A Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running: Things to Know Before Swapping the Roads for the Woods

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When you're used to hitting the roads (or treadmill) for a run, swapping them for the woods is one way to switch up your routine and challenge yourself. But changing up your running terrain is not always so straightforward—you'll need the right shoes to start. Before you set off for natural paths, there are a few things you should know in order to stay safe and get the most out of your trail run.

The benefits of trail running

"Compared to tread or flat ground running, trail running can seriously increase stamina and cardiovascular conditioning," says Josh Honore, CPT, a certified personal trainer at Xponential Fitness. Mixing up your running terrain can also boost agility and coordination, Honore adds.

Experts In This Article

Plus, adding a more scenic landscape to your runs is a nice mood booster, too. "Beyond the physical bonuses, getting out into nature often brings about a host of psychological benefits and can help battle symptoms of anxiety and depression," he adds.

Another reason to hit the trails? It's easier on your joints in comparison to running on pavement, says Holly Roser, certified trainer and owner of Holly Roser Fitness. "Dirt maintains the least impact out of any surface you can run on outside of a track," she adds.

3 things you should know before trail running

1. Proper footwear is a prereq

You'll likely encounter many different types of terrain when you hit the trails, so you'll need a shoe that can adapt and support you on your run. "When trail running, we need some extra features that our road shoes may not possess," says Honore. The top three features to keep in mind when shopping for trail running shoes are fit, cushioning, and traction Phil Kochik, owner of Seattle's Seven Hills Running Shop, which specializes in trail shoes, previously told Well+Good. "If you have a shoe that is uncomfortable, then doesn’t matter if you have great traction—that won't save the experience," he says.

2. There are some risks involved

Trail running comes with a new set of risks and potential dangers to keep in mind if you're only used to running on smooth surfaces. First, don't forget to wear sunscreen and water, as hydration and sun protection are always key, Honore points out. Again, good trail running shoes can help you stay stable and prevent falls, which is one of the main safety concerns with trail running.

Another way to stay safe? Good form. "Always engage your core and glutes to help maintain balance and proper form," says Roser. "When going uphill, lean slightly into the hill and pump your arms, fast. When going downhill, try to lean back and dig into your heels to prevent sliding," she adds.

You've heard that skipping the warm-up and cool down in workouts is bad, and the same goes for trail running. "Taking a few extra moments to extend your warm-up and stretch routine can reduce potential for injury," says Honore.

Here’s the 10-minute warm-up Nike trainer Traci Copeland does before all her runs: 

3. Planning ahead can keep you safe

Shoes? Check. Running form? Check. Preparation is key, and that's especially true for trail running, which requires a bit more planning and prep work than your average treadmill or road run. "When running solo, always be sure to inform someone of your whereabouts and intentions," Honore adds. It also doesn't hurt to share your location from your phone with a trusted friend or family member, especially if you are going out on a new path. You can also carry pepper spray, pepper spray gel, or an alarm device like Birdie if you're running alone and it helps you feel safe.

Another thing to keep tabs on is the weather on your route, says Honore. Keep in mind that sometimes the temperature or precipitation can shift quickly, depending on your specific trail and how long you run. So pack extra layers—and snacks, plus water, to refuel if you’re in a remote area. Honore’s last tip: If you drive yourself to the trail, keep a first aid kit in your car in case you have any minor injuries while out running. With all this in mind, happy trails to you!

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