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Top 10 Trail Running Tips for Beginners

These 10 trail running tips for beginners  are guaranteed to get you ready to play, boost your confidence and give you the tools and tips you need to enjoy the amazing adventures of trail running – today! 

trail_running_trail_guide_selfieI love running trails all year. Each season offers new paths, new views and new journeys. One of my favorite things about trail running is taking runners on their very first trail run. To see their glowing, sweaty faces at the top of a hill or when they’ve finished their first romp through the woods fills me with such joy. I can’t take all of you with me, but I can answer the top questions so many of you have asked me about how to get started on your own adventures.  Thanks for letting me be your virtual trail guide. Here we go….!

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1. Do I need to buy trail running shoes?

No! Ok, you can breathe a sigh of relief, right? You don’t need fancy, expensive shoes to get you started. I’m not going to recommend that you head out on your first trail run in extreme weather conditions, up a mountain covered in mud, so you don’t need shoes that would help you with those conditions on your first day. Save your trail shoe buying decision until you are enjoying some sweet and easier trails first. The important take away here is: don’t let NOT having trail shoes hold you back from starting. Now, if you have already ventured out into the wild a bit and are ready to try trail shoes they will definitely add protection, traction and stability. BUT, first figure out where you will primarily be trail running then go on several runs on those paths to determine what features you might need, before you shop.

2. What about trail running clothes?

While you don’t need any special clothing to get started in trail running other than some of your favorite technical gear, you do need to think differently about how you wear it. (I can hear your wallet breathing a sigh of relief!) Think comfort AND safety. Notice that I didn’t say fashion. If you’re on a road run, you can often cut your run short, duck in a store, or circle back by your house for an extra layer (or to ditch one). Not so on a trail run. Changing terrain can make a big difference in your comfort. For example, if the trail you’re on turns out hillier than you thought, you might end up hiking (which is great!) Walking or hiking might not keep you as warm as running. Layering up can save you some seriously uncomfortable time outside and give you the options to enjoy nature even more!

3. Is there trail running gear I need to buy?

Even though your beginning trail runs will probably be short while you’re getting your “trail legs” trained up a bit, here’s what I recommend carrying and how to haul it.

  • women_trail_running_me_pres_trail_snacksRuns 60 minutes or less: An 8-16 ounce hand-held water bottle with a little zip pocket for a gel and ID will usually work for an out and back type of run of 60 minutes or less. The good thing about an out and back is you can always turn around earlier if you’re feeling overtaxed or undernourished.
  • Runs 60-90 minutes: When you really fall in love with trail running (and I’m betting you will!), runs lasting 60 to 90 minutes or more require you to haul more food and water. I recommend a hydration pack with a water bladder and pockets. Look for one that is designed for a women’s build and has just the perfect number and placement of pockets that work for you. There are many models to chose from with lots of bells a whistles. Borrowing one from a friend or asking your local outdoor or specialty running store to take a test drive is helpful to see if the design fits your body type.
  • What else? I always recommend running with your phone, ID, a little cash or credit card, a couple squares of paper towel (stronger than toilet paper – see tip #9). Spreading these items out among pockets –  or even your bra – sometimes works, hand-held water bottles with zips, hydration packs or even a stretchy waist pack work even better. I love my 2-pocket SpiBelt.

4. Where do I find places to go trail running (and buddies)?


  • Your local running store, REI, or similar outdoor stores sometimes have trail running groups, trips, classes, or local trail maps. Find the trail runner on staff. They will be a wealth of info on trails in your area and,  trail shoes when you’re ready to buy them and folks to run with.
  • Online social networks like Facebook and Meetup, hiking, camping and trail running blogs. I particularly love blogs because you get personal stories and up-to-date conditions of specific trails as well as race reviews and reports.
  • Hiking trail usually means running trail.  Forest service maps (online or in print) will get you there.
  • Road race calendars often list trail races and where there’s a trail race, there are great trails! For a trail-specific race calendar and fabulous organization to support is American Trail Running Association

5. Yikes! I need some tips on how to run hills!

  • Power hike it, baby! Yep, even the pros hike a lot of them. It’s part of long-distance trail racing strategy. Especially when you’re first starting out, plan on hiking the steeps. It’s a great time to take in the scenery, work on aerobic endurance and help you enjoy a longer day in nature.
  • Take smaller strides: Shorten your strides and swing your arms heading up hill. Think about your butt and hips. Just thinking about those areas of your body will start to engage them.
  • Stay centered on the downhill & don’t over-brake: Keep your arms out to the side a bit more for balance and keep your center of gravity over your feet by being careful not to lean back. Take smaller, more even strides as the hill gets steeper and don’t over-brake.

6. How do I stay safe out on the trails?

This list below might feel overwhelming or seem like it could take the fun out of trail running. Truth be told, the planning is sometimes half the fun. Kinda like gearing up for a race, right?  In time, most of these will become second nature to you.

  • Tell someone where you’re going and your estimated time of return. Remember that trail miles usually take longer than road miles.
  • Know your limits with hills, water crossings, or longer routes. Don’t be afraid to turn around or pick a different trail if needed.
  • Talk with other runners about your destination, check trail reviews on blogs or forums.
  • Map it! Look at Google maps and print your trail route if you can.
  • Check the weather where your run starts (not just the thermostat on the back porch).
  • Carry your phone, ID, money and a credit card
  • Take a GPS or watch
  • Take friends, especially on your first trail runs. There is safety in numbers just like your momma said. Plus it’s a heck of a good time with buddies.

