Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running: All You Need to Know

Last Updated: August 2020

Whether you’re just getting into running or you’ve been road running for years, there are some things you’ll want to know before you try trail running.

Trail running is a little more nuanced than road running, but it can bring you to some amazing places.

From beautiful little tree-lined trails around a lake to mountain running with a steep incline, it’s got it all!

Here are the main things you’ll need to know as you enter the world of trail running. 

Trail Running Gear

Trail Running Shoes

You MUST have the right shoes!

Without the right shoes, you won’t be as effective at running on trails, and you’ll run the risk of an injury.

Your road shoes might be OK if you’re planning to stick to well-kept dirt or mulch trails. If you plan to run anywhere with roots, rocks, or the chance of mud, buy some trail-specific running shoes. 

Trail running shoes are typically designed to have more ankle support and a “grippier” sole than traditional running shoes. They also tend to have a slightly thicker sole to help protect your feet from rocks and roots. Since the terrain will be uneven, and often a little slick, you’ll need those qualities. 

If you typically go for minimalist shoes when road running, trail shoes might feel a little clunkier at first. However, you can also buy minimalist trail running shoes.

They’ll still be a little bulkier than minimalist road shoes, but not too bad. Likewise, suppose you typically buy running shoes with a thicker midsole. In that case, there are trail running shoes built with a similar design. 

If you go to a local running store or outdoor store and speak with a shoe specialist, they should be able to guide you to the right shoe.

Ensure that your footwear fits comfortably and provides all of the support and protection you’ll need for the terrain.

If you’re stuck trying to find the right running shoe, check out Merrell’s Antora trail running shoe.

It is fantastic!

It’s lightweight like a road shoe, but the sole is especially grippy. If you’re into fun colors, they regularly have a featured color or pattern too.

It’s a great balance of cushion and support without being too bulky. 

Trail Running Clothing

Honestly, the clothes you wear for trail running could be pretty similar to your road running outfit. It will just depend on where you run and what type of trail hazards you might encounter.

If you are running through an area that might have a lot of underbrush or poison ivy, make sure you wear pants and long sleeves.

If you’re running in an exposed area that won’t offer much sun protection, make sure you either wear sun layers or apply sunblock before you head out on the trail. 

One thing that matters a little more when going for long trails runs, as opposed to long road runs, is your choice of fabric. Remember that cotton holds onto moisture. So as you start to sweat, or if you get caught in the rain, you’ll stay wet the whole time you’re out there.

Staying wet for too long can lead to chafing, and that’s never a good thing.

Instead of cotton, wear a moisture-wicking material like merino wool or nylon. Then as you sweat or get rained on, your clothing will draw the water away from your skin and make your run more comfortable.

While most people think about moisture-wicking clothing for their shorts and shirt, it’s possibly more important for your socks and underwear. You DO NOT want to get hot-spots on your feet or undercarriage.

Check out our article on Trail Running Essentials.


Since you don’t usually find water fountains along off-road trails, bring some water with you on your run.

Some runners prefer to bring a hydration pack like a Camelback, and others prefer to carry a water bottle in their hand or in a hip belt. If you’ll be out for a long run or its hot outside, a hydration pack would be a better bet since it holds more water.

If you’re new to trail running, try carrying a water bottle first and don’t run too far. That’s the cheapest intro option since you likely already have a bottle of water.

If you find it to be cumbersome -or that it’s just not enough water- upgrade your hydration system. 

If you decide to try running with a hydration pack or hip belt, make sure that you wear it tight enough to prevent chafing—the last thing you want once you’re already a mile into the run.


If you’re planning to go running while it’s dark, or there’s any chance that you could get stuck on your trail until dark, bring a headlamp with you.

Trails typically aren’t well lit, and you don’t want to end up stumbling around in the dark. You could bring a handheld flashlight if need be, but headlamps are much easier to carry while you’re running. 


If you’re still a little new to trail running, but it’s not your first time, you might want to venture out to a new path.

If the trail is somewhere more backcountry, make sure you map the route beforehand and bring a GPS device with you, so you don’t get lost. 

A lot of smartwatches have the option to plug GPS coordinates into them.

If you’ve got a smartwatch, double-check to see if that’s an option. Alternatively, you could download some running apps on your smartphone and plan your route ahead of time. 

If you might run somewhere that doesn’t have enough cell service for your phone or watch to pick up on GPS, bring an actual map with you on the run.

Don’t get lost on a backcountry trail.

Where to go Trail Running

When selecting one of your first off-road running routes, choose a location close to home, which has a few different options. Initially, the easiest option will be best. 

Even if you’re an experienced runner, take it easy on your first trail run. If you’ve never had to dodge roots and mud during a run before, it could take you a little off guard. 

Also, if you’re going somewhere with a few different running options, you can start small and build to something larger. That way, if it goes well on your small intro run, you have the option to go a little further if you’d like to. 

Running Style

When you’re trail running, you’ll need to take a few more precautions to make sure you don’t trip.

Keep an eye on the path ahead of you at all times. Keep an eye out for hazards like roots and rocks that could send you tumbling. 

Your stride will also have to change a bit for trail running.

Where you might be used to taking longer strides for increased distance and speed, you should start making shorter strides despite how fast you would like to go.

When your steps are quicker and closer together, you have more time for your reflexes to kick in if you misstep. 

This rule of thumb does change when you encounter hills. When you’re running up a non-rocky hill, take longer strides. Gravity will do the work of slowing you down, so you have the chance to propel yourself forward to the best of your ability.

If you’re running on rocky ground or slippery ground, you should still take shorter steps to make sure your feet stay under you.

If you end up trail running on some seriously hazardous terrain, go ahead and walk.

Some off-road trails are a combo of running and hiking, so adjust your pace accordingly. Remember that there’s no shame in walking.

Run for the joy of running, and go at a pace that feels right for you!

Maintain the correct posture

The main difference in road running and trail running is the terrain.

Trails typically have changing elevation and changing ground. You might run on well-packed dirt, mud, sand, or rocks. Your posture needs to adjust to the terrain as you run. 

If you’re running on rocks or anything else that requires hopping from thing to thing, you will need to stay on your toes a little more than you would when road running.

If you’re running on hard-packed dirt, you can run more like you usually would.  

Since you’ll be running with shorter strides than you usually would, find a cadence that works well for you.

This might take a little time to adjust to, but it will help you keep the right posture while running and make breathing a little easier. 

Be ready to swing your arms a little more than usual if you’re actively keeping your balance.

Otherwise, they should still be somewhat close to your body, especially if you’re running down a trail with some brambles or trees. Your arms should stay loose and should move when you run, but they shouldn’t flail. 

Remember to stretch before and after your run -- especially if this will be your first trail run.

Trail running engages more muscles than road running, so you might feel slightly sorer than you typically do.

Stay hydrated, stay safe, and have a good time!

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