Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running

A Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running

You don’t run with a beaver carcass dragging behind you, do you?

The advice I got from a hunter when I inquired about the best way to avoid bear attacks in the bush. Advice I really needed – I was about to embark on the most outdoorsy of all outdoorsy pursuits: trail running.

Trail Running

If you’re the adventurous sort or it you’re just looking for a change in routine, here are some tips and advice to help you have a successful run in the wild.

Know your woodland friends. Depending on where you live, you will have a variety of woodland creatures that you can meet along your travels. Knowing what to do before you run into an animal is far more helpful than trying to remember what someone’s friends sister told you to do when you run into a bear. Was that run or don’t run? Was that make eye contact or don’t make eye contact?

A great resource for this is your local wildlife or conservation officer. It’s their job to know what kind of animals are around your area and even have some great resources for you about what to do if you encounter Yogi.

They also get notified for any unusual animal sightings which is information you want to have. If a stray cougar is in the bushes, it’s best to pick a different day.

You can find your local offices here: Americans or Canadians can contact Service Canada for information.

Strap on a pair of goggles. Not kidding. Those branches come out of nowhere. Whether it’s sunny or raining, you need eye protection. While running along you are going to be primarily concerned with the ground a few steps ahead of you. The branches that will get your face – not on the ground, see? That’s right, you won’t!

Trail Running Gaiters

Watch out for gaiters. Ever go for a run and get something in your shoe? Ever go running and get something in your shoes every step you take for an hour? It’s terrible and with trail running there is a constant supply of debris, stones, twigs, prickers and thorns just waiting to take up residence in your footwear. Gaiters, are the fast, and obviously very fancy option, to solve this problem. They also help keep mud and various junk out of your laces too, bonus. I managed without these obviously and you can too but it’s something to look into if you’re going to make a habit of trail running.

Another plus with gaiters is they protect your ankles from thorns, sticks and scratches. Mine currently look like I was malled by a miniature cat, not a good look.

Don’t get lost. When you’re new to trail running it would make sense to try and stick to trails close to home, that you know well, or find someone to come with you.  It’s much easier to face plant while running over roots and logs than on pavement and it’s easier to get turned around without road signs. Bring a phone, most running gear as a million little pockets for phones and iPods. You won’t even notice it’s there, until you need it and then you’ll know exactly where to find it.

A helpful Twitter (@dortybitestoto) friend also threw out a good piece of advice prior to my foray into the wilderness: bring extra water. Great advice. If you do get turned around or end up having to take the long way back, extra water is important.

Trail Running

Just think of it like an outdoor stability ball. Running on a road, however flat, requires the use of different muscles than trotting along on a perfectly flat treadmill.  Every time you move forward, change a limb position or jump, your body’s center of gravity changes along with you. Your muscles work differently to keep you upright and stable. You may have met the big business variations on stability training: the stability ball or the BOSU.

Running on a trail requires constant adjustments to body position, and the use of stabilizing and core muscles. And it’s all brought to you by mother nature.

It’s not a workout, it’s an adventure. Spending an hour running through trails feels a lot different than an hour on the treadmill. Considering the muscles used to power both activities you get more bang for your buck in the woods too. If you’re missing the gym for those staples like free weights, no fear, you’ll likely find a fallen log for tricep dips and a flat stretch for pushups.

Sometimes you need to walk before you run. Trail running can often involve steep inclines. Steep incline with roots and tree branches sticking out. A natural assumption, since you are trail “running” is to run up these obstacles.

Part of being a smart runner is knowing that running up steep hills may actually be a poor choice. Here’s why: running up a hill raises your heart rate, sometimes dramatically. Walking up a hill raises your heart rate less dramatically. Due to the nature of trails, running up a hill may not actually decrease your time all that much because you can’t really go that fast anyway. You trade a slightly faster speed, for a huge increase in heart rate.

The less fit you are, the longer it takes to get that heart rate back down. By walking up those steep inclines, you keep your heart rate at a lower level, good for sustained workouts, and you don’t really sacrifice all that much speed.  It’s also just plain safer too so use your judgement, listen to your body and know that walking is part of performing this activity safely.

