Tips on Trail Running for Beginners

One of the things I was looking forward to when moving to Vermont was trying out trail running. My experience of running was so tied to living in a big city. There were organized races on almost every weekend. City streets and bridges usually made up a portion of every run, and heading into Prospect Park or Central Park was about as close to running in nature as I got. And I loved it, don’t get me wrong! But there was something that appealed to me so much about jumping over tree roots and rocks, discovering hidden streams and views, or being only able to hear birdsong and the noises of nature.

I stuck my toes in a little bit to the trail running waters when I lived in the Burlington area, but it wasn’t until I moved to Woodstock, Vermont earlier this year that I really headed to the trails and made trail running part of my regular routine. So as a recent convert to trail running, I thought I’d put together my best tips on trail running for beginners, for any of you who are thinking about heading out to the trails.


Trail Running for Beginners - If you're thinking about trying trail running, read these essential tips for beginners at trail running first!

Don’t be Intimidated by the Ultra Reputation.

Trails and ultra running go together like cookies and milk. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a trail runner if your idea of a weekend long run is 3 miles instead of 30. Getting into trail running also does not mean you’re going to catch the ultra running bug and suddenly decide you haven’t lived until you’ve run a 100 mile race. Don’t be intimidated by the ultra link to trail running – the beauty of running outdoors in trails in the woods is for any distance runner.

Forget About Pace.

If you’ve been a road runner for any length of time, you’ve probably been focused on your pace for many of your runs. Whether you’re running intervals, or training for a PR, watching your pace is often a big part of road running. On the trails? Forget it. There is walking, climbing, and scrambling in trail running. There are steep, steep uphills. There are downhills with lots of obstacles where it may be safer to walk. Your pace doesn’t matter. You run what you can, and take your time where you need to. The paces you would be clocking if you looked would make you think you’d lost all fitness and speed. You haven’t, you’re just on a different playing field.

Bring What You Need.

I remember one long training run I did for the NYC Marathon, where I stopped my watch right at 19 miles, still a few blocks from home. I was done, and I felt sick to my stomach. I was also in New York, so after I took a few deep breaths, I walked about a block and bought a ginger ale in a local deli. There are no delis on the trails. There are no water fountains. You need to plan a little more, especially if you’re running long out on the trails. Check out hydration packs if you’re going to be out for a long time (this Run It round up has some gear examples as well as great tips on hydration in general). Bring fuel for your run. Bring a trail map. Bring your phone, fully charged. 

Find Your Trails.

Don’t know where to start looking for trails? Google is a place to start, but also go and ask in person at local running or sports stores, the staff at local gyms, contact National Parks in your area to find out if they have trails for runners, and you can also look up routes on apps like Strava or All Trails. Don’t forget about social media as well – do a search on Facebook for trail running, click groups, and go ahead and join one to ask about trails in your general area.

Go Out-and-Back Without Getting Lost.

Take it from someone who has gotten lost several times on trails. The way out does NOT look the same as the way back. You could do a Hansel and Gretel and leave yourself some kind of trail (don’t forget to pick it back up when you’re returning), but a tip I’ve started using that’s helpful is to either look behind you and see what the path you’ve just come from looks like from the opposite direction or, if you don’t trust your memory, take a photo with your phone of what the way back looks like.

This is also why having a good trail map is important. If you’re just starting out trail running, it might be a good idea to start on trails that have good maps available (or clearly marked routes) so you can focus on building up your strength and confidence on the trails without worrying about getting lost.

Watch Where You’re Going.

One thing you’ll often hear about trail running is that it’s a great way to enjoy the beautiful views of nature. It is – when you’re not running. Don’t take your eyes off the trail. The reason it’s slower to run on trails than roads is often because of the natural obstacles in your path. Tree roots, loose rocks, uneven tracks and other hurdles make it a good idea to look ahead and gauge every footfall. The nice thing is, since you’re not focusing on your pace, feel free to stop and look around whenever you like. Enjoy the views, just not while you’re moving. šŸ™‚

Cross-Train Like a Trail Runner.

All those obstacles and the climbing and hiking that are part of trail running means that the usual cross training for runners needs to be a little different once you switch to trails. Add in some balance training to your strength workouts, focus on some abdominal and core strength exercises, and don’t neglect your upper body, since you may find yourself climbing some parts of trails. Lateral lower body exercises can also be helpful, since negotiating obstacles on the trails can find you leaping laterally to keep moving forward. 

Here are a few workouts that will be helpful to add to your strength training routine:

Core Workouts for Runners

Full Body Plank Workout

Upper Body Workouts for Runners

Enjoy the Views and What You’re Out There For.

Yes, you should be looking at the trail ahead while you’re running, so as not to trip and hurt yourself. But you’re trail running presumably because you want to get out in nature and enjoy the beauty of your surroundings. That’s where the tip about not even thinking about your pace come in helpful again – if you want to stop and look around, stop. Take a break at the lookouts. Enjoy what you’re out there running the trails for. šŸ™‚

One thing I’ve noticed about running trails instead of roads is that the runner’s high happens more often and sooner into a run when I’m on trails than when I’ve run on roads or in city parks. I don’t know if it’s the air, or being in nature, or the peace and quiet, but there are more moments on the trail when I take a big lungful of air and am happy to be alive and running. If you’re thinking about trail running, just do it. You won’t regret it.

Trail Running for Beginners - If you're thinking about trying trail running, read these essential tips for beginners at trail running first!


  1. Trail running is the best! I find that I don’t look around enough because I’m watching my footing so much, so much less monotonous than running on the roads šŸ™‚