speed, without worrying about surprises as you round the corners.
  4. Slow down. Expect to run 10 to 20% slower than you would on pavement – even slower if the terrain is highly technical.
  5. Pay attention. You can’t yantbonus “zone out’ the way you can on a flat road. Keep your eyes 10 to 15 feet ahead of you on the trail, so you can plan your footfalls around obstacles like roots or rocks. Don’t follow other runners too closely – keep your line of sight clear.
  6. Take short strides. This is one of the most important factors that road runners must keep in mind as they transition to trail. Taking short strides, so your weight is above your feet, keeps you more stable, and in a good position to react and step around rocks and roots. You cannot react quickly if your foot is out ahead of your body.
  7. Be aware of your foot position. Lift your feet a bit higher than you would on the road, and make sure you raise your toes when you are stepping over obstacles like roots or logs, so you don’t trip.
  8. Don’t be afraid to walk. Hills can be steeper on trails than on most road routes. Walking the uphills is a good strategy to avoid lactic acid build-up. Walking any very technical sections, such as trails with lots of roots over them, or rocky river beds, is also wise. Taking walking breaks on long runs is a strategy used by many ultramarathoners.
  9. Get your feet wet. Many injuries happen when runners try to keep their feet from getting wet by hopping on slippery rocks or logs. Just let your feet get wet – it is only that first dunk that feels so bad! Not only will you be safer, you’ll find that you will travel faster than by hopping around.
  10. Think hydration. Depending upon your route, and the length of your run, you may need to carry a water bottle or wear a hydration pack.
  11. Be smart. Think about what gear is appropriate to the route you are traveling. If there is a chance that you might get caught out at nightfall, carry a headlamp. If there is a chance that the weather could turn on you, carry a jacket. Find out if there are any wildlife issues you need to be aware of.
  12. Play it safe. Don’t get lost. Do your research, and carry a map if necessary. Tell someone where you are going, and when you plan to be back. And make sure that they know what to do if you don’t report in.

Trails are fun! Hopefully these twelve tips will help make your transition from road running to trail running both safe and enjoyable. Happy running!

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Written by Jacqueline Windh

Jacqueline Windh

Jacqueline Windh runs around Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island, Canada, with her partner Dave and their two dogs. Although she mostly runs purely for the joy of running, she does enter the occasional off-road ultra (her favorites are multi-day races: the tougher the terrain, the better). Her articles have been published in magazines around the world, and she is author of four books.

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  • This is some great advice!
    I would add, run with others. Not only is it more fun adventuring through the woods with a friend, it really is safer.

  • Hi Roger –

    Thanks for adding that point.

    I must admit that I do like running alone, as well as running with my friends. But if you do go alone, it is even more important that you make sure you know what you are doing: carry the appropriate gear, know your route well, and make sure that someone knows where you went, when you plan to be back, AND what to do if you don’t show up on time.

    Also, the one caution I’d make about going in groups – is to make sure you don’t have the “Oh, it’ll be safe because I am with someone else” attitude. Unless someone is a deginated leader or guide, you should make sure you are every bit as prepared as if you were going alone. Because it is just as likely that you will be required to give your buddies some help as it is that you will need their help.

    Happy trails!

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