Trail Running Tips

8 Essential Trail Running Tips: Hit the Trail Running With Key Techniques for Safety, Speed, and Comfort

Good news: Running is one of the world’s most accessible sports. Moving faster than a walk? Great, you’re running. Better news: Trail running is one of the best ways to experience nature, as you can see a lot of scenery in less time. Whether it’s a post-work spin through a local park or a 15-miler on a wilderness trail, it’s efficient and fun.

Of course, what makes trail running fun can also make it a challenge. You might encounter slippery conditions, rocks and roots, steep hills, and other factors. For all but the smoothest trails, you’ll want to master both form and technique, so use this guide to get started on the right foot. 

1. Just go run. First and foremost, find a trail and go for a run. Don’t be intimidated by terrain that’s more variable than roads or treadmills. Everyone, at every level of running experience and outdoor experience, can enjoy running on trails. That said, no one enjoys falling face first in the mud. So take the next four tips to heart.

2. Shorten your stride. Due to features riddling some trails, like rocks of various sizes scattered throughout the trail, logs to jump over and other debris, shortening your stride from your regular road-running form can make you more agile. It’s a lot easier to recover and prevent yourself from falling after tripping on a rock or root while mid-stride when that stride is shorter rather than longer.

3. Widen your arm swing. Good balance is essential as you navigate over and around various obstacles. Widening your arm swing from your regular, road-running style adds balance by distributing your overall body weight over a wider area, with your arms acting as weighted counter-balancing tools. (To do this, point your elbows back and away from your body while relaxing your forearms toward the ground.)

4. Look (slightly) ahead. Trail running is similar to skiing and mountain biking in that you choose a line and look to where you want to go instead of looking at the obstacle you want to avoid. That’s because your body inevitably follows your eyes. With trail running, you’ll likely want to choose the path of least resistance—the line with the fewest rocks or roots. Keep your eyes aimed down at the trail, scanning somewhere between three to 10+ feet ahead, to choose your line. Spotting your footing before you’re right on top of it is important on rough terrain.

5. Stay relaxed. Like with all sports, staying relaxed helps immensely. Tightening up your body with anxiety that you may fall can actually make you fall. Relaxing into yourself and your surroundings makes your body more fluid and able to recover from a small trip-up. If you have trouble relaxing due to the terrain, try to take a few slow breaths and focus on relaxing your shoulders away from your ears. Still can’t relax? Try a mellower trail until you’re comfortable. 

6. Walk some. There is no shame in walking during any run, whether on roads or trails. But on trails, where you might encounter exceptionally steep grades for an extended period of time, walking can be both smarter and faster. During walk breaks, you’re making forward progress while lowering your heart rate. Once you feel able to run again, you will.

7. Don’t compare. Since no two trails are alike, and any trail is different than a paved, track, or treadmill surface, don’t compare your trail running mile splits to your road running mile splits. Trails vary in elevation gain and loss and surface type, with soft surfaces being much slower than hard. Even the same trail can be different day to day, depending on the condition of the surface—hard dirt can turn to slow mud, for instance.

8. Breathe. Do you really need a reminder to breathe? Yes. The point is to breathe rhythmically and deeply, keeping the oxygen flow going. It’s easy to forget when you’re working hard on technical terrain, and it’s just as important as staying relaxed. Some runners swear by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, while others opt for full mouth breathing or full nose breathing (the latter just in spurts, as it’s hard to do for extended periods of time). 

Ready to tackle the most technical terrain? See our technical trail running guide here.

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.