Now you’re set! All you need to know to get outside and go for it.  Trail running can breath some fresh air back into a stale fitness routine and doesn’t require a lot of special equipment to get started. Have fun but there’s one last thing to remember:

Don’t drag any carcasses behind you and you’ll be fine

Beginners: If you’re new to fitness and don’t yet run regularly, learning to run on a trail is just a bad idea.  Couch to 5K can be done on a trail but maybe once you’ve done it on the road first. If you’re looking at starting a running program now’s a great time, we have two Fitbloggers starting Couch to 5K and you can run along with them. Meet Jules and Alan.

(Picture 1 SourcePicture 2 SourcePicture 3 Source)


Crop - LRRita is the editor of Fitblogger.  She is currently attending college to receive her personal training certification while tackling random fitness milestones.  She can also be found tweeting on Twitter @Rita_Barry_and can be contacted through the Contact page.

About Rita Barry

Rita is the editor Fitblogger. She is currently completing her Personal Training Certification. That and she used to be tragically out of shape and overweight and isn't anymore. It's a long and only slightly interesting tale but the idea is to help others find their way to health too, which ever way works for them.


  1. I love running through the woods. It actually is a great distraction from the fact that you are exercising. I am an adirondack girl at heart so I love anything in the woods (camping, hiking). WHile I am hiking, sometimes I start running up steep parts just for fun. It makes it less painful and redundant that way. Great article!

    • As a small town girl turned big city high heel wearing chick, this is somewhat out of character for me but I haven’t run on a road since my first trail run, it’s just soo incredible.

  2. This is a great post! I can really relate to feeling creepy while being outdoors alone. I hiked a few times solo last summer and would be overtaken by a sudden feeling that I wasn’t safe – what was watching me and how hungry was it?! Also, the info you give about trail running answers a lot of questions I’ve always had about it. Thanks!

    • I’m with you Suzanne, I get creeped out when I walk through the woods but have found that running I have such purpose and concentration that it doesn’t affect me the same way. I found a huge difference anyway.

  3. Thanks for passing aroud some great advice.

    One thing I’d really like to add, though, is:
    Do not wear headphones in the wilderness!

    This is a huge safety factor when running trails where you might encounter wildlife. A lot of how the animal (bears being the most common, but this goes for cougars and wolves too) will react to you depends upon the surprise factor. We often hear an animal long before we see it – so we can stop and make a decision: either approach more slowly, or simply turn around and go back and avoid it – rather than rounding a curve and finding ourselves face to face with a bear. And not just any bear, a surprised close-up bear that has turned instantly on the defensive.

    Wearing headphones when running is a deliberate choice to remove one of our senses. Even on city routes, it should be done with that awareness, and with extra caution. But I don’t think headphones should be worn in the wilderness at all. (Aside from the safety issues, there is so much to be said for being aware of the sounds around, the bird-song and the little rustlings that allow you to notice a woodpecker or a deer…)

    And BTW, I have come across numerous bears on my trail runs and the outcome has always been great. We were aware of one another from enough distance that there was no surprise. Sometimes they just took off, and other times they just ignored me and I got to stop and watch them foraging for a while.

    • Thanks Jacqueline, great point! So important. I no longer run with headphones and that totally missed my radar when I wrote this thank you! You do hear a lot of cracking in the woods that alert you to animals so much sooner than your eyes. Especially since I have to pay very close attention to the ground.

  4. Great tips! I’ve heard that trail running is a great way to mix up your running – something I look forward to in the future!

  5. Great advice! There are some lovely trails around my area but now with the time change in effect I can only run them on the weekend. I don’t have the cojones to do trail running at night yet!

    I do most of my running on the road but there is definitely something magical about running trails. Now only if I could get my wife out on the trails running with me … those stupid rattlesnakes.

    • Your wife, my husband! Fortunately we are snake free here or he may never leave the house.

      Yup, I think I’d stick to weekends, mainly for the endless face plants one would suffer trying that at night. From what I know of the headlamps too, they can attract animals too, not cool!

  6. I absolutely love trail running! It provides so much more stuff to look at and enjoy while running, and the unevenness of the trail makes for a more interesting run and breaks up the usual monotony you can have running on roads.

  7. Great tips for trail running. Some of those things I never thought of. I would love to get into trail running so at least now I know what to do to make it more enjoyable.

  8. You are very adventurous indeed and I salute you for that! I would also love to run and trek in the woods and just feel the strange feeling while I’m there. I guess it’s worth a try. Maybe soon haha!