Trail Running Tips for Road Runners

What road runners need to know about going off-road.

You’re a runner: You’re fit and healthy and are comfortable running roads and paved paths, or on a treadmill. Now you want to make the transition to trails. This guide will help break down common barriers—mental and physical—to running trails of all sorts.

Why Trail Run?

You already know the benefits of running, but running on trails comes with a few more. First, of course, you’ll connect with nature when you leave the pavement, and some trails offer awe-inspiring scenery that will triple any runner’s high. Next, steep and tricky terrain builds strength in ways mellower roads can’t. And finally, running on softer surfaces is gentler on joints.

What to Expect

Difficulty: Don’t be fazed by photos of rugged, steep, narrow paths up the sides of mountains—those exist, and can be fun when you’re prepared, but there are plenty of beginner-friendly trails as well. Trails can be mellow, meandering dirt or wood-chipped paths through parks and greenways. 


Since roads and paved paths are smooth, and trails have varying types of surfaces, elevation gains and losses, and sometimes rocky and rooty conditions, road runners should not expect to run the same pace per mile on trails as they do on roads. Leave all mile split expectations (and ego) at home. Once you get comfortable on trails, you can push your pace, of course, and add workouts like hill repeats and interval training. 


It’s true, trail runners walk more frequently than road runners. On steep grades and in rugged terrain, it’s perfectly acceptable—and even advised—to walk some sections of trails. Doing so on steep uphills can be more efficient than running them and walking on technical flats or downhills can prevent injury. As you become more comfortable with these conditions, you’ll be able to run more than walk, but even then, walking or power-hiking a section of trail is sometimes the better choice.

Training Body and Mind

Runners new to trails often fear twisting an ankle on a rock, root, or rut, or tripping and falling altogether. Three things will help you avoid injury. 1) Strengthen muscles, tendons, and ligaments. 2) Know how far ahead to scan the trail as you run. 3) Become more relaxed and confident.


If you don’t already do strengthening exercises for your ankles, knees, and core, add them to your training routine two to three times a week. And if you run trails regularly, the very act of negotiating varying terrain with every step and adapting to different surfaces will make you stronger.

Scanning the Trail

Trail running requires more attention than road running. Depending on how technical the trail, you’ll want to scan between three to 10-or-so feet ahead of you as you run. When the trail is smooth, you can look farther down the trail (close to 10 feet) as you run. When it’s rough, you’ll want to alternate between looking just a couple feet ahead and farther in order for your brain to register both what’s coming and where you want to step.

Staying Relaxed

The more you run trails, and especially rugged trails, the more confident you’ll become. And the more confident you are, the more relaxed you can be. A relaxed, confident runner can flow through trail obstacles smoothly. If you do catch a toe on a rock, you’ll be better able to recover and catch yourself without hitting the deck. A tense, anxious runner is more likely to fall because of tense muscles and timid steps; a misstep is more likely to cause a tumble.

What to Wear

You can get by running smooth trails in road running shoes, but trail running-specific shoes provide increased traction, protection, and stability. On more technical terrain, you definitely want shoes made for the task. You can wear the same apparel you would for road runs, but trail running apparel tends to have more pockets (and trail style, like longer-cut shorts). Some trail apparel is constructed out of more durable materials to withstand tree-branch snags and such. 

What to Bring

On short runs, you don’t need anything different than you’d take on the road. But on longer trail runs, you’ll want to pack fuel and hydration (how much will depend on the distance and weather conditions; know your body). And consider safety items like a weatherproof jacket or first-aid items on longer, more remote ventures.

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.