From the moment my worn-down Asics hit the dirt trails in DC’s Rock Creek Park, I knew my running would be forever changed.

Like most people, I started out running on the roads. I trained for a road marathon, and established neighborhood loops from my house. It was good. I was happy.

But that day more than six years ago — on that trail — I realized how much more the simple shift from running on trail, not pavement, could provide.

I had no idea trail running would eventually lead to ultramarathons, a kick ass community, and this site, and I was clueless about the strength benefits of training (at least in part) off road.

But it hasn’t always been peaks and vistas.

The transition from pavement to dirt had plenty of bumps — or mistakes — along the way. These mistakes are common for new trail runners because of the key differences and expectations between running on different surfaces.

Fortunately, they’re easily minimized when you come in with a little bit of knowledge.

Rules to Live By When Transitioning from Road Running to Trail Running

Below I dive into what I believe are the six rules everyone should know before hitting the trail.

Rules that if followed will help make trail running more approachable, easier to incorporate, and a lot more fun.

But the first is often the hardest to accept:

1) Slow Down

As rough as it may be on the ego, don’t expect to maintain the same pace on the trail as you do on the road — especially as a beginner. You can blame that on a few things:

  1. There’s more in the way. Rocks, roots, trees, leaves, they all cause changes in your stride that effect your pace.
  2. Even with a good pair of trail shoes, traction is often an issue.

Often times your typical running intensity will produce a slower pace and can vary significantly depending on the trail.

So what should you do? Start to measure your runs based on intensity, not pace.

And because a run will most likely take longer on the trail, as a beginner I recommend running for time instead of distance. For example, if a six mile run takes around 60 minutes on the road, go on a 60 minute trail run instead of a six mile trail run. You may only make it five miles, but the workout will be similar.

2) Mind the Hills (And Don’t Be Afraid to Walk)

Road hills can be treacherous, but let’s face it, they’re nothing compared to what the trail can throw your way.

Trail builders aren’t restricted to road building regulations, so they follow a more natural flow. Up a mountain or over a giant bolder, the flow is often more direct and much steeper on trail, creating interesting climbs and descents.

As a new trail runner, I believed “going for a run” meant only running, but it didn’t take long to realize why everyone else around me slowed to a power hike instead of a run on the steepest hills.

This doesn’t mean you’re weak or slow, and it’s often a more efficient way of making your way up the trail.

3) Lift Your Feet

Someone once told me that Americans are some of the clumsiest people in the world because we’re accustomed to smooth sidewalks and roads (just watch people as they walk up an uneven staircase).

When it comes to trails we have the same problem. Once you pick up pace and open your stride, the bumpy singletrack can quickly send you tumbling into the dirt. And you know what? That’s all part of the game.

Just last week I went on a 14 mile run with three very seasoned trail runners. The trail was littered with leaves and before we made it back to our cars all of us had fallen at least once. It happens … especially when you’re a beginner.

But as you teach yourself how to lift your feet, scan the ground for obstacles, and run with a stride that adjusts to the terrain, falling becomes much less of a concern. When it does happen, just brush yourself off and keep moving.

4) Don’t be a Jackass

Every sport, discipline, and hobby has it’s own etiquette. Trail running is no different.

Learn how to share the trail, pack out what you take in, and be mindful of other trail users.

When racing, it’s all about the community. Thank the volunteers, help out your fellow racers, and remember that you’re all in this together.

5) Get New Gear (But Only as You Need It)

Running should be simple, right? Especially trail running. So do you need new gear to run on the trails?

Here, this video may help you decide:

The simple answer is no, you don’t need new gear. But — and this is a big one — if you plan to run on trails frequently, some gear is a good idea.

Running through the woods will probably mean that you’re left with fewer resources, so you may need to carry water, food, or extra layers with you. You’ll find many of the basic items I recommend in the Trail Store.

Then there’s the question about shoes. I like to say that if you’re running at least a third of your miles on trails, or if you’re frequently running on difficult terrain, you should invest in a pair of trail specific shoes. Trail shoes are typically made from tougher materials than road shoes, and are built to withstand the extra wear and tear. Sometimes they have a rock-plate in the sole to help protect the feet against bruising, and they’ll always have larger lugs — or grip — on the sole to grasp the trail.

That said, road shoes can be used on the trail and trail shoes on the road, so it’s up to you if you think you need to make the investment.

6) Take Safety Precautions

Safety is always a concern for new trail runners. The fear of getting lost, experiencing treacherous weather, or encountering bad animals (or humans) will keep some people from ever going out on their own.

The chances of something bad happening are very slim, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I recommend you take appropriate safety precautions before hitting the trail:

  • Tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return.
  • Take a phone with you if you’re going to be gone for a long period of time.
  • Know the route or carry a map.
  • Don’t run with headphones (or leave at least one ear out) so you can hear what’s going on around you.
  • Carry a backup layer or jacket if warmth will be an issue.
  • Take a little more food and water than you think you will need.
  • Know the wildlife risks, and how to handle a situation if it were to arise.

And whenever possible, run with someone else.

Chances are nothing will happen, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Now, Go Outside and Play

Trail running has breathed new life into my running, and I hope that it can do the same for you.

Don’t get discouraged if it seems harder than expected, or if you feel timid by the new challenges. Embrace them. Push yourself.

And if all else fails these six tips should take much of the guessing game out of your transition, and provide a bit more confidence when you hit the dirt.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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7 thoughts on “6 Things Every Beginner Should Know Before Trail Running

  1. “Tell someone where you are” should be the first thing on the list. And remember that you can text someone lots of times when you cannot call them on your cell phone. Calling needs full coverage where texting just needs a split second of cell coverage. However, most 911 call centers cannot handle texts yet. They are working on that. So have someone be your relay person for 911. Text that person and then have them call 911. And remember, the guy in “127 hours” would not have had to cut his arm off if he would have let someone know where he was climbing. So send a quick text to someone before you go out trail running or hiking

  2. I just started trail running last year and I’m running my first 50k in July. I’ve listened to all your podcasts and I’ve read most of what you’ve put out there. Thank you! It’s been extremely helpful. Can you talk/write more about this whole walking and going slower thing? On the road, I can run anywhere from a 9min-10:30min mile. On the trails, I’m lucky to average ~15min/miles and I find myself often walking up the steep hills. Is this ok?? I feel so slow! And it takes me forever. The closer I get to my race the less confident I feel. Would love some more advice on this topic.
    Thanks again for all you do!

    1. Janet…not sure if how old your post was but…how did you run go? Your 50k? Hope it went well. I am like you in my times, average 8:30 half marathon pace, about 10 minutes per mile full marathon pace (10:20 per mile on the last full hilly marathon). Four months ago I ran a 57k on trails, hilly, elevation, etc. I averaged right at 14 minutes per mile. I think this is a good pace to expect on such a rocky/hilly course. If you feel good and are happy and feel strong then you are doing it right! Jim in Prescott, Arizona

  3. Thank you for the post, I am wanting to get into trail running and I think your work will be a great resource. I couldn’t help but giggle at scanning the ground for obstetrical though! That would be an experience 😉

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