15 Practical Tips for New (or Wannabe) Trail Runners

I am a researcher and a reader – anytime I am going to try something new, I go out and search for info from those who’ve gone before me. Thanks to this thing called the internet, I never have to look far. ūüôā When I first started trail running, it was no different. I had run plenty of road races, but I was looking for somewhere new to run to break up the monotony of pounding the pavement. That’s when I found a short but technical trail near my house. It was love at first sight, and I still frequent that little trail today. I walked the trail, then went home and started googling – everything from shoes to how not to fall.

I read tips and tricks and bought some new shoes (totally not necessary) then went out for my first trail run. Here’s what I learned from that first day out to today. Hopefully, this gets you started and eases the fears that come with trying something new!

tips for new trail runners

Slow Down

Trail running is FUN, and you will get a great workout, but you must slow down. You can’t tackle that technical trail at the same speed you’d run your fastest 5k. It’s not necessary, and it can be dangerous.¬† Slow down to a comfortable and safe pace. I highly recommend taking off your running watch and sticking it in your pocket so you aren’t tempted to try to be too competitive the first few times out on the trail. You can also try running for time on the trail rather than trying to keep up or maintain a running pace. Going slow has its advantages:

  1. You are less likely to eat dirt from tripping over a rock, root, or stick.
  2. You can focus on your breathing and overall technique rather than running pace.
  3. You can take in the amazing scenery that’s around you!

I’m not saying you can’t ever get faster on a trail – in fact, I believe quite the opposite. The twists and turns and stride changes that trail running provides will ultimately speed up your road pace, and your trail pace will follow. But it takes time, just like when you ran your first 5k.

Handle Hills Like a PRO

Run if you can, hike if you must. Many pro ultra runners will even advise you that sometimes, a hill is just too steep to try to run. You will still get the cardio benefits of a steep hill if you fast-hike it rather than try to run up it.

Tip: The first time out on a trail, hike all the hills. This will give you an opportunity to review where you are, and slightly recover from your previous pace.

Look Down or Fall Down

Shorten your stride and pay attention to what’s about to be under your feet, or you will end up with a mouth-full of dirt. The rocks, sticks, roots, and various other trail variations mean you must pay attention! Keep your eyes on the trail 5-10 feet ahead of where you are now to plan your next moves and mentally adjust your stride to accommodate the changes.

Sticks are Snakes

This one is a bit silly, but still my favorite piece of advice. I do not like snakes, and the idea of stepping on a squishy snake totally and completely freaks me out. For this reason, and that sometimes you just can’t see the difference, I treat sticks like snakes and avoid stepping on them. Should you see a snake on the trail for real though, you should avoid it, unless you are an avid snake charmer, and know which snakes are poisonous.

Pick-Up Your Feet

A precursor to the next item on the list – pickup your feet! Lift and pull rather than push as you run to a) keep from tripping b) perfect your running form. Trails provide a great opportunity to learn the pull rather than push technique simply due to the varied terrain you’ll experience.

Be Light as a Feather

Be light on your feet. Think of not crunching the leaves below your feet as if you don’t want to make any disturbing noise. This will again, improve your running form and (bonus!) have less opportunity for stumbling as you run.

Specialty Gear Not Required

I am the worst at this one – I am a gearhead, and when I am trying something new, I tend to go out and buy the best xyz item for my new adventure. While a new pair of technical trail shoes is nice, it is not necessary, and you can tackle many a trail in your standard running shoes and gear. I recommend taking water and some sort of small snack out with you in case of emergencies (or if you know you will be running for more than an hour), but otherwise, there is no specialty gear needed to run your first trail. Just get out there and tackle it!

The Best Piece of Gear – a Hat

No specialty gear here, but a hat is a necessity. If you will be running through trees, hats are great for keeping falling leaves (and bugs) out of your hair. And, if you’ll be running without the cover of trees, a hat will protect your face and eyes from the sun. This is my favorite piece of gear, and I rarely run (trail or otherwise) without my trusty hat. Headsweats makes some awesome and totally fun hats – I love my¬†bigfoot hat like the one below:

Headsweats Bigfoot Trucker Hat on Amazon

Buy it on Amazon here.


