If you’ve been hiking for a while and want to challenge yourself, or are an experienced runner who wants to explore past paved roads, trail running can be a great next step! It’s a straightforward, healthy activity that thankfully has few gear requirements. In this article, we’ll be breaking down everything you need to know to get started, from the best trail running shoes to how to find your first trail.
Trail runners are different from road running shoes in that they are designed to grip on rugged terrain, and offer more support and protection. You can identify them by their lugged soles for traction, and their stiffness to prevent excessive foot rotation. There are three main types of trail running shoes:
Light trail: Light trail shoes are designed for more uniform surfaces like gravel paths and rolling hills, and are the most similar to road shoes.
Rugged trail: Rugged trail shoes are designed for running on hiking trails. They have toe guards up front and hidden plates underfoot for protection against roots and rocks.
Off-trail: Off-trail shoes are the most aggressive type of trail running shoes, designed for truly remote terrain. They are similar to rugged trail shoes, with a few upgrades like more resilient materials
Ask yourself what terrain you’ll be running on, and for what distance. If you’re going less than 10k on rolling hills, opt for lightweight and responsive shoes. If you’re going to be running more than 15k on hard-packed terrain, you’ll want an all-around shoe. And if you’re going to be running on rough, rocky terrain, or for very long distances, you’ll want a stiff shoe with ample cushioning.
The next consideration is the heel-to-toe drop. Heel-to-toe drop is the difference between the height at the heel and the height at the forefoot, and is related to the amount of cushioning under your heel. For example, shoes with a 10mm drop will have lots of under-heel cushion, while shoes with a 0mm drop distribute cushioning evenly between your heel and forefoot. Some zero-drop shoes may have minimal support, such as barefoot shoes. Things to consider:
Try and match the drop of your current running shoes to your trail running shoes. It will make for an easier transition on your feet and body.
A low heel drop encourages a midfoot or forefoot strike, meaning you’ll have a more balanced landing platform.
If you want to transition to a low drop shoe, take it slow. Plan for a few months of transition.
According to Outdoor Gear Lab, the best trail running shoes for women are:
Dynafit Feline SL for best overall performance
Altra Lone Peak 5 as the best for long distances
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6 as the best for maximal cushioning
Inov-8 Terraultra G270 as the best for sensitivity and zero-drop performance
Merrell Antora 2 as the best bang for your buck
According to Outdoor Gear Lab, the best trail running shoes for men are:
Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3 for best overall performance
Inov-8 Roclite 290 for the best value
Inov-8 Terraultra G 270 for the best zero-drop
Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6 as the best lightweight trail runner
Salomon Speedcross 5 for the best traction
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6 for most cushioning
If you want an opinion on your shoes, head to your local gear shop for advice. Explain to them what types of terrain and distance you’ll be running.
You can hit the trail with just your running shoes and clothes for a short run. However, there are a few other gear considerations that will make your run more enjoyable, or are important if you’ll be in a more remote area.
Water: Your water-carrying options include hydration packs, hydration vests, handheld water bottles, or waist packs with water bottles. If you’re going for a short run, you can carry a bottle in your hand or opt for a small waist pack for keys and cash as well. For longer runs, opt for a larger waist pack that has room for more water alongside a first-aid kit, food, and dry socks.
Waist pack: As mentioned, there are a number of waist packs on the market that are perfect for carrying water, keys, and phones. If you’re going out into the wilderness, you’ll definitely want one!
Navigation: If you’re running trails in an unfamiliar area, make sure to bring navigational tools such as a map, compass, or GPS app.
Breathable clothing: Trail running generates a lot of warmth and perspiration, so you want to make sure your clothing is breathable and mostuirewicking. Invest in lightweight knit fabrics or merino wool.
Food: It never hurts to put some energy gels or bars in your waist pack in the event you’re feeling sluggish or low on sugar.
First-aid kit: For remote trail runs, you’ll want to make sure you have a first-aid kit with bandages, moleskin, and antibacterial ointment. Know if you’re going to be out of service and have a plan in the event of an injury.
Now that you’re all kitted up, where should you go? Trail running will take longer than road running, due to the rougher terrain and the ground being softer than pavement, so keep that in mind as you plan your first run. It’s always best to start slow and not over commit. Plan a run that falls within the easy / moderate range of your abilities to get a sense for how the new terrain will feel. Here are a few resources for planning:
Local parks: Trails just out of town or in a park can often be the best way to transition from road running to trail running. Look for city or state parks near you and pull up their trail maps.
Running clubs: If you’re the kind of person who needs to be held accountable to your workout, or you just like meeting new people, consider a local trail running club. You can ask around at your local gear shop, look for Facebook groups, or try the MeetUp app. Meeting people who are already in the sport can help you get familiar with it.
All Trails: If you’re feeling ready to take on a hiking trail, head to All Trails to search your nearby area. It will tell you the distance and elevation gain of each trail, as well as provide you with a map.
While trail running shares a lot of similarities to road running, there are a few specific things you’ll want to keep in mind.
Don’t look at your feet! To best avoid obstacles, keep your eyes on the trail 10-15 feet in front of you.
On uphills, lean into the ground and use your forward momentum. You want to mirror your center of gravity with the gradient of the hill.
When in doubt, aim for shorter strides (shorter strides = more stability). Relax your feet and ankles and take short strides that fall under your center of gravity.
Your arm swing is meant to counter the motion in your hips to preserve balance. To do this, keep your arms close to your body at a 90 degree angle, and avoid swinging your arms across the center of your body.
On the downhills, try to avoid landing on your heels in order to distribute the load away from your knees.
There you have it: everything you need to know about trail running for beginners. Now, get out there and practice. The best way to get into any sport is by simply trying. Start slow, and most importantly, have fun!
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