Let me guess …
But … switching from road to the trail feels overwhelming. And the time required to figure out where to run, or what gear you need?
Hmm, maybe I’ll just stick to the road.
On the surface the switch is minor — run on trail instead of pavement — but the mental hurdle can feel major. Because of the added challenges that come with trail running, many runners let fear and excuses keep them from ever giving it a shot.
Here’s the thing, and you’re going to have to trust me on this: Once you give trail running a shot, the fears melt away.
All the gear, all the new skills and adjustments — they come with time and experience. So let those go for now.
No first time trail runner feels completely comfortable. I didn’t, and you wont either. And you know what?
That doesn’t matter.
Resources for Trail Runners
This site was created as a way of chronicling my transition from roads to trails and has since turned into a major resources for trial and ultra runners around the world. But with so much information out there — both on RCR and in other books, sites, and podcasts — it’s hard to find the straightforward information you’re looking for. That’s what I hope to solve with this guide.
In this resource guide I’ve sifted through all the junk and compiled my favorite resources for beginner trail and ultra runners. Everything from functional training tools and gear, to videos and podcasts that keep you motivated.
In other words, what you need to give trail running a shot.
Let’s start with the basics, shall we?
Quick Note: Most of these resources are completely free, but some do cost money. In some of those situations, the links included below are affiliate links. I’ll get a small kick-back (at no additional cost to you) if you use them to make a purchase. Thanks.
Tools for Learning the Fundamentals of Trail Running
Just like you don’t jump behind the wheel of a car without learning how to steer, new trail runners should always start with basic techniques that keep them healthy and safe.
Here are some of my favorite resources for beginners. They cover the fundamentals — like running form changes and what to expect once out there. If you’re a true beginner, don’t worry about gear or nutrition just yet, this is the place to start:
Trail Running Books
Trail running has exploded in popularity over the past several years, with new trail races and groups forming all the time. With that surge of popularity has come a surge in available information, both in print form and online. Here are are my favorite trail running books and eBooks:
- Why Every Runner Should Be a Trail Runner: And How to Become One (FREE) is a downloadable eBook now available to all Rock Creek Runner members.
- The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running by Adam Chase covers all the major differences for new trail runners.
- Chi Running by Danny Dreyer focuses on form and running efficiency. While not specific to trail running, these techniques are particularly beneficial on technical terrain.
- Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running by Meghan Hicks and Bryon Powell of iRunFar.
Posts and Videos to Get You Started
Beginner information and basics
There are a lot of dos and don’ts in trail running. These posts should help you sort them out:
- 13 Must-Knows for All Beginner Trail Runners
- 42 Reasons to Stop Stalling and Start Trail Running Today
- 6 Things Every Beginner Should Know Before Trail Running
- 6 Common First Time Trail Racer Questions, Answered
- Why Trail Runners Should Hit the Pavement (Plus 4 Road Workouts)
- A Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running (Zen Habits)
Trail safety and etiquette
Safety is one of the biggest holdups for many new trail runners. The truth is, running through the woods does pose risks that aren’t found on the road (the same could be said for road running, by the way). Whether your fears are centered around wildlife, strangers, or simple getting lost, here are my favorite posts on how to stay safe:
- 11 Safety Tips All Trail Runners Need to Follow
- The Jackass’ Guide to Trail Running Etiquette
- What Every Trail Runner Needs To Know About Time In The Wilderness: Part One, Safety (I Run Far)
Dealing with the terrain and conditions
Trail running introduces terrain and conditions you’d never find on the road — mud, steep rocky descents, or a dark forest are good examples — and every trail is different. Growing comfortable on the trail means tackling the unique conditions head on. Mud? No worries. Rocks and roots? You can handle that.
