A Beginner's Guide to Trail Running

By: Katie Porath

March 25, 2019

Category: Recreation

It took way too long for me to try trail running. I thought I needed special shoes, worried about getting lost, avoided bad weather, and didn’t know where to find the right trails. I wish I had tried it sooner because trail running is now one of my favorite hobbies.

If your typical running route involves paved trails, sidewalks, streets or treadmills, consider venturing into the woods and prairies for a new running experience! 

Here are a few tips for beginner trail runners. 

  1. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions. Just try it! You don’t need magical trail running shoes to give trail running a try. You don’t need a high-tech tracking watch, moisture wicking pants, or UPF 50+ shirts. Find a trail, have an idea of where you are going, and go for a test run. 
  2. Keep your expectations realistic. Thanks to hills and uneven terrain, you will most likely run slower on a trail than on a road. However, running in the woods and prairies is peaceful and picturesque. Take the time to literally smell the flowers or photograph the sunrise. 
  3. Watch where you step. Roads are typically flat and uniform. You can look at the clouds, the passing cars, and that nearby dog without losing your footing. On a trail, you will encounter roots, rocks, and other hazards, sometimes covered with a blanket of fallen leaves. Pick up your feet a little more for a better and safer workout. It also helps to focus on where to place your feet rather than on what to avoid. I’ve found it’s best to look a few feet in front of me and briefly memorize any potential hazards rather than looking straight down at my feet. 

a man runs down a muddy path with two others close behind him.

You Tried It and You Liked It. Now What?

Although you truly can run in anything, if you end up enjoying trail running, it’s worth investing in some specific gear. A couple things I recommend are: 

  • Trail running shoes. Some people recommend buying ½ to 1 size larger than your regular size to account for foot swelling after running. It depends on the brand and how they fit. If possible, take them for a test run on a treadmill before taking them outside.
  • A running belt. The modern version of the fanny pack can hold your phone, keys, ID and other items you typically carry on runs. It also helps keep your hands free in case you trip and have to catch yourself.
  • A map, tracking app or watch. There are many options for fitness tracking phone apps or watches but sometimes a paper map or interactive trail map on your phone is all you need to get your bearings. 

How to Find Trails

Trail runners are not confined to paved paths or sidewalks. But if you search for trail running trails, you might not come up with many options. Instead, look for hiking trails, horse trails, or mountain bike trails. In Three Rivers parks, all of these options are also open to runners and hikers. To preserve the natural settings around you, make sure you always stay on a designated trail. 

a woman running on a muddy trail

Trail Running Etiquette

Just a couple points of etiquette:

  • If you’re running on a hiking trail and encounter other hikers it is polite to give them a heads up that you’re coming up fast behind them by yelling “on the left” and passing them on the left. If you’re running toward them stay to the right side of the trail. 
  • If you’re running on a horse trail and encounter a horse and rider, it is a good idea to stop or slow down and move to the opposite side of the trail. Clearly greet them so that the horse is aware of your presence and doesn’t get skittish putting you and the rider at risk. Wait until they have passed before continuing your run. 
  • Singletrack bike trails are super fun to run on, but they are originally intended for mountain bikers. If you run on a singletrack trail, keep in mind the following points:
    • The trails are groomed for bikers so, when possible, stay in the worn-out dirt area to avoid widening the trail. 
    • If the trails are wet it’s best to avoid using them since the careful grooming could be destroyed. You may want to connect with the groups that maintain your favorite trails on social media to see if the trails are closed or conditions are poor. 
    • Run without ear phones so you can hear if bikers are nearby. 
    • Pay attention to whether trails are one way. Most bike trails are clearly marked since bikers come upon the signs fast. 

Feeling the Difference

Trail running works different areas of your body than running on a flat surface, so you may feel sore in new places after a run. Since you are running up and down hills and over uneven surfaces, different muscles, ligaments, and tendons of your legs and feet will be challenged. It’s important to stretch and warm up before running, and focus on strengthening your legs and feet. Be kind to your body. 

Time to Hit the Trails!

Trail running is a great way to get fresh air, see beautiful scenery, and get some exercise. If you get bored running on the treadmill or city sidewalks, take a step off the paved path and see how soft the grass and dirt are! 

Once you venture onto the trails, you’ll have the mental stimulation of watching nature fly by as you run. It’s almost like being in your own video game! 

There are hundreds of miles of trails in Three Rivers, including hiking, horseback riding, and singletrack trails. Go out and explore them all! 

a group of runners running down a wooded trail in the spring.

If you’re looking for a fun local trail race, celebrate spring with the Allina Health Trail Mix Race at Lake Rebecca Park Reserve in Rockford. Distance options are 12.5K (7.76 miles), 25K (15.5 miles), or 50K (31 miles) with team options as well. It may be muddy, icy, snowy, or a combination of all of the above, but it’s a good reason to continue training this winter and be ready for a summer of trail running in Minnesota!

About the Author

A short-haired woman in a blue shirt smiles next to a turtle sculpture.

Katie Porath is a volunteer blog contributor. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Communications from the University of Northwestern – St. Paul. She enjoys obstacle course racing, cats, unusual events and festivals, cheese, and trail running. 

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