Safety First!

While trail running is generally as safe (and maybe safer) than road running, it’s still a good idea to be extra prepared. I like to carry a small first aid kit in my car for minor emergencies and wipeouts along the trail. I also always carry a small amount of water and food while I am on the trail – especially when I run an unfamiliar route, and when I know I will be out for more than an hour. See here for a few more ideas on trail safety.

Trail Etiquette Required

Should you need to pass a fellow runner from behind, wait for a good space with plenty of room on the trail, then holler out “on your left” to indicate you are ready to pass, and always pass on the left. Stay on the trail to avoid causing unnecessary¬†damage to the area around the trail, and pass your fellow runner. I always like to wave and smile – its the Texas way.

Should you be sharing the trail with more than just runners, follow the standards for hiking etiquette –

  1. Yield to equestrians. Horses are unpredictable (and much larger) – make room for them on the trail.
  2. Yield to bikers. While bikers are technically supposed to give hikers and runners the right of way, it’s much harder to stop the momentum of a bike. I’d rather be safe than be right.
  3. Yield to the uphill runner or hiker. The person(s) coming up always have the right-of-way.

Trail & Tails – The Perfect Combo

Got a four-legged friend? He/She will love the trails too! Invest in a decent leash and an expandable water bowl, then lace up with your furry friend! Nothing makes my Aussie-girls happier than when I open the back of my SUV and say, “Let’s Go!”.¬† Adhere to the basic trail rules for pets such as:

  1. Keep them on a leash
  2. Ensure you are regular with flea and tick medicine
  3. Check their paws and feet for stickers post-run

This is such a great way to bond with your pet, and allows them to get their energy out! Win-Win!

Trail Dogs Make Trail Running More Fun!

My two sweet trail buddies, Foxy & Lady. (Yes, its quite fun calling that out in public.)

Run for Time, Not Distance

Earlier we said its a good idea to slow down due to the varied terrain. If you are used to gauging your workout by distance, then try running for a certain amount of time instead. If you know it typically takes you 30 minutes to run a 5k at your road pace, try aiming for 30-40 minutes of time on the trail. This will give you a sense of accomplishment like when you have met your distance, and you’ll get the desired amount of workout on the books.

Find Some (two-legged) Friends

If you are concerned about running trails, do some searching to find a local running group. I find most of my social type groups on Facebook – then I stalk¬†them check out what they talk about and recommend for an unnecessarily long time before finally joining up to meet folks. But, I find that if I’m new to a particular trail, and want to find out good info before I go, there’s no place better than a local Facebook group to find the answers I am looking for.

Distance Does Not Make a “Trail Runner”

It is very easy to get caught up in the world of “distance” as a measurement for success as a runner. I am guilty of thinking I’m not a “real runner” simply because I haven’t run a marathon, or in the trail running world more commonly the 50-mile or 100-mile belt buckle. I train, I sweat, and I work hard to meet my own personal goals – that makes me a runner. Not the distance I train for, or the races I run. I know plenty of runners who don’t like to run any races at al, but prefer running in solitude. That’s a-ok too. You’ll have your own style – roll with it!

Bonus – Make Your Own Adventures

Running trails provides an opportunity not necessarily found when you lace up to hit the road Рpeace, quiet, nature, and the sound of birds and bugs instead of cars and people. I cherish these moments where I can feel free of all the burdens of life and sweat it out. To fully get the most out of my run, I take a few deep yoga breaths, stretch, and mentally unpack and unload the burdens of the day (or week) so that I can fully enjoy the moment I am in. Then, I open my mind up to the adventurous spirit that led me to the trail in the first place. Embrace the mud, muck, sights, and sounds around you.

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tips for new trail runners
Practical tips for new trail runners

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FoxRunsWild | Trail Running, Recipies, Life Inspiration

Hi, I'm DeAndrea! I'm a runner, outdoor enthusiast, and foodie. I'm here to share trail running, nutrition, and life inspiration for your busy life. I am working towards my RRCA running coach.

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