The Beginner's Guide to Trail Running

When you see the words "trail running," what do you think about? Most runners imagine single-track, switchback trails along a cliff or technical mountain trails that only a pro would attempt to navigate.

But you know what I think? I think of the beautiful orchestra of wind, bird calls, light footsteps, breathing and gurgling water that you'll hear when running on a secluded, wooded trail.

Beats crowded city streets, stop lights and potholes, doesn't it?

Most individuals who are just learning how to start running are unfortunately intimidated by trail running. They picture technical trails or are afraid of injuries like sprained ankles because of the uneven terrain.

But trail running isn't more difficult. It can reduce your stress levels, be even more enjoyable and provide a welcomed relief from the drudgery of road running.

Here's how to prep for your first off-road trail running adventure.

More: 9 Trail Running Tips for Beginners

Running Form Matters on the Trails

To properly manage obstacles you'll face on the trails, such as roots, rocks, sticks and other debris, it's best to run with a quicker stride. Most runners have a cadence, or stride, under 170 steps per minute.

That's dangerous on the trails when a longer stride results in more instability and a higher likelihood of injury. Make sure your cadence is at least 170, but preferably closer to 180. This higher stride rate allows you to better navigate the undulating surface.

More: The Importance of Stride and Cadence

It's also important to maintain good posture (your mother was right after all these years) while trail running. Because of the uneven terrain, you need to remain in an "athletic posture" with a tall back—no slouching.

More: Good Running Form for Beginners

A higher cadence and a tall, erect posture will fix most other running form flaws like aggressive heel striking and over-striding, both of which are risky on the trails.

Patience Is Critical

Not all trails are technical or littered with obstacles like holes and fallen logs. But you'll likely encounter much more debris than you would on a city sidewalk.

The terrain probably also has more winding turns and quick elevation changes than any road you've run on before. To safely cover ground on the trails, you might need to slow down to manage all of this.

More: 15 Technical Tips for the Trail

Particularly on downhills, reducing your speed will help you avoid running injuries. With a smooth surface and virtually no debris, roads are much more predictable. Running the same speed on an unfamiliar trail could set you up for an accident if you're not careful.

More: 3 Simple Injury Prevention Tips for Time-Strapped Runners

Focus on the trail in front of you; it will reduce your risk of tripping, running into a tree or log, rolling an ankle, or falling flat on your face. Stay patient, enjoy the scenery (but stay focused), slow down, and enjoy yourself.

Two Mistakes Road Runners Make on the Trails

Many road runners now rely on GPS watches to guide their runs. But the data these devices give you is less accurate on the trails. Instead, it's more beneficial to run by feel instead of using a GPS device.

More: Active Gear Scout: Heart Rate Monitors and GPS Watches

Pace is not nearly as important as the effort of the run, which might be higher due to the elevation changes, terrain and the type of obstacles you encounter.

Finally, it's important to note that you do not need trail running shoes to start trail running. Just lace up your normal running shoes and you're good to go. Unless you're summiting a steep, technical mountain trail, any road running shoe will work just as well off-road.

So get off the asphalt, wave goodbye to traffic, and hit the trails.

More: How to Become a Better Trail Runner

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