The following posts provide information and tips on how to handle whatever the trail throws your way:
- How (And Why) to Master the Art of Trail Running at Night
- The Trail Runner’s Guide to Fast Downhill Running
- A Trail Runner’s Guide to Uphill Running (Competitor)
- The Trail Runner’s Guide to Foot Care
And finally, here’s a quick video featuring famed ultra runner Scott Jurek on running form tips for difficult terrain:
Transitioning to Ultrarunning
While a 50K, consisting of just over 31 miles, doesn’t sound like a huge leap from the 26.2 mile marathon, the training, fueling, and pacing strategies can be very different. Keep in mind that a trail 50K may take several hours longer than your typical road marathon.
So when you consider transitioning from a road marathon to a trail ultra distance race, you should adjust your strategies to fit the challenge. And as you move up in distance — 50-miles, 100K, 100-miles and beyond — distance specific adjustments become that much more important.
Here are some of my favorite tools for making the transition:
Books and Websites
- Discover Your Ultramarathon Training System, a beginner’s training system designed by me which includes a 129-page eBook, expert interviews, and training plans for 50K and 50-mile ultramarathons.
- Relentless Forward Progress by Bryon Powell was the only major handbook for new ultrarunners for many years. Bryon uses his own experience and the tips from elite runners to prepare you for the 50k distance and beyond.
- Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning by Hal Koerner features all the tricks of the trade from one of the best in the sport. This Field Guide covers many of the same topics as Relentless Forward Progress, but utilizes all the expertise Hal has to offer.
- Training Essentials for Ultrarunning by Jason Koop is probably the most scientific and specific book I’ve seen for ultrarunners. While it doesn’t cover some of the basics and racing tips like the books above, this is a great tool for anyone trying to take their ultrarunning to the next level.
- Ultra168.com offers tips and gear reviews for beginners and experts alike.
I may be a little biased, but I believe Trial Talk — our trail and ultra running quick tips podcast — does a great job explaining bite-sized beginner advice you implement immediately.
When you’re ready to dive in a little deeper, read these posts on making the transition to an ultramarathon (and avoiding many of the mistakes I made):
- How to Know if You’re Ready for an Ultramarathon
- Beginner Ultramarathon Advice: An Interview with Sage Canaday
- 4 Mistakes to Avoid During Your First Ultramarathon
- 31 Ways to Know You’re Ready for an Ultramarathon
- The 50 Truths of Ultra Running
- What to Do Before Your Next Ultramarathon (Plus a Race Week Planning Checklist)
- 14 Dos and Don’ts of Being a Master Ultramarathon Pacer
- Nausea and Ultra Running: The Cause and the Cure
- The Simplest-Ever Guide to Running Your First 50K Ultramarathon (No Meat Athlete)
- 9 Ultra-Helpful Tips for Making the Leap from Marathoner to Ultrarunner (No Meat Athlete)
Purchasing Quality Trail Running Gear
One of the first questions I get from a new trail runner is always about gear. Do you really need to invest in trail running specific gear?
Eh, maybe …
Here, before you keep reading, let me break it all down for you in this video:
As you can see, the quick answer is no. You don’t need new gear to start trail running, never let the lack of a trail specific shoe or handheld bottle keep you from hitting the dirt.
That said, if you continue to run regularly on trails, it’s worth it to invest in proper gear. Items like trail specific shoes and options for carrying water and nutrition will improve your training and ability to explore.
For an all-inclusive guide to trail running gear, download my free ebook, The Trail Runner’s Gear List here.
And some of my favorite gear options right now can be found here. But let’s break it down a bit more in this guide:
If trail running becomes a big part of your training, trail specific shoes would be the first gear item I’d purchase. The main differences between a road shoe and a trail shoe are:
- A tougher upper to withstand the rugged terrain,
- Bigger lugs on the bottom of your shoe to grip the trail and mud, and
- A rock plate underneath your insole for extra protection from rocks and sharp objects.
Whenever you’re looking for shoes, the most important consideration should always be fit:
- How do they feel on your feet?
- Can I run in them for an extended amount of time?
These days I’m running in Altras, with my top pick being the Lone Peak 3.0. Altra shoes offer a unique footshaped design, which provides more room for you toes. They’re also zero-drop, which I believe helps with my form and in preventing injuries.
