20 trail running tips for beginners

Majell is an Endurance Coach and Elite Athlete for Salomon, Suunto and Compressport, and an advocate for simplicity, patience and longevity in the sport of trail running and outdoor pursuits. Here are some of his top trail running tips for beginners. 

1. No single trail or trail race is the same

Every trail has its own unique conditions, terrain and challenges. So embrace the individual traits of each trail and realise each different aspect can challenge you and help you improve every time you run through it. Just like each trail is different, so are trail races, not even the same event year to year is the same! With so many variables on trails, its a great way to just run free of any expectation that can come with controlled running environments.

People racing across a river in a trail running competitionPeople racing across a river in a trail running competition

2. Your ego has no place on the trails, please leave it at home

Trail running is a sport of many changing variables. It can be frustrating at times when you run slower due to the conditions. However, the only way to overcome this is to relax and let your ego and expectations go. Certain training sessions may call for slightly higher expectations, but for the majority of your training runs on the trails, it's best to slow your pace and focus on finding a new rhythm. Enjoy that moment you are in and the environment, develop a sense of being one with the terrain, not one with your watch.

3. Keep safe

One of the most important trail running tips is not the most exciting but could save your life. Trail running can take you to places with amazing views, but also where help in an emergency isn’t in close proximity. To minimise any instances of danger, run with a group or a friend, borrow a trail running dog, tell someone where you are going and on which trail, and take a phone and ID with you. You can also leave a note with your planned route and leave it on your car. If you intend on going for a long run make sure you carry extra calories/fuel and water. Make sure you are aware of the route and have a map. Most of the time, you won't need any of the above, but when you need it you really need it.

4. Respect other trail users and the trail

Its simple. Say hello and be friendly. Share the trail and give way to other trail users (equestrian, hikers, mountain bikers). If you're running uphill on a narrow track, it’s best yielding to downhill runners. Stay on marked trails and run through puddles, not around them (making the trail wider). Leave no trace, and don't litter.

5. Keep your eyes on the trail

Most injuries in trail running come from a moment of lost attention. Always be aware of the terrain as it can change quickly. If you want to take in the views, it's OK to stop or walk and take it all in. Make it a habit to look four to five steps in from of you — this will allow you to have a better opportunity to pick the best ‘line’ and section of trail to run. In time, you will build confidence and an ability to traverse more technical trail with ease and enjoyment.

You will find this concentration will leave you not only physically exhausted after the run but mentally exhausted. This is why so many people are taking up trail running. It allows you to free your mind and focus on that spot four steps ahead. 

6. Slow down and feel your run

Running on the trails can be a lot more demanding than the roads, especially if it's a particularly technical trail with roots, rocks, snakes and other obstacles. This can lead to a slower pace than what you may be used to when road running.

If this is the case, learn to run by your perceived effort level. If you cannot speak a clear sentence while running, you are working at a high tempo effort. Most of your runs should be done in an easy state, which should allow you to have a clear conversation with your friends. This may mean hiking uphill, which is totally acceptable.

7. Focus on time over distance

It’s important to understand that 10km on the trails can be significantly longer to cover then 10km on the roads. With this in mind, adjust your training to hit certain time goals as opposed to distance. To help understand what a 40 minute easy run on the trails will translate to in terms of distance, run an out-and-back section of trail. This is a great way to get to know your trail pace at an easy effort.

8. Change gears to work with the terrain

Be comfortable with adjusting your pace according to the terrain, and maintain a consistent effort level as you climb uphill. When in doubt, hike. Don’t put any pressure on yourself. Just try to maintain a consistent effort level and feeling throughout the entire run. Don't worry, tackling common obstacles on the trail will get easier as your body and mind get stronger and more conditioned to trail running.

9. Trail shoes

If trail running is going to become a part of your lifestyle and routine, consider investing in a pair of trail running shoes. They differ significantly from road-running shoes with more protection against rocks and roots in the form of a Pro-film (rock plate), a more aggressive tread offering better traction, and a more robust upper material to protect against the elements. Having trail-specific shoes will also provide more confidence on the trails.

Find out how to choose trail running shoes

10. Take care of your trail running shoes

Take the time to look after your shoes and they will stay around longer. Remove the insoles to allow for a more effective drying, wash off the mud and remove all the stones and debris you may have collected. Be careful not to put them too close to the heater as they can get easily damaged through the exposure to high heat. Hot tip: stuff with newspaper or paper towels to dry overnight.

Take your running to the next level with the right footwear...