Although trail running is similar to running on the roads, there are some differences to make note of before you hit the trailhead. Here's a quick list of tips that will guide you to the trail and beyond.
No single trail is the same. One of the many things I love about trail running is that every trail has its own unique terrain and challenge. There are groomed trails that are wide, limestone-based, and often even in surface, which make for a great introduction to running off the road. And then there are narrow "singletrack" trails with a variety of obstacles, including tree roots, rocks, sand, hills, mud, and more. Singletrack trails tend to be more challenging in nature and offer a dynamic running experience.
Leave your ego at home. Running off road can be exhausting at first, and it may take you up to twice as long as your normal run, especially in the early stages of training. It's wise to leave your ego at home, slow your pace and focus on finding a new rhythm. In a matter of weeks, you'll be running up hills you used to walk, and you'll develop a sense of being one with the terrain.
Keep it safe. When heading out to the trails, make sure to run with your buddies or dog, tell someone where you are going and which trail, and take a cell phone with you for safety. Leave a note with your planned course and bring fuel and fluids. If possible, take a trail map, cell phone, and ID with you, and keep track of where you are along the trail as you go. If you run alone, wear pepper spray, download one of these safety apps for your phone, and always be mindful of what's going on around you.
Know the rules of the trail. Yield to other trail users (equestrian, hikers, mountain bikers). Uphill runners should yield to downhill runners. Stay on marked trails and run through puddles, not around them (making the trail wider). Leave no trace, and don't litter. And follow these Trail Running Safety Tips.
Keep your eyes on the trail. It can be tempting to look at the nature around you, but doing so can quickly lead to tripping and falling. If you want to enjoy the sights, walk it out or stop; otherwise, focus on looking three to four feet ahead to create a line of travel, or where you going to step for the next few strides. This will keep you focused and in the moment—one of the true gifts of trail running. You will begin to instinctively know where that line is as you become more comfortable running on the trails.
Slow down and smell the roses. Running on trails can be a lot more demanding than the roads, especially if it's a technical singletrack trail with roots, rocks, and other fun obstacles. It is best to avoid comparing your pace, as you will be slower than your normal road-running pace. Instead, slow your pace and develop a trail tempo. Run by your effort level, by your heart rate and by the tune of your body. For new trail runners, that may mean walking the hills and running the downhills and flats.
Be mindful of your time. Because the trails are more demanding, it's wise to run by time at first to gain a sense of your trail pacing versus heading out for a 6-miler that might take you 40 minutes longer than expected. Running an out-and-back course is a great way to get to know your pace and develop your trail running confidence. From there, you can develop loops and routes to fit your needs.
Change gears. Adjust your pace according to the terrain, and maintain a consistent effort level as you climb uphill. When in doubt, walk. Running over downed trees or through mud and sand takes some time getting used to, and it's best to progress slowly. Tackling obstacles will get easier as your body gets stronger and more seasoned on trails.
Trail shoes. If you're going to weave trail running into your life, it's wise to invest in a pair of trail running shoes. They differ from road-running shoes in that they're lower profile (lower to the ground), which reduces the chance of ankle rolls with a high heel. The rugged tread offers better traction on muddy, wet trails. They should fit snug in the heel but have room in the toe box.
Take care of your trail shoes. Remove the insoles, wash off the mud, and stuff with newspaper or paper towels to dry.
Accessorize. Although many trails provide shaded routes, it's still wise to wear sunscreen. Sunglasses, dark or light, will protect your eyes from tree branches and bushes. Wearing a hat and bug spray will help prevent insect bites and ticks. Make sure to purchase some cute gaiters, as they will keep the dirt out of your shoes and give you a little style on the trail.