Now that warmer weather is here, and the parks and trails are officially open, it’s time to up your running game by venturing into the woods. Trail running is quickly becoming the most popular way to jog — the topic has over 525 million views on TikTok alone — and once you learn more about its many benefits, you’ll totally understand why.
Trail running is just like regular running, except for the fact it happens in the woods or along other natural landscapes, says Heather DeRose, a certified personal trainer, run coach, and trail marathoner. “Trail running involves dirt paths, rocky terrain, uneven surfaces, bridges, and streams,” she tells Bustle. “It allows the runner to be completely immersed in nature through forests, mountains, or the countryside.” Whether you jog in your local woods, in a park, or up a mountain, seeing rivers and rocks definitely adds a little extra something to the experience.
While trail running has always been a thing, it’s currently having a moment thanks to the season, the adventurous vibes, as well as all its added benefits. Not only is it a fun way to combine your workout with your daily trip outside, but it’s also said to take the pressure off of running, according to run coach Amanda Brooks. Instead of worrying about your pace or time, you get to look at the trees.
As a bonus, “trail running can also improve your road running,” Brooks tells Bustle. “The time spent tackling hills or more challenging runs is going to make you stronger and tends to make those nice flat roads feel like you are flying.” Into it? Here’s what beginner trail runners need to know.
Trail Running Tips For Beginners
1. Choose A Flat Trail
Even if you want to run up a mountain or to a faraway lookout point, go for a flat, easy trail to start, like one in a local park or nature conservation area. To find a trail, Brooks recommends using a tool like The Trail Run Project app, which will give you all the details — like difficulty level, elevation, mileage, etc. — before you get there. “This will help prevent you from starting out and realizing that something is much harder than you were prepared to do,” she says.
2. Know How Far You Want To Go
It’s easy to keep on running (thanks to the views) without realizing how far you’ve gone, so remember that you have to come all the way back. “You wouldn’t want to run until you have absolutely no energy left for the trail back to the beginning point,” DeRose says. She recommends choosing a turnaround point that makes sense for your fitness level. If you can run a 5k on flat land, choose a trail that’s a little shorter in the woods, due to the added difficulty level.
3. Run At A Comfortable Pace
“Trail running can be significantly more challenging than road running because of the varied terrain,” DeRose says, so try to keep your pace slow and steady until you build up strength and endurance. “The run can always turn into a hike, so listen to your body, start at a comfortable pace, and gradually progress to more challenging trails and distances,” she says.
4. Bring Snacks & Water
Bringing water is always important, but especially if you’re running on a hot day or at elevation. “I like to trail run with a hand-held running water bottle that straps to my hand for a grip-free experience,” DeRose says, though a water backpack can also do the trick.
Since you’re likely far away from civilization, keeping your energy up is extra important. “Bringing snacks such as energy bars, nuts, and athletic gels are good for replenishing energy and providing boosts on the trail,” she adds. “It’s also better to have water and snacks when you need them than to not have something for yourself or someone else in an emergency.”
5. Build Up your Ankle Stability
One of the biggest differences between running on a street or treadmill, and running on a trail, is that your foot is going to land differently, Brooks says. “Trail runners often spend more time on ankle stability and strength because the foot is going to hit different angles, whether that's rocks, [roots], or a narrow track.”
Keep this in mind as you jog — and train for it at the gym. “Exercises that challenge balance and stability are crucial for trail running,” DeRose adds. “Single leg squats, stability ball exercises, and exercises on a Bosu ball can help improve stability and balance. Starting slow and hiking a trail can also help until a fitness level for trail running is reached.”
6. Be Aware Of Wildlife
If you plan to run in the woods, it’s good to research the kinds of animals you might run into, whether it’s bugs/ticks, snakes, deer, or bears. “I spent a lot of time running in the Rocky Mountains and they have bears and mountain lions,” DeRose says. “It’s important to stay alert and bring bear spray or something to protect yourself.”
7. Don’t Wear Headphones
While it’s always nice to listen to music or a podcast while you run, DeRose recommends keeping an ear out. “Many trail runners, including myself, do not wear headphones while trail running,” she says. “It’s important to be able to hear in remote areas.”
8. Look 5 To 10 Feet Ahead
Since you’ll be navigating hills, rocks, puddles, tree roots, and possibly even rivers and cliffs, try to keep your gaze five to 10 feet ahead of where you currently are — instead of looking straight down at your feet, Brooks says. “This is going to give your brain time to process any obstacles and help you avoid them.”
9. Take Breaks After Big Hills
There’s no need to run up a hill — or to run the entire time. “It's expected that you'll need to take walk breaks [to get up] big hills and that you may want to pause for nature,” Brooks says. Stop to catch your breath, have a little picnic, or take in the view. “This has helped many runners bring the joy back to their miles.”
10. Bring The Right Gear
What you bring on your run comes down to personal preferences and where you’re running, but you should consider things like bug spray, tick spray, sunscreen, and the right clothes. DeRose wears a lightweight, breathable hat to protect her from the elements, as well as a jogging belt.
“I’ve found that fanny packs or jogging belts can be more comfortable than a backpack for trail running,” she says. “Some necessary items to consider bringing on a trial run are your smartwatch, keys, ID, phone, bear spray or weapon, water, and snacks.”
11. Pick Up Trail Running Sneakers
The right shoes will also come in clutch. While there are plenty of trails that can be tackled with basic running shoes, DeRose says there are extra-durable trail running shoes that have added features like waterproofing, rock plate for protection, and extra-grippy soles. They’re often more cushioned, too, for added stability.
Heather DeRose, certified personal trainer, run coach, and trail marathoner
Amanda Brooks, running coach