But of course you have to decide for yourself what fits your needs.
Head down to your local running store or search through the large number of trail running specific shoes out there. Only your feet decide which shoe is right for you.
Hydration Packs and Bottles
After shoes, a pack or bottle to carry water and fuel is next on the list. What you need is completely dependent on the distance, difficulty, and weather conditions of your run. I recommend that all runners have a few options to help cover possible scenarios.
My favorite hydration systems company is Ultimate Direction, and I’m loving their new Signature Series 3.0 vests (check out that full review for details). UD’s packs and waist belts are all built to last and endure your ultra challenges.
If I’m just carrying a handheld bottle, the Amphipod Hydration Handheld is my go-to. I find the shape and build slightly easier to use than Ultimate Direction bottles.
When it comes to clothing, trail running gear isn’t much different than what you’d expect for the road. The main upgrades have to do with storage and durability. In the mountains, prepare for the rapidly changing weather patterns with plenty of layers.
I typically shop at my local running store or REI for trail running clothing. Here are a few go-to clothing options either designed specifically for trails, or items that help with the conditions presented in mountain trail running:
Other Items I Recommend
And of course there are other items I recommend, like a headlamp, GPS watch, and maps. You gotta love topo maps.
Strength Building for Trail Runners
After your first few trail runs, even when they’re short, you may notice something peculiar …
You’re sore. Sore everywhere. Hips, butt, ankles, quads, all sore.
Unlike road running, where the motion of running is repetitive and precise, the trail requires you to adjust your stride with every step. Maybe a root in the way and your foot lands at an angle, or mud requires stabilizer muscles to engage to keep you upright.
Trail running works muscles road running doesn’t.
This isn’t a bad thing — many coaches actually believe it’s a good thing — but it means that you’re working muscles that may have grown weak running only on road. And that you should do regular exercises to strengthen those muscles.
The first place I like to start is with a short strength routine you can do at home. Access my 6-minute routine here. (it’s free)
From there I recommend new trail runners, or any runner who’s had ankle or foot injuries in the past, regularly include foot strengthening exercises into their workout routines.
Here are three videos that demonstrate my favorite foot, ankle, and supporting muscle exercises:
And here’s a short yoga sequence designed to loosen and strengthen your hips:
Where to Get Your Nutrition
As you start running further, nutrition becomes increasingly important. No longer will a single gel and the water supplied by the event be sufficient for a big race.
But nutrition for runners isn’t limited to what to eat during a race. How you fuel before and after is equally important. For a better understanding of my take on running nutrition, check out this interview I did with elite ultra runner Darcy Piceu:
If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a guide to nutrition I recommend for runners.
When it comes to mid-run or race fueling strategies, I’ll point you to a few episodes of Trail Talk:
What I Eat During a Marathon, 50K, 50-Mile, 100K, and 100-Mile Ultramarathon
In this episode I break down everything I eat during trail races. It’s a look at running fuel on a macro level, but will give you a good idea of how I approach my race-day nutrition.
Stephanie Marie Howe on Race Nutrition and Fueling
In this episode I tap into the wisdom of Stephanie Marie Howe, Stephanie is a world class ultra runner and nutritionist.
Running Fuel Products I Love
When it comes to the foods and products I’m actually consuming, here are the ones I stick to and recommend:
But of course, every stomach is different. What works for me (or your running partner) may be a terrible option for you.
The best thing you can do when training for a long distance race is to test different fueling options turning your long training runs.
Stay Up to Date with Trail and Ultrarunning News and Events
As the sport of trail and ultrarunning grows, so does the coverage and access to elites. If you’re an ultra-geek like me, that’s pretty great.
These are the best resources you can use to stay up to date with happenings in the sport:
Blogs, Websites, and Magazines
- iRunFar.com is maybe the most well-known and respected site within the community.
- UltraRunnerPodcast.com posts daily round-ups of news and articles related the trail and ultra running.
- Ultrarunner Magazine publishes monthly editions with race reports and ultrarunning news.
