The Beginners Guide to Trail Running

Jason Fitzgerald
by Jason Fitzgerald
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The Beginners Guide to Trail Running

Looking for a simple way to improve your fitness and reinvigorate your run? Hightailing it to a local trail can enhance the quality of your run, but if you typically stick to the road, it can be intimidating to start trail running. It doesn’t have to be complicated. With just a few adjustments to your current routine, you can blaze the trails and reap the benefits!

No matter your running level, ditching the pavement for trails offers more variability to your run. Trails don’t have to involve technical, rocky routes or thousands of feet in elevation. A converted rail trail, a rolling route through a grassy meadow or even a packed gravel path through a local park will do the trick. “Off-road” running is as simple as it sounds — you’re simply switching up asphalt and concrete for an alternative surface in a more scenic environment. Who doesn’t like the sound of that? Here are three surprising benefits to entice you to give trail running a try:


In addition to the scenery, trails can provide a host of benefits to make you stronger and more injury-resistant. This is because the variety of trail surfaces works a wider array of muscles in your feet, legs and core — they’re ideal for injury prevention.


Trails will also teach you to run with focus. This is a lesson you’ll learn quickly when your mind wanders and you catch your toe on a root that appeared out nowhere. (It happens to the best of us!)


Trail running can also provide an endorphin rush that you’ll rarely find running on a treadmill or through your local streets. It stimulates all of your senses and can be a wonderful way to enjoy the act of running for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end. Every trail is different and changes with the seasons, giving you ample opportunity to experience a full range of nature.

With all of these benefits, what keeps runners off the trails? The most common answer is this: fear. Fear comes in many shapes and sizes. In a remote, mountainous environment, fear of wildlife and treacherous weather conditions can be very real and well-deserved. Technical trails (i.e., those that include lots of rocks, roots and even boulders) can require experience for safe navigation to avoid falls or sprained ankles.

Just know that even the most seasoned runners can trip up on trails. If you want to try out trail running but are intimidated by the idea, don’t let fear stop you. Trail running can be as simple as a 5K through the park or as complex as a 50-mile ultramarathon through the mountains. The key is to start small, get comfortable with the experience and build from there. The sky is literally the limit!


So let’s start with the obvious — first you need to find a trail! Depending on where you live, there may be a trail right outside your door, or you may need to do a little research. Your research should at least account for the trail’s distance, elevation gains and tree cover. It’s best to start easy when you’re first getting used to trail running, so don’t go searching for the hilliest or most technical climbs, or you may find yourself overwhelmed.

Remember, your primary goal is to get off the road, so a local park may be a great way to start. A few online resources for trails include, and Even Google Maps can be useful — when looking at a map of your area, look for the green areas that indicate parks, wooded areas or nature preserves.


Trail running requires little in the way of extra gear, especially when starting out. Here are few key things to consider:

  • Shoes: For newbies, your regular running shoes will be just fine for many trails.

Always be aware of the terrain. Here’s a primer on How to Choose the Right Shoe for Every Surface.

  • Sunscreen: Protect your skin from harmful UV rays  — they’re there even on gloomy days — by applying sunscreen at least 30 minutes before your run.
  • Route: Plan your route ahead of time. Bring a map if the area has lots of twists and turns.
  • Hydration: Carry a water bottle and granola bar if you plan to be out more than 45 minutes, or if it’s hot and humid.
  • Weather: Bring an extra layer if the weather looks questionable so you aren’t caught unprepared, especially when running in exposed areas at higher elevation.


As a newbie trail runner, expect your pace to be slower than running on the sidewalk or treadmill. This is normal, so don’t be discouraged! Until you get comfortable with different types of terrain, don’t expect to cover the same mileage on a run that you normally would. Note that even the most accomplished runners will tell you that there is zero shame in hiking the hilly parts.

A solution is to stop nitpicking miles and use a running app to track your progress. For runners who keep track of time and distance, convert the road miles to trail miles, and start running by time. For example, if you do a 5-mile road run in 50 minutes, run an out-and-back route that is 25 minutes in each direction on the trail. Track your trail run progress on an app like MapMyFitness — you can turn off the notifications for time.

As you get used to navigating rocks, routes and creeks, you’ll gain a better feel for both easy and hard paces on the trail.


When running on the road, it’s easy to zone out since each step you take is pretty much identical to the last. This is rarely the case on trails, and you’ll find you need to be more attentive to your running route. Allow your eyes to scan 5–10 feet ahead of you, but avoid staring directly down at your feet. Looking ahead allows your brain time to perceive and react to upcoming obstacles so you can navigate them successfully. It’s helpful to leave your music at home (at least initially) so that you can focus on the surrounding environment and enjoy the sounds of nature!


As with road running, it’s ideal to run with a friend or a dog when you are out logging your miles. We know not everyone has the luxury of an accountabilibuddy, so you need to exercise caution. If you’re heading out solo, let someone know where you’re going and for how long. Although you may not need it, pepper spray is a useful means for protection from ill-intentioned people and animals.

Tech Tip: Apps like MapMyRun have a live tracking feature so that your friends will know where you are.

If you stick with the guidelines above, you’re almost certain to have a happy trail run. In addition, there are a few rules (some unspoken) that apply to the trails. Be kind to your fellow runners and practice good trail etiquette:

1. Runners should yield to other trail users, including bikes and horses.

2. Uphill runners should always yield to downhill runners.

3. If you want to pass someone, alert them from behind to let them know your intention.

4. Stay on the main trail except when passing so as not to damage surrounding vegetation.

5. It should go without saying, but never litter (even food waste!), and always carry out whatever you carried in.

6. Play music at a volume that is loud enough to enjoy but not loud enough to ruin the experience for others on the trail.

7. If running in a group, give fellow trail runners a wider berth than you would if you were running on the road. Trails can require abrupt changes in speed, and you may find yourself falling unceremoniously on your running buddies if they slow down or stop abruptly.

Simplicity and functionality are key for trail running gear. When you’re just starting out, there’s no need to change from a regular pair of running shoes or clothes, as long as you don’t mind them getting wet, dirty or snagged. If you tend to sweat a lot, invest in a couple of moisture-wicking shirts and shorts to keep comfortable. And depending on the trails you choose, gaiters may be helpful to keep rocks and grit out of your shoes. As you become advanced with trail running and choose increasingly challenging trails, invest in a pair of trail shoes with good traction.

Additionally, certain gear is needed in specific situations. If you enjoy running during predawn or evening hours, a headlamp or light source is a must. If you live in a really hot or humid area, bring along a handheld water bottle or hydration pack because most trails will have limited drinking water access.

Trail running can be an amazing way to experience our natural environment. With so many types of trails available to runners in every corner of the world, there’s no reason not to get out there and experience it firsthand. If you come back dirty, wet, inspired and looking forward to your next trail run, you’ll know you have done it right!

Under Armour has teamed up with POWDR Resorts to create the UA Mountain Running Series, an experience of a lifetime for trail running enthusiasts at the most iconic and beautiful mountain resorts in the United States. The race course locations will feature diverse climates, seven different distances and varying elevations built to push athletes at every level to their personal limits. Register now for a summer you won’t soon forget.

About the Author

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason is the founder of Strength Running, a USA Track & Field certified running coach and 2017’s Men’s Running’s Influencer of the Year. Learn more about how he can help you run faster.


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