7. Lions and bears and snakes, oh my!

Dusk and dawn is when animals are more active, but meeting anything from a spider to a cougar when you’re trail running can happen anytime. Most animal encounters are awe-inspiring and not fear-initiating. Critters are usually scared of you and slip away even before you see them. If I’m running alone I often make extra noise, whistle a bit or even sing out loud occasionally. Here’s some tips to help you feel more confident, but get more tips with the links I’ve provided. Remember that attacks are extremely rare. Don’t let the fear of seeing an animal take away the joy of running in nature.

  • Cougars: Appear large, never crouch or bend down, look them in the eye, be loud, don’t run, but give them a way to flee. If attacked, fight back. Read more about mountain lion encounters.
  • Bears: Staying a bit noisy in an area where bears have been encountered gives them a chance to avoid a confrontation. If you see one, stay calm and back away while avoiding eye contact. Tactics differ between black bears and grizzlies, so here’s a more thorough article on encountering bears.
  • Snakes:  In general, the best avoidance tactics come from being loud, very aware and smart. Give snakes a wide berth, at least your whole body length, if you see one on the trails. Many times they will be either sunning themselves or, more often, curled up near bushes or rocks. Keep your eyes several yards down the trail and scan from side to side. I have jumped over snakes on several occasions mid-stride, unable to see them until I’m upon them. Not exactly the striding drill I would recommend! Here’s a wiki with some good snake avoidance tactics.

8. What about stranger danger on the trail?

I hate to have to put this one on the list, but as a woman runner, this is often a more pronounced fear than meeting wildlife on the trail. Along with some of the items on this excellent safety list from The Road Runner’s Club of America, here are some specific tips I think are super important:

  • Stay aware: As a beginner, it’s really common to want to stare at your feet so as not to trip, but practice looking 6-10 feet down the trail. This keeps you aware should you encounter other runners. While you are taking a break and enjoying  the views, take in your surroundings, look 360 degrees around you, especially if you are running alone or your friends are behind or in front of you.
  • Be confident: You’re a runner, a trail runner! There is a certain level of confidence you already poses if you’re taking on that adventure. Stay in that confidence zone.
  • Be discerning: Most folks will be friendly, but if you run into someone who offers a negative or harassing comment, don’t engage them and keep running
  • Trust your intuition: If something doesn’t feel right to you, it might not be. Trust your gut and don’t wait to respond.
  • If you are running alone, stay in more familiar areas, but vary your route. For example, if you always run at 8:00am on Sunday mornings, randomize your routes.
  • Ditch the music: I know, this is a tough one for some of you, but trail running is a great time to enjoy the sounds of the birds or the frogs or even the ocean waves. The last thing you want to do is be surprised by someone coming up behind you on a trail run.
  • Getting schooled in self-defense is an excellent idea. Check with local gyms, running stores or martial arts businesses for classes. Grab a friend and make it a goal for this year’s running season.

9. Uh oh, I gotta go! (How to pee in the woods like a pro)

When I took a survey about the top trail running questions you wanted answered, this was way up there on the list. Guys, you got this, obviously, and can skip to number 10. Ok ladies….

  • Use the buddy system: This goes for all things trail running. I highly recommend running with friends and this is one of those times friends come in really handy. Use your buddy as a spotter for other trail runners, wild life, and to hold your water bottle. Don’t be shy, ask for help. You’d do it for her, right?
  • Obey naturific law: Don’t go within 200 feet of rivers or waterways, camp sites and don’t pee on the trail.
  • Obey gravitational law: Find a spot that you can pee downhill.
  • Watch where you squat: My lower leg got a nice dose of poison oak when I ventured off the trail to take a pee. I consider myself lucky that it was just my leg that was infected!
  • Use the place-pants-pull-pee method: Once you have found a good place, pull your pants down just to your thighs, pull them forward out of your way, squat and pee.
  • Air dry or pack it out: I’m an air dry girl, but if you have to wipe, paper towels or wipes are stronger than TP. Pack it out in a zip lock.
  • What about, um,  going #2? Same as peeing except you’ll need to dig a 6″ hole in which to leave your gift (a firm stick usually works) and bury the evidence. Pack out the wipes though. I know, I know, just do it.

10. The most important piece of equipment is a trail running mindset

Ok, so you may or may not know that I HATED trail running the first time I tried it. What? I know! It is beautiful and ever changing. But that’s why I hated it.  It was unpredictable. The ups and downs of hills and mud or stumps or sand drove me nuts. Even though I considered myself a strong runner, it was hard! After my first day out, I felt like I had never run a step in my life. My calves were sore all day. I was exhausted after just a few miles. Then I realized that I seriously needed to get out of my road-running-comfort-zone. Because that’s where the magic happens, right?


It wasn’t that trail running was too hard for me. I just needed a new mindset. Here’s the key ingredients of a trail running mindset:

  • Re-learn to play! Road running is often about pace, training for a PR, speedwork, checking your watch, dealing with traffic. The trails are time to let go. Run some, hike some, stop, look around, take a photo, listen to the creek, gaze over the sand, get in a non-rhythm rhythm. Just romp and play!
  • Pack in the adventure not the miles:  Trail running is less about the watch, mile splits and even counting miles at all. Most trail runs and almost all of my trail race training is about just calculating the time I spend on my feet, not so much the miles. Trail running is a bigger effort. It takes more planning, more mapping, more hauling, more strength. But it gives you more adventure. Take it!

Ok, are you ready to add the secret sauce to your running?

There’s nothing like tackling your busy work day on Monday, negotiating that big family to-do list or managing kids’ activities and homework with the smell of pine still lingering in your nose, the recent view of the city from a high butte in your mind’s eye or the new-found strength in your heart and legs that carries you confidently through your day. Trail running is the secret sauce of running! It’s time to start your journey and relish the memories it gives you. I can’t wait to hear about your adventures!

Oh, and don’t forget to grab the free download I made for you below. It took me years of trail running to learn from these top 5 mistakes (that I made many times over!)

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