Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running

Single Track on Tony Look Trail

Single Track on Tony Look Trail

Over this summer, I held my first *ahem* trail running camp with a couple of friends. It was a run for charity that I donated to son’s school’s silent auction and someone took the bait, I’m sure for politeness. But I found myself talking about the awesomeness of trail running to them and in the process ended up with these few tenets to follow if you are a beginner to trail running. I, personally, was fortunate to pick up trail running just three months after I took up running and have been addicted to it since then. I even wrote about the pros and cons of trail running vs. road running a little while ago.

Seven Tips on Trail Running

I wish I knew then what I know now about trail running and this is my list of things that a beginner should know before venturing out into the wild, ‘cos trails are wild and if you are not ready for them, physically and mentally, they will chew you up and crap you out.

1. Know the route

When you are running around your neighborhood, I’m sure you kinda sorta know where you are headed. But my first time on a trail, I happened to get on a climb and got really anxious how far this thing was going to go on. Learn how to read the contour maps or blogs from other runners to know what to expect. Last thing you want is to get on a steep incline, lose your way and end up with a monster half marathon when you were really only looking for a casual 2-miler. Incidentally, getting a little lost might be a good thing after you’ve gotten used to running longer distances. :)

2. Let someone know where you are going to be

I have zero bars in my phone on some of my trail runs and I personally don’t think I’m that far from civilization. But blame it on the sparseness of the cell towers. Before you venture out, let your better half know where you are going to be. I usually leave behind a trail map or a hand-written route map to let my wife know what to expect. By now I also know approximately how long it’s going to take me, so I also let her know if she doesn’t hear back from me within a certain time, that’s probably a bad thing.

3. Easy on the hills

When I first ran a trail, the hills came as a shocking surprise. As in, who called for that one or when is it going to end! Learn to take it easy on the hills and it will make you a strong runner. Don’t try to conquer the hills. They’ve been around much longer than you have. Respect the hills and learn how to glide through them with small strides and big arm movements. Which brings me to my next tip.

4. Walking is completely legal

Unlike road running, walking on trails, especially the uphills is totally cool and the norm. Heck, you might be force to do it, despite your ego! Even the elite ultra runners walk the hills. And there in lies the beauty of trail running. Also known as active recovery. Trail running is where you run, walk, hike, climb, trip, fall and jump as part of your run. There’s no right or wrong as long as you enjoy your time out in the woods.

5. Forget the pace

I haven’t done much road racing, but with trail running you’ll realize that you don’t have a constant pace. It’s all over the map and depending on the terrain, creek crossing, snake encounters, stopping to wow at the scenery, admiring a redwood cathedral, running away from an annoyed blue jay that shrieks at you for an entire 2 mile stretch (true story), you are going to slow down or speed up. And that’s totally cool. So forget splits and enjoy the sound of no cars.

6. Don’t zone out (and you can’t)

I know road runners that completely zone out during a run. They listen to their play list, don’t have to pay much attention to their surroundings (‘cos it’s nothing but asphalt) and can get by without paying any attention. Not so on a trail run. Those roots, stumps, rocks, twigs and the occasional snake in your path all are craving for your care and attention. Trail running forces you to be aware of what’s around you and that makes it incredibly fun. No roses up on the trails, but you can certainly stop and pick manzanita blooms (they are edible).

7. Enjoy the view

Ever ran up a hill first thing in the morning just to see the sun come up and warm your body? Something very magical about that while you are all alone sitting on the summit of a local hill. What about the family of deer hanging out on the side, spectacular live oak that’s been there forever or the little lizard confused by your footfall and scampers around the trail? Little things that give you that much needed pause in an otherwise hectic life. That’s what trail running’s all about.

What was your first trail run? What would you add to this list for trail running?


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