- Trail Runner Magazine offers articles on the web and in print form.
- Your local trail running listserve is not to be missed. Ask around to stay in touch with what’s going on in your area.
- Ultrarunner Podcast features interviews with elite runners and pre/post race coverage for some of the biggest races.
- Trial Runner Nation offers up training advice and stories with some of the sport’s best athletes.
- Ten Junk Miles is a fun and lighthearted look at the world of trail and ultra running.
Staying Motivated When Things Get Tough
Everything listed above becomes useless without motivation.
No matter where it comes from, we’re all inspired by others. Here’s a list of my all-time favorite motivation sources when it comes to trail and ultra running:
I’m a huge fan of short films or videos that chronicle someone’s adventure, and recently the quality of these videos has shot through the roof.
- Run Steep Get High is on a mission to tag the highest peaks and run epic trails, and brings us along for the ride.
- Mountain Outpost is a trail and ultra running comedy channel, of sorts. Well, just watch and see for yourself.
- The Ginger Runner’s motto is “Train, Race, Beer,” which explains it all. He’s all about having a good time, making light of rough situation, and entertaining us in the process. Check his YouTube channel for gear reviews and race recaps.
- Salomon Running sponsors some of the biggest names in the sport, like Kilian Jornet, Anna Frost, Dakota Jones, Emelie Forsberg, Ricky Gates, and many more. They regularly put out world class running videos that will leave you equal parts awe-stricken and inspired.
- Billy Yang Films is one of the best storytellers through film in the running community. He’s films are both breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring.
There are a number of trail and ultra running full-length movies and documentaries. Here are my go-tos:
- Running the Sahara features famous runner Charlie Engle, as he and two others run across the entire Sahara desert.
- Unbreakable: The Western States 100 covers the epic battle that was the 2010 Western States.
- Finding Traction covers Nikki Kimball’s fastest-known-time attempt of the Long Trail.
- 12 Epic Trail Running Videos Guaranteed to Get You Motivated and Out the Door is a collection of some of my favorite short videos.
In my opinion the best motivational running books are autobiographies from runners who have been around the block.
- Eat and Run by Scott Jurek is an autobiography by one of the first superstars in the sport. His journey and accomplishments will keep you inspired and on the edge of your seat.
- Born to Run by Chris McDougall got more runners into trail and ultra running than anything before or after it. It covers the captivating story of the Mexican Tarawara Indians.
- The Longest Race by Ed Ayres is a meditation on running and life through an environmentalist’s perspective.
- Run or Die by Kilian Jornet gives you a glimpse into what motivates one of the best runners in history.
And of course, we try to include plenty of motivational posts on Rock Creek Runner as well:
- On Ambition and How to Get It
- How to Build a Support Network that Wont Let You Down
- Why I Like Feeling Vulnerable
- Pre-Race Pressures: 3 Simple Coping Techniques
- Dear Future Self: An Open Letter on Doubt, Fear, and Running
- Through Darkness and Back: A Thunder Rock 100 Race Report
- Inspiration is Cheap (and How to Turn Inspiration into Action)
- Ultrarunning as a Microcosm of Life: My Black Mountain Monster Report
A Trail Running Specific Training Program
A training, nutrition, and race day plan that serves your needs and goals.
Last year I set out to create a comprehensive online plan — or course — that did just that. I reached out to 11 experts in the field to record interviews, and put together a step-by-step program to becoming a better trail and ultra runner.
Runners from all over the world — of all experience levels, too — are using the program to help develop their skills and face their fears in pursuit of a trail running goals.
Put it into Action — It’s Time to Hit the Trail
Remember at the beginning of the post when I said that all it takes is giving trail running a shot? How gear, nutrition, and all the resources that followed are second to actual experience?
Good. I don’t want you to forget that.
This guide contains and links to a massive amount of information that can make you a better trail and ultra runner, but what really matters is that you go out and run.
It’s not always going to easy. Or fun. Or what you feel like doing in that moment.
But it will be worth it.
See you out there?