Transition from Hiking to Trail Running

7 tips for hikers who are ready to try a new way to see public lands.

You hike, you know the trails. Your leg muscles are strong and you’re comfortable negotiating all kinds of terrain. You love spending time outdoors and experiencing the best of public lands. If you answered yes, yes, and yes, then you’re a candidate for trail running, which lets you see more scenery, boost fitness even more, and enjoy the double runner’s high of endorphins plus nature.

Hikers looking to try trail running have a leg up, so to speak, on many coming from other sports, or from no sports at all. But there are still a few things you should know. We talked to Terry Chiplin, owner of Active at Altitude trail running camps in Estes Park, Colorado, which specializes in beginner-friendly experiences in and around Rocky Mountain National Park. Here’s Chiplin’s advice.

1. Know You Can Do It

This first thing, says Chiplin, is to eliminate self-doubt. Everybody is a runner. “Some people have built an idea that they’re not a runner,” he says, adding that when beginners come to his camps and layers are pulled back, he often finds that somebody along the line told them they’d never be a runner. “One of the things I’ve enjoyed with beginner runners is helping to unlock those self-beliefs,” because, he explains, the mental limits are tied to physical limits. Once somebody lets go of those limits, all of a sudden they think, ‘Oh my God, I can run! Actually, this is pretty damn fun! I get to enjoy it—in nature.’ And if you’re a hiker, you’ve been on trails already. Transitioning is kind of an easy step out.”

2. Have the Right Gear

If you’re an experienced hiker already, you know the importance of the right kind of footwear. Trail running shoes differ from both hiking shoes and road running shoes. “I’m a big proponent for having good-fitting trail shoes with a reasonable degree of traction,” says Chiplin. He laughs when recalling when he first ran in Rocky Mountain National Park as a road runner coming from England. “I thought I was the bee’s knees,” he says. “I was wearing road running shoes and twisted an ankle on the first descent.”  

 Terry Chiplin runs on a trail Photo:

3. Run the Downhills

The easiest way to start running on trails is to pick up the pace on the downhills “as long as it’s not too steep or technical,” warns Chiplin. “Just start to run and keep it rolling for a couple of minutes or as long as it feels comfortable for you,” he says. “The other belief we can carry is that you’re only a runner if you’re running a 6-minute mile, a 7-minute mile. But if you’re running a 15- or 17-minute mile, at some point you have both feet off the ground and that qualifies,” he says.

4. Start With Short Running Segments

Aside from starting to run the occasional downhill, Chiplin recommends running for a set amount of time to train both the ups and the downs. “Run for 2 minutes, walk for 2 minutes,” he says. It can be helpful to stick to that kind of timing because you’ll encounter a mixture of different terrain. If you see a hill coming up, give yourself a chance to run part of it first before stopping to walk. “Try it and see what happens,” he says. “You might get halfway up and think, ‘It makes sense to walk now,’ but learn to explore your boundaries and become inquisitive and curious.” As you improve, gradually shorten the walk breaks until you’re running for longer and longer.

5. Think Quick and Stable

“Trail running is about stability and balance,” says Chiplin. That’s especially important as you get more comfortable and start exploring more technical terrain. “Have a higher cadence, and your feet underneath you [not too far in front of you],” says Chiplin. “Overstriding makes us inherently unstable.”

6. Be Safe

Chiplin advises that when you’re first starting out running, go with others. “If you’re traveling at a different pace from your partner, don’t split up.” He explains that he employs a “sheep-dogging” strategy. If you spread out, rather than the faster person going ahead, the faster person can turn around and come back and “pick up” the slower runner. “That way, you keep in contact,” he says.

7. Have Fun With It

“This is important, especially as we age,” Chiplin says. “As children, we’re naturally curious. As we age, we learn that behavior needs to be modified and we get set in our ways. But as runners, it’s like, ‘Let’s go have some fun. This is playtime. This is our chance to be a child again.’” He explains how running, like hiking, is adventurous, but running adds a level of childlike fun because running is a childlike movement. “Just move your legs and see what happens,” he says.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.