Trail Running Tips for Road Runners

Trail Running Tips for Road Runners

Trail running sounds intimidating to many road runners. The roads are consistent, while the trails are unpredictable. Yes, trail running is different than road running, but different does not mean bad. Trail running is fun, presents a new challenge compared to the roads, and might just be what you need to add some needed variety to your running. Venture confidently out on the trails with these trail running tips for road runners. 

Trail Running Tips for Road Runners

Find the trails that excite you

Typically, we envision a gnarly single track on the side of a mountain when we think of trail running – but that is only one type of trail running. Trail running can range from smooth grass fields or wide dirt paths to technical single-tracks through the mountains. Essentially, anything that isn’t pavement, concrete, or track is a trail. One type is not superior to the other – you don’t have to run technical, steep trails to enjoy trail running. Personally, I love cross-country style grass trails; some of my friends and coaching clients relish technical trails with roots, rocks, and steep climbs. Try different trails and find what you enjoy the most.

If you are nervous about trying a trail for the first time, scope it out with a hike before you run on it. Familiarizing yourself before you run removes some of the nerves that can surround the unpredictability of a trail run.

Focus on an easy effort

In general, trail running is slower than road running at an equivalent effort. The more technical and steep the trail, the slower your pace will be. Don’t compare your trail paces to road paces – focus on your perceived effort and breathing instead.

When you start out on the trails, run at a comfortable, conversational effort. For road runners, hard workouts should be saved for the roads – especially if you aren’t comfortable with your footing on the trails yet.

For road runners, the softer surface and naturally slower pace make trail runs ideal for easy runs and recovery runs. Plus, the trails are fun, which is what you want for an easy day – part of the purpose of easy runs is to remind us why we love running. Plan a trail run for the day after your long run or hardest workout of the week to optimize mental and physical recovery.

Start short

I ran on the roads for a better part of a decade before I ever completed a trail run. Yet even with all of that experience, trail running was challenging. The energy demands, mental focus, and changing terrain make it more difficult than road running, even though the impact is less.

For your first trail run, plan on a short distance than you would run on the roads. Your pace will be slower and the unique challenges of the trails – especially highly technical trails – will make you feel tired sooner.

Focus on good form

Some runners can get away with overstriding or slouched posture on the roads, but the trails are less forgiving to poor form. You risk tripping and tire out more quickly on the trails when you had lazy form. 

On the trails, focus on good form. Yes, good form varies from runner to runner and things like foot strike do not matter, but some basics will make a difference. Run tall with a strong arm swing, quick turnover, and full hip extension. Focus on staying relaxed – tension will do your body no favors and waste energy.

Trail Running Tips for Road Runners

Embrace the power hike

If you are trail running in the mountains or on steep hills, do not hesitate to hike up the hill! Ultra runners and trail runners alike use power hiking to conserve energy on the uphill. Especially if you are transitioning to trails for flat roads, power hiking will help you adapt to the steeper terrain. 

Likewise, if you are nervous about your footing on a steep downhill, do not hesitate to hike instead.

Warm up properly

Tight hips can hinder your form and cold muscles are more likely to strain on the trails. You will feel better and have less risk of injury if you warm up before your run. A series of dynamic stretches such as hip rotations, leg swings, walking lunges, and arm swings will get oxygen-rich blood flowing to your muscles and loosen up any tight joints or tendons.

Leave no trace

Whether it’s a gel wrapper, tissue, or your four-legged running buddy’s excrement, do not leave any waste behind. Pack it out with you; a hydration vest is useful for carrying trash and sometimes you just have to embrace the inevitability of running with a bag of poop until you reach a trash can. (From experience: always bring more dog poop bags than you think you could possibly ever need).

Leave no trace also applies to where you run. If there is a noticeable trail, stick to it. Don’t cut switchbacks or trample on the local flora.

Trail Running Tips for Road Runners

Include lateral movements in strength training

Trail running involves dodging roots and rocks and therefore features more lateral movements than road running. Even smooth trails require more stabilization than road running.

Muscular weakness and imbalance can increase injury risk on the trails. If you plan on trail running regularly, include lateral exercises in your strength training routine to prepare your body for the movements. Lateral exercises can include side-lying leg lifts, banded lateral walks, anything where you move side to side instead of forward and back.  Try these four lateral strength exercises for runners.

Be prepared

This tip applies less if you are running on grass trails at a city park and more if you are running trails in a wilderness, the mountains, or a state/national park. Technical trails increase the chances of tripping and falling. The further you get into nature, the more nature you encounter – including snakes, bears, and cougars.

Practice smart safety on the trails. Bring some simple first aid supplies with you, such as bandages and antibiotics cream stored in your hydration vest. Carry mace. Check locations of open hunts during hunting seasons and wear bright colors. A bear bell strapped to your pack or a conversation with your trail running buddy can deter wild animals – most are scared of humans. Most of all, ditch the headphones, stay alert, and if you get a bad gut feeling or are nervous about something you see, turn around.

[Tweet “Venture off-road with these trail running tips for road runners via @thisrunrecipes #running #trailrunning”]

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19 Responses

  1. Such great tips. I love running (and racing) on trails. My desert trails are quite different, but I love the open feel and general non-technical aspect of them. My biggest challenges are embedded rocks (I’m such a klutz)! And even though there are rattlesnakes here, I’ve been lucky to avoid them through 20 years of trail running.

    1. Your photos of desert trails are always beautiful! Rattlesnakes would make me so, so nervous, but I bet the views are worth it (especially if you’ve never seen them!).

  2. Thanks for writing about trail running. I have set my sights on a trail to run in the spring.

    I’m curious about footwear. Do you use the same shoes fro road running as you do for trail running? I’ve seen some brands offer a “trail running” shoe. I didn’t know if I should get another pair specifically for trail running if I do that with regularity. Thoughts?

    1. It depends on the trail! For smooth dirt or gravel trails without much technicality or elevation gain, road shoes work well. Personally, I wear trail shoes on grass trails, but I know runners who don’t and so just as well. For technical trails with lots of roots, rocks, steep ascents and descents, etc., trail shoes make a significant difference. The tread of trail shoes varies so you have several options based on how rugged/technical the trails you plan to run are. If you plan on running regularly on the trails, a good trail shoe is a solid investment! Most pairs last longer than road shoes (they typically have more cushion).

  3. Great tips. I am one of those road runners who “graduated” to trails. Now, I love trail races the best. The laid back atmosphere, great aid stations, and fun vibe are very appealing. I also like the feeling of no time expectations on my part prior to the race.

  4. I’m a self-confessed road runner and I love the predictability of tarmac! But there is something that keeps drawing me towards trail running and I’ve done a couple of trail races. In September, I’ve signed up for Run the Berg in South Africa which is 2-stage trail race up the Drakensburg Mountains. I love the idea of the challenge but I’m terrified! Thank you for all these tips – I’ll keep them all in mind when I start training for the big race.

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