How to Best Transition to Trail Running

RunOver the river and through the woods will take runners on a journey often more satisfying than a road run. Here’s what to know before you take to the trails.

By Henry Howard

If you are like me, you started out running on the roads or a treadmill. Your first race was probably a 5K on a paved road or maybe a paved trail in a community park.

Since those early days, I have gravitated toward running trails.

In fact, three of my nine long-distance races this year were trail runs — my first full marathon on a trail in Wisconsin, as well as two half marathons, one at night and one during the morning.

For the Love of the Trail!

I really hadn’t given much thought to the benefits of trail running during a race, however, until my most recent half marathon. The course was mostly pavement, though there was a two-mile stretch near the midpoint that was on a sandy, rocky trail. And it was awesome. I felt strong on the trail part while others started to drag.

That race wouldn’t have been awesome had I not regularly incorporated trail running into my training. I am fortunate to live a mile from the nearby high school’s cross-country course and a short car ride from a nice trail in our downtown area.


Running trails is beneficial for several reasons.

First off, a runner uses different muscles on the trail than the road. The challenges of the trail – roots, rocks, downed trees and more – test the runner’s leg muscles and develop them in ways different than roads can do.

Secondly, due to the nature of trails, runners are forced to go at a slower pace — though be careful to monitor your effort when you first trail running. In the past year, I have purposely performed many of my long runs on trails. And I believe those efforts have played a role in my improved race results this year. (Some experts recommend running trails by time, rather than by mileage.)

Last but not least, the softness of the trail is more forgiving than the constant pounding on paved roads. Many runners prefer the trail for this reason, citing a quicker recovery time.

How to get started

  1. First, you’ll need to identify where some good trails are located. Check in with your local running store or a running group in town. The best trails may not be obvious to a newbie. Also check out some options online. A good resource is Strava, which will not only show you where trails are located, but include data on elevation and the maps feature will show you the terrain. Other online resources include the Trail Run Project and All Trails.

  2. Once you’ve found your trail, stop by your local running store first. Road shoes can handle basic trails but I would recommend investing in trail-specific shoes. You’ll want to let the salesperson know what types of trails you’ll be running — dirt, muddy, through water, technical, high elevation, rocky, snow-covered or some combination thereof.

  3. As you get more accustomed to trails, you might find yourself running on them longer and/or more frequently. This presents other challenges. For example, I have yet to find a water fountain deep in a trail. There are various kinds of ways to carry water or other liquid refreshment. I am currently using a handheld bottle, which fits nicely in my hand, and has a pocket for ID, car key, a gel or something of a similar size. Other options include hydration vests, fuel belts or simply stashing water bottles.

  4. Depending on the length of the run, you also may need to plan nutrition needs ahead of time. Gels, protein bars and other energy sources can be tucked away in pockets or some fuel belts or other wearable devices. I have also stashed food in my car, returning to fuel up, before returning to finish the run.

Some other purchases to consider:

  • A better watch. My watch has worked really well, regardless of where I have been running. However, the more adventurous you become, the more you might need a watch to track your whereabouts.
  • A headlamp. Especially at this time of the year, a headlamp can be very helpful on the trail. When considering one to buy, compare the number of lumens. I would recommend at least 100 lumens to properly light the trail.
  • Protection or a warning device. Bears, mountain lions and other animals have been known to come across trail runners. Additionally, there have unfortunately been cases of women being attacked on trails by male assailants. Consider carrying a whistle, pepper spray or something else that would help ward off an attacker, whether it’s a human or animal predator.

My journey on trails

While I will continue to complete road marathons, I will be continuing to train and race on trails. Just how much do I enjoy trail running? My 2016 race calendar will include at least one ultra marathon on trails — the Ultra Race of Champions — and likely another one.

See you on the trails.

One Response to How to Best Transition to Trail Running

  1. Trail Runner April 21, 2016 at 7:04 am #

    Maybe no water fountains on the trail, but plenty of places to take a bathroom break. 🙂

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