Blaze a Trail

Autumn is the perfect time of year to take your running onto the trails. The varied surfaces will help your body to become stronger, experiencing the changing seasons is sure to lift your spirits, and if you’re planning to run a spring marathon, several months of trail running will build a solid base for when you ramp up your training in the New Year.

Follow our 21 top trail running tips and get set to take the trails in your stride.

1. No single trail is the same

One of the great things about trail running is that every trail has its own unique terrain and challenge. There are groomed trails that are wide, gravel-based and often even in surface, which make for a great introduction to running off the road. And then there are narrow ‘single-track’ trails with a variety of obstacles, including tree roots, rocks, sand, hills, mud and more. Single-track trails tend to be more challenging in nature and offer a dynamic running experience.

2. 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 up, and you’ll develop a sense of being at one with the terrain.

3. Keep it safe

When heading out to the trails, make sure you run with your friends or dog, tell someone where you are going and which trail you’re planning to take and take your mobile phone with you for safety. Leave a note outlining your planned route and carry fuel and fluids with you. If possible, also take a trail map and ID with you, and keep track of where you are along the trail as you go. Always be mindful of what’s going on around you.

4. Know the rules of the trail

Stop for other trail users (such as equestrians, hikers and mountain bikers). Uphill runners should pause for downhill runners. Stay on marked trails and run through puddles, not around them (making the trail wider). Leave no trace, and don't drop litter.

5. Accessorise

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 insect repellent will help prevent insect bites and ticks. If trail running makes up the bulk of your training, invest in some gaiters to keep debris out of your shoes.

6. 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 look at 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.

7. Slow down

Running on trails can be a lot more demanding than the roads, especially if it's a technical single-track trail with roots, rocks and other fun obstacles for you to negotiate. 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. If you’re new to trail running, that may mean walking the hills and running the downhills and flats.

8. 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 six-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.

9. 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 to get used to, so it’s best to progress slowly. Tackling obstacles will get easier as your body becomes stronger and more seasoned to running on trails.

10. 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. The rugged tread offers better traction on muddy, wet trails. They should fit snug in the heel but have room in the toe box..

11. Take care of your trail shoes

Remove the insoles, wash off the mud, and stuff with newspaper or paper towels to dry.

12. Carry fluids

Bringing hydration with you on a trail run is a must, as you never know how long it is going to take to complete the workout. Some days might take longer than others due to mud, water crossings and more. There are various ways to carry fluids on the run – you could carry a hand-held bottle, wear a waist belt with bottles or don a hydration pack. If you’re going to be out on the trails for several hours, wearing a pack also offers the opportunity to stash a waterproof and any other essentials you might need.

13. Grab some poles

For steep, hilly or mountainous trails, consider using trekking poles to boost your balance, reduce wear and tear on your body (four legs good, two legs bad) and boost your hill-climbing strength. Using poles reduces the total impact on the knees and hips, and even helps you burn more calories.

14. Be the hill

Take short, quick steps when going up hills, and use your arms. Some hills are meant to be walked, especially on the technical trails. Tell your ego that most ultra runners walk the hills and run the downs and flats – it’s a trail thing, and it’s okay to walk (promise)! For gradual downhills on groomed trails, lean into the downhill, open your stride and let the hill pull you down. For technical downhills or steep hills, it’s better to use a stair-stepping motion instead; move in a similar motion as you would running down a flight of stairs, keeping your torso tall and letting your legs to do all the work.

15. Use your arms!

Keep your arms (elbows) a little wider for added balance on more technical trails with tree roots and rocks. Your stride is a little different than on the roads because you will need to clear rocks and tree roots and lift your feet a little higher off the ground. You also may need to hop left or right to bypass things on the path like tree branches.

16. Improve your trail skills

Just as running intervals will improve your speed, running obstacle repeats on the trail will help create new neuro-pathways and boost your technical trail running skills. For example, run for 10 to 15 minutes to warm up, then find a technical stretch of the trail and run repeats, focusing on form and finding your line. Include optimal recovery as you would with a speed interval, start with shorter trail segments (20 to 60 seconds), and build to longer stretches (one to three minutes).

17. Get strong and balanced

Another way to improve your trail running performance is to include strength and balance exercises in your training regime two to three times per week. You could include the following exercises: lunges on a pad or stability disk, single leg squats, bridge, push-ups, dips, dead lifts, calf raises, and using a wobble board to develop foot and ankle strength and stability. Visit for more strength and conditioning exercises for runners.

18. Moderation and recovery

It can be tempting to hit the trails frequently at first, but it’s wise to allow for adequate recovery, as trail running – especially hilly, technical runs – will tax your body more than you may realise. When you run hard or long on the roads, you feel it, but when you run hard on the trails, you may not due to the more forgiving terrain. Make sure to weave in trail runs once per week at first and then progress slowly by adding one trail run per week every two to three weeks.

19. Run within your means

When in doubt, slow it down or walk through it. As you gain trail running fitness and skill, your ability to navigate more technical terrain or hills will improve; until then, be cautious and run within your skill level.

20. Split it in half

If you plan to run a trail race, aim to build up to running at least twice a week on trails (50 percent of your runs) and the rest on roads. Balancing the two will allow you to adapt to the new demands of the trail while maintaining the ability to run on harder surfaces without soreness. Start with training on groomed trails, and progress to rugged trails once you have more off-road miles under your belt.

21. Find trails near you

There are a variety of ways to find trails near your home and on your travels. Connect with local running stores, nature reserves, national parks, social networking and, of course, Google. While you’re at it, make sure to ask about the specific nature of the trail, including any wild animals you might encounter, hazards – anything you may need to know when running in a new area.


This feature was originally published by Runner's World. Discover more great features on every aspect of running and refresh your training with a subscription. FInd out more at