Trail running is to road running what fly fishing is to traditional fishing: The main activity is the same, but the technical aspects are completely different. You've got to learn to read the land and trust your instincts. Here are three major tips to follow when you start trail running.
- You may find yourself climbing hills or descending along rivers, all while dancing around obstacles. Lean in a little when going uphill so you use the largest muscles in your body—your glutes. Going downhill, don't lean back and ride your heels. That's a good way to overload your thighs and end up sore or injured.
- When you run through your neighborhood, you probably don't look too far past your feet. On a trail, your inclination may be to stare directly down, but your feet know what to do. Dodging those obstacles is pretty instinctive. You actually want to look about 20 feet ahead, so you can see approaching challenges with time to react to them.
- Running injuries don't usually come from doing it wrong, but from the stress of repetition, says Dan Lieberman of Harvard's Skeletal Biology Lab. The natural environment pushes runners toward shorter, varied steps, which helps the body better absorb impacts.
With thanks to Jason Koop of Carmichael Training Systems and Forrest Boughner of Runner's Edge in Missoula, Montana.
What You Need
Even though you'll feel like a runner, you've got to think like a hiker: Get gear suited to the place you want to run, and bring some backup for the unexpected.
Trail-running shoes balance the light weight and breathability of road-running shoes with the durability and traction of hiking boots.
A rock-protection plate made of hardened rubber or plastic under the sole guards against the multitude of sharp objects you'll encounter on the trail.
Lugs, the sections of tread on the bottom of your shoes, bite into softer surfaces like dirt, mud, and snow for better grip. The trade-off: As lugs get bigger and chunkier, the area of the shoe decreases, making them less effective on harder surfaces, like rock faces. Lugs wear quickly on pavement, too, so use them only on the trail.
Some shoes feature a waterproof bootie that wraps the foot, typically made of Gore-Tex. If you plan on running mostly in dry conditions and hot weather, you'll appreciate the breathability of a less fortified shoe. But if you're going to be jogging through rain and over creek beds, a bootie will save you from soggy feet and blisters.
Jogging in your neighborhood doesn't take much equipment, but in the woods, the right gear can be critical. Or at least keep you more comfortable.
For short runs, the ($35) attaches with easy velcro strips around your waist. Even with a full water bottle in tow, it's perfectly comfortable, and it has room for a phone and keys.
For anything more than a few miles, the ($150) holds two liters of water and has a big main compartment that fits between your shoulder blades, where the running motion can't jostle it around.
($69) stand out for their actually usable pockets (not a given) and internal brief, which is more comfortable than the mesh lining found in most shorts.
($45) has mesh paneling and moisture-transferring fabric to keep you comfortable when you're outside the cover of neighborhood trees.
QOR also makes a ($69) that is warm, but thanks to strategically placed vents, not too warm to run in.
Keep ($130) in your pack for wind-breaking at elevation, and some rain protection when you need it.
Where to Run
You can run anywhere you can hike. Just be mindful of crowds. Get out there early, when the air is fresh and most of the hikers are asleep.
Types of Trails
Wide, graded trail that uses rail right-of-way to get out into the wild without getting steeper than a train can handle.
Wide enough for a vehicle to use—these may be fire or access roads—but often rutted and remote.
Narrow, technical, secluded—what you picture in your mind when you hear "trail." The experienced trail runner's dream.
What to Look For in a Trail
By Stephanie Howe, The North Face trail runner and 2014 winner of the Western States 100, the most prestigious trail race in the country:
The best trails are the ones that take your breath away: narrow single track that twists and winds up and down mountains and valleys. There are a lot of trails like that that are accessible—when you're ready for them. Those trails are usually littered with rocks, roots, and scree, which forces you to be really careful about where you step. You won't be used to that if you haven't been off-road before. So when you're just starting, look for something a little wider, because that will tend to be less technical. And when it comes to slopes, there's something a little counterintuitive to keep in mind: While uphills are harder in terms of stamina, the downhills are what really can destroy your body, because of the heavy impacts, if you're not used to them. You'll feel sore the next day. Luckily, there's a way to make sure the soreness is short-lived: Keep hitting the trails.
- There's a lot more debris on a trail than on the street. For about $25, you can get gaiters, cinching collars that cover the tops of your shoes to keep stuff out. (Some trail-running shoes even come with gaiters built in.) Of course, you could also just wear taller socks, which you probably already own.
- The Trail Run Project's Trail Finder (at or as an app) is a crowdsourced compendium of trails around the world. In addition to overall ratings for difficulty and quality, it includes stats like distance, trail type, and elevation change, so you'll know exactly what you're getting yourself into.