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Trail Running 101

Joe Fleming provides an overview of and advice on Trail Running.

Have you caught the trail running bug? You are not alone. Trail running continues to grow in popularity across the globe, especially among ultra runners. If you are thinking about giving trail running a go, do not miss this quick guide.

Benefits of Trail Running

Like road running, trail running provides a highly effective workout that helps to keep your heart, lungs, and cardiovascular system strong. Trail running goes beyond the endurance aspects, however, with positive benefits including:

  • Less joint stress - the surface of most trails is composed of compact soil which is generally softer than pavement; thus, trail running can have less of a negative impact on the body's joints than road running. Softer surfaces can reduce the biomechanical stress that so often plagues runners in the form of knee pain, shin splints, etc.
  • Improved mental health - while running in itself can be a mentally clarifying experience, research shows that the combined time spent out can have its unique benefits too. A 2015 Stanford University study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that activity in the region of the brain linked with ruminating on depressive thoughts decreased among participants who spent time walking.
  • Added strength training - not only does muscle recruitment improve with trail running as your body calls on more and more muscle groups to help you tackle obstacles, but the very act of climbing and descending hills helps build strength in the legs and core.
  • Enhanced athleticism - landing on unstable surfaces, avoiding falls, negotiating uneven terrain and inclines, scaling large natural fixtures, and jumping over debris - trail running can often feel like a parkour gym. The test of your mental attentiveness as well as your balance, coordination, and agility skills enhances your overall athleticism to give you an edge that road running may not.

Common Trail Running Injuries

  • Tendonitis - while the hill work involved in trail running can increase leg muscle strength, it can also increase your risk for developing overuse injuries like tendonitis in the knee and Achilles tendon.
  • Ankle sprains - landing perfectly on a rock only to have it slide out from under your foot can quickly leave you with a mild to severe ankle sprain where the ligaments are stabilizing the ankle joint become overstretched.
  • Plantar fasciitis - wear and tear from running up and down slopes can hit the plantar fascia tissue running along the bottom of your foot the hardest resulting in heel and arch pain.

Additional trail running injuries include those familiar to running in general, like IT band syndrome, runner's knee, and stone bruise (metatarsalgia).

Research has shown avoiding injury is best achieved by running mountain trails and working with knowledgeable professionals to architect a training program. If you have experienced an injury before as well, talk to your trainer or doctor about wearing orthotic supports like knee sleeves or ankle braces when you go trail running to prevent re-injury.

Ankle Brace

5 Things to Know Before You Start Trail Running

If you are ready to log some running miles out on the trail, do not forget these important tips:

Start slow - it is a fact that you will run slower on a trail than you will on the road. Why? Well for one, there is much more stuff in your way, including natural debris and landmarks like rocks, tree roots, leaves, and fallen tree limbs. Add to that the difference in traction between an often slick trail and a dry, paved road, and speed will play a significant role in your safety.

While beginners should not expect to match their road running speed on the trail, they can still get just as an effective workout. Experts recommend setting time goals instead of mileage goals when starting so you can run the same amount of time as you used to, even if it is less distance. Maintaining your intensity and developing the agility and coordination skill-set trail running demands will gradually improve your running efficiency.

Update your form - running off-road may require you to update your running form. You will naturally notice your body activating more muscle groups over time as you traverse hills and varying terrains, however, you will also want to proactively practice lifting your feet higher to better fly over trail debris and circumvent the inevitable slips, falls, and tumbles that will occur.

You will also want to invest in a good pair of running shoes designed specifically for trail running. Trail running shoes often feature a minimized heel that keeps your foot lower to the ground (to reduce ankle rolling) as well as the magnified tread on the soles for better gripping. Some even come with "rock plates" in the forefoot that helps protect against rock bruising.

Be prepared to walk - walking, especially up steep inclines, will be a standard fixture of any trail run and it does not mean your inadequate, slow, or weak. Trails are not built for the easiest ascent and descent, but rather they are constructed to flow within their natural environment seamlessly. This might mean you end up running a trail that extends up and over a giant boulder or fallen tree. When in doubt, slow your run to a "power hike" and boost your overall efficiency while reducing your risk for injury.

Practice good trail etiquette - just like on the road, you are not the only one using a trail. You might pass cyclists on your trail run as well as hikers, other runners, and of course, animals in their natural habitat. In addition to learning how to safely follow trail markers to avoid getting lost, learn best practices for sharing trails with others and always remember to leave with everything you brought in including food wrappers, bottles, clothing, etc.

Be smart about safety - out on the trail you are somewhat removed from civilization and therefore want to take precautions to keep yourself safe. While your chances of encountering dangerous animals or environmental hazards are slim, you should still know what to do in those instances. You should also always check local forecasts before heading outdoors, carry extra layers of clothing if it is cold out, tell someone where you are running and when you should be back, and carry a map if you do not know the route you are taking well.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • FLEMING, J. (2018) Trail Running 101 [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Joe Fleming is the President at Passionate about healthy lifestyles and living a full life, he enjoys sharing and expressing these interests through his writing. To inspire others and fight ageism, Joe writes to help people of all backgrounds and ages overcome life's challenges. His work ranges from articles on wellness, holistic health, and ageing to social narratives, motivational pieces, and news stories. For Joe, helping others is vital.