Big rolling hills and rocky terrain seem exhilarating, right? The thought of zipping through the mountains on a rugged single-track trail during sunrise or sunset is enough for most runners to lace up their shoes. While it may be dreamy, trail running demands you to come prepared. So lace up, listen in, and learn how you can start hitting the trails.

1. Start Easy and Ease Into It

For your first trail run, we recommend working with what you have! You don’t need the fanciest gear and attire to start trail running. If you already have running shoes and athletic clothing, wear them. After you’ve experienced a few easy runs, if you’re ready to take it up a notch, you can (and should) invest in proper footwear and attire to keep you safe and comfortable. 

Trail running shoes tend to have more traction on the bottom than road running shoes, so they can help you move over slick, wet, or muddy terrain better. You’ll want to make sure that the shoes you choose keep you comfortable in the climate and terrain you’ll be running through. For example, if you live in the desert (like we do in Boise, Idaho), you’ll probably want to wear breathable shoes for summer runs that can also function well on sandy and rocky surfaces. Your local running shop should be able to help you choose a pair of shoes that’ll help you move through the seasons. 

Here’s a list of local running shops in Boise, Idaho:

  1. Bandanna Running and Walking
  2. Shu’s Idaho Running Company
  3. Pulse Running & Fitness Shop
  4. McU Sports

2. Check Your Expectations

When you start trail running, don’t get carried away with ambitious goals and time trials right away. Choose a trail that doesn’t have ultra-technical terrain. It’s easy to be enamored by rocky terrain and thin single track on mountain ridges. Even if you’re a giddy road runner, trails tend to be a different beast altogether. Know that it’s completely normal to slow down to a walking pace on sections of the trail. When the trail is too steep or uneven to run on, you’ll be limited in your pace. 

You’ll probably run on a track or road at a different pace than a trail. Instead of using your pace on even ground, consider ditching a pace altogether when you start out. Instead, you can set a time or mileage limit for your run. Maybe you take on a 4-mile loop or a 40-minute run. Choose an easy goal when starting out. 

3. Study the Terrain and Know Your Route

Especially when starting out, knowing your route is key! Because trail running takes you to places that aren’t easily accessible by car, it’s important to be responsible for your own safety. Start out by going on local trails that you’re familiar with. Many trail systems connect to one another, and eventually, you’ll be able to explore once you know your limits. It’s always a great idea to have some sort of map or navigation with you. Some of the top-rated trail-running apps are AllTrails, GaiaGPS, Strava, and CalTopo. By using one of these apps, you can track where you are on the route and how many more miles you have left to go.

4. Prioritize Hydration and Nutrition

Finishing a trail run can be a real challenge if you neglect your hydration and nutrition. Not only can this inhibit your performance, but it can also pose real dangers in extreme weather. Giving your body the fuel it needs is crucial for training. Try to bring along plenty of snacks, water, electrolytes, or a water filtration device to use when you’re on the trail. Hydration packs are a great way to carry plenty of fluids on the trail. A fanny pack can be a great spot to stash snacks and gels. The Global Triathalon Network has a great video explaining what to look for in a hydration pack that you can watch below!

5. Learn Proper Technique

As we said before, trail running generally feels a lot different than running on flat pavement. You’ve got varying terrain and variance in elevation. Some runners can feel intimidated by the drastic uphill and downhill slopes. When running uphill, focus on a shorter stride to start. Small “baby steps” can save you a lot of energy. When running downhill, it’s all about balance and keeping your mental game strong. Slightly leaning backward can improve your balance and make you feel more secure. Experimenting with different running techniques takes practice. As you run more often, you’ll become more in tune with your body and cadence. 

6. Find a Friend

One of the BEST ways to be confident with trail running is to train with a running group or friend! The app Meetup has many different local running groups that meet up during the weekends or after work. Finding people who can motivate you and help ease the pressure of navigating your route can help you focus more on your run and less on the details. They can also offer a welcome distraction on the uphill climbs!

7. *Supplement Your Runs With Exercise and Care

Trail running is a full-body activity. According to Charlie Merrill, licensed physical therapist and competitive trail runner, “Mechanically, trail running challenges athletes in all three planes of motion: sagittal (front/back), frontal (side/side), and transverse (rotational). This means there’s a high degree of muscle control and strength, plus coordination and proprioception, required to trail run.” In some cases, trail running can be much easier on your joints and muscles than road running due to softer surfaces. With hilly terrain, trail running can engage your:

  • Quadriceps
  • Calves
  • Glutes
  • Abdominal muscles
  • And more!

Incorporating these muscle groups into your workout routine could help improve your runs and keep you safe. Exercise routines vary from individual to individual, but it’s good to consider having a full-body strength training routine. 

REI has a great article on cross-training and plyometric workouts for trail runners. 

Contact Idaho Sports Medicine Institute today if you’d like to learn more about the prevention and treatment of trail running injuries! 

*Please always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.