Trail Running Guide for Beginners

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Although it’s been around for a while now, trail running is definitely experiencing a massive surge in popularity. It’s gone from being more of a fringe, subculture sport, to a much more mainstream activity enjoyed by people all over the world.

What is trail running?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, it’s exactly what the name implies: running on trails. It’s regular road running, what off-roading is to regular driving on sealed roads. And just like off-roading, there are a few different rules, tips and tricks that apply.

I’ve been running trails for seven years now, and have completed quite a few trail ultra marathons (anything longer than 42kms) including two 100km trail races on the Ultra Trail World Tour, and have learned a few things along the way. Some of them, the hard way. So, here are my best tips for anyone considering getting into trail running.

Three people running Mt Crawford

Trail running is a natural progression if you love hiking and running. Photo: Sputnik 

Top 10 Tips for Trail Running

1. Distance isn’t everything

On the roads, distance is your main measure of difficulty. 10kms is 10kms. Maybe there’s a little up and down, but generally speaking, most sealed roads are flat(ish), or perhaps gently undulating. On the trails, all bets are off.

Just because you can run 10kms on the road in an hour doesn’t mean it won’t take you up to two hours to run 10km of trails depending on the terrain, condition of the trail, ascent, and descent.

If you come from a hiking background you’ll be well aware of this. If you come from a road running background it can be a bit of a rude shock. You also use different muscles running up and down hills, then you do on the flat, so it can be exponentially more difficult. If you’re not familiar with the conditions, be sure to allow plenty of time to cover the distance.

Runners doing the Black Hill Challenge

Distance isn’t everything when you’re running on a trail. Photo: Sputnik

2. Take nutrition for the trail

Speaking of time, it’s important you also plan on taking anything you need while you’re out there. Especially on remote trails, you’re not going to find a shop to grab a drink along the way. So if you think you might need it, pack it before you head off.

Water is the obvious one, but if you’re going to be out there for longer than an hour, you may also consider some sort of nutrition. Runners often use energy gels, but if you’re not used to them, they can cause gut issues in some people, so be a little cautious.

Alternatively, take something more tried and true like a muesli or energy bar. Or, whatever snack that works for you.

Solo runner on Morialta

Depending on what you prefer – gels or bars are a good option for trail runners. Photo: Sputnik

3. Find the right hydration solution

If you’re taking water with you there are any number of options you can experiment with, depending on how long you’ll be out there, and how much water you want to bring.

There are hand-held bottles, fuel belts with smaller bottles that sit on a belt around your waist, larger belts that carry a full-sized bottle and possibly some extra storage, or hydration packs. All of these are good in their own way, and what’s best for you will depend on personal preference.

Some people like the extra weight of the water across their hips, while others prefer it on their back as they would with a more traditional backpack. Larger capacity hydration packs can carry two or even three litres of water, sometimes more if they have room for extra chest strap mounted flasks.

It’s also worth mentioning your regular hiking hydration pack may not be ideal for running. Running packs are specifically designed for extra movement – so they’ll be more stable and comfortable than other hydration options.

Running with hydration systems

Running packs are the go-to hydration system for most trail runners as they have the most stability. Photo: Sputnik

4. Storing your essentials

The final thing to consider is whether or not you’ll need extra storage for other essentials along the way. At a minimum, you’ll need somewhere safe and dry to store your car key or mobile phone.

But you may also need to carry extra food, layers of clothing, gloves, beanies or a rain jacket – in which case a hydration pack with a reasonable capacity will definitely come in handy.

5. Water purification

If you’ll be running somewhere with a reasonable water source, you may also consider packing a lightweight and compact water purifier in case you need extra water along the way.

I frequently carry a Lifestraw water filter, and it’s been a real lifesaver a couple of times – once in northern Western Australia and once in Yosemite.

Using a Lifestraw to drink water from a river

Carry a simple purification system, like a Lifestraw, for emergency hydration. Photo: Lifestraw

6. Run with a mate

From a safety point of view, I can’t recommend enough that whenever possible run with a buddy. Or at the very least, take a mobile phone with you. Just keep in mind that some remote trails have minimal or no phone coverage.

Group of people running Mt Crawford

Don’t go off on your own if you can – get a running buddy! Photo: Sputnik 

7. Hazards to be aware of

Unlike road running, there are any number of extra hazards out there that you wouldn’t usually need to worry about. Snakes being the main one. If you’re in a snake risk area, it’s also worth carrying a good compression bandage and learning basic snake bite treatment.

But mostly, it’s the chance to trip, fall or do an ankle on technical trails which is where most people come undone. Experienced trail runners included. You’d be amazed how easy it is to take a spill as you get tired and don’t lift your foot high enough to clear even small obstacles.

Yes, I’m talking from experience here! Without passing traffic to rely on, the last thing you want to do is spend a cold night on the trails before anyone realises you’re missing and comes to the rescue.

Sputnik running Morialta

In low light conditions or rougher terrain – it’s easy to trip so be careful! Photo: Sputnik

8. Get the right footwear

While you can definitely run trails in regular running shoes, if you think it’s something you might be doing more often, it’s well worth investing in a pair of trail running shoes.

They have a few fundamental differences that set them apart from regular running shoes. Usually, they’ll often have a more aggressive tread to prevent slipping and a foot plate. This is a more rigid layer of protection under foot in case you land on a sharp rock.

Trail running shoes also usually have some protection on the front of the ‘toe box’ – the area across the front of your shoe. So, if you kick a rock on your way past you won’t break your toes. I’ve certainly run plenty of trail races in road shoes. But generally speaking, it’s no different to tyres – road tyres for the roads, off-road tyres for off-road.

Running with Salomon trail running shoes

Trail running shoes have a better tread and offer greater protection than conventional runners. Photo: Salomon. 

9. Keep your gear secure

Experienced hikers and outdoor lovers will likely be all over this one, but make sure you have some sort of waterproof bag to store your car key and mobile phone in. Even on a clear day, you can work up a serious sweat. The last thing you want is an electronic key that no longer works, or to ruin your phone.

The easiest way to solve this problem is with a snap lock sandwich bag, but they’re definitely not that durable so you might also consider a small dry sack by Sea to Summit (my personal favourite), or one of the other awesome outdoor brands who make them.

Trust me on this one. A few extra bucks on one of these now will save you a lot of tears later.

Sea to Summit Dry Bag

Keep your essentials such as keys and phone away from moisture while you hit the trail. Photo: Sea to Summit

10. Final piece of advice on trail running

My final piece of advice is to just start. Do a hike/trail run combo if you want. Hike a bit. Run a bit. Get used to it. Even better if you can find and join a trail running group. Generally speaking, trail runners, in particular, are a pretty friendly, inclusive bunch.

Sputnik running along Scott Creek

Trail runners are a friendly bunch of people – so don’t be afraid to say hello! Photo: Sputnik

Unlike many road runners who are more likely to be running at pace, on the trails we’re much more inclined to walk up the hills, and have a chat. And if there’s one thing we like to chat about, it’s trail running.

So find a group, ask questions, and you’ll no doubt get all sorts of tips and advice to help you along the way. Happy trail running!

Are you a hiker or runner that’s converted to trail running? How did you get started?  

About the writer...

Joined back in August, 2017

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