Ten Tips for the Tenderfoot Trail Runner

By Rhielle Widders

Trail running is a great way to renew your passion for running. By abandoning the city streets and heading up to the trails, you leave behind the traffic, the noise, the dirty air, and the chaos of city life. You are then transported to a quite, serene, challenging, beautiful place to run and to renew your running soul.

But getting to the trail can be a daunting and intimidating thing. I am a race director for the Park City Mini Trail Series, trail runs that are designed for beginners, so I hear about how hard it is to get to the trails all the time.  You know what else I hear all the time?  Great tips and tricks for beginners.  And if you feel too nervous to go out alone on your first trail run, come join us at the races!

  1. 1. Pick a Trail that Suits your Fitness and Technical Level

The first trail run that you venture out on should be a good experience.  Choose the appropriate challenge level based on distance, elevation gain/loss, and technicality of what is in the trail.  Trail running takes more effort and time so if you run 5 miles every day, shoot for a 4 mile trail run for your first time out.  Roots, rocks, sand, step-ups, and elevation gain/loss can add to the technical challenge of a run.  Your first trail run should be easy-moderate in technicality.

  1. 2. Concentrate on Cadence

When you are going up or down a hill cadence is key.  The optimal cadence is 85-90 rpms (think of the beat to any Eminem song).  Going uphill, shorten your stride to maintain this cadence.  When you are going down hill, let gravity do all the work and just go.  Spin your legs as fast as you can without loosing control.

  1. 3. “Up and Over” Doesn’t Apply

Don’t attempt to leap over obstacles.  Instead, step up lightly onto the top of the obstacle and push off of it.  This will put you on top of the obstacle which prevents tripping and falling.

  1. 4. Don’t be Afraid to Walk to the Top

If you are too tired and out of breath to continue running to the top, then don’t do it.  Any trail runner will tell you that the longer the distance of the trail run, the fewer hills you should run to the top of.  You can conserve a lot of energy by power-hiking to the top of a hill.

  1. 5. Don’t be Afraid to Walk to the Bottom

Sometimes a trail is too steep, too technical, or too steep and technical to get to the bottom safely.  It is ok to walk to the bottom of the hill.  I got a little fracture in my cheekbone once because I fell and my face caught the first blow.  Not worth it…just slow down and enjoy the view.

  1. 6. Your Feet Go Where Your Eyes Go

If you are looking at the base of a rock, thinking about how to get over it, you will inevitably trip over the rock.  Instead, look at the top of the rock, right where you want to step to get over it, and you will have no problem getting over. You always want to be putting your eyes where you want your feet to go next.

  1. 7. Good Shoes, Good Shorts, Good Water
  • Some people think that you use your old running shoes to go trail running.  Big mistake.  When your shoes are old, the EVA (the stuff that absorbs all that impact) gets soft.  This means if you are on a sharp rock or twig, there is nothing to prevent it from coming right through the bottom. Plus, you will be more prone to stone bruises and blisters when your shoes are worn out.
  • Wear long shorts.  I am a fan of really short shorts but when I am trail running, I like to have protection against low lying branches that grow throughout the summer.  Long shorts will prevent big scratches on my legs.  Some people even wear tall socks to prevent scratches on their legs.
  • Don’t forget about water.  There is a chance that you can get lost or take a detour and you always want to have enough water with you.  Sometimes a trail has less cover or the sun is hotter than you expect.  I like to add Nuun to my water (purchase it at Salt Lake Running Co!) to give it a little extra flavor and a nice punch of electrolytes.
  1. 8. There are No Flats in Trail Running

Don’t expect to get a break.  When you are trail running, you refer to trails as more flat and less flat but you are always traveling up or down.  You have to work for it.

  1. 9. Look Up Every Once In a While!

Trail running’s greatest rewards are the vistas and wildlife that you come across.  Don’t be afraid to stop, look around, and enjoy what you are seeing.  Plus, it never hurts to take a little break!

10. There are Extras

To go for your first trail run, you don’t have to have more than good shoes, good shorts, and some water.  However, as with any sport, there are always little extras that make things a little easier.  Here is a list of a few of them.

  • Map- I don’t have a photographic memory so I like to carry a shrunk down version of a map.  Whether I photocopy the route or I write down, “First right, second left, hairpin turn, over the waterpipe, down the rock slope,” I like to be able to refer to my directions to prevent getting lost.
  • Camera- Again, no photographic memory here so I enjoy a good photo of whatever I come across.  Some of my favorite photos are me running in front of or into something beautiful.
  • Gels- You may want to take a detour or stop for a rest at a lake so take a few extra calories in case you are out there longer than you planned.  I love gummies for snacking during breaks and gels for snacking while I am running.
  • Gaitors- These nifty little shoe covers keep sand and debris from going into your shoe. They can also help with water if you are doing several stream crossings.  You know what else is great?  Wear softshell-type shoes in sandy desert runs.  These shoes are designed to keep water out during the winter but their lack of mesh is great for keeping sand out as well!
  • Bike Gloves or Hand held Water Bottles- Trail runners inevitably fall.  You are distracted mentally or physically from the task at hand and the next thing you know you are flat on your face.  Your hands should be the first thing to break your fall (it prevents raspberries and facial deformation) and using hand held water bottles or bike gloves will keep your hands protected.



Your marathons and half marathons are getting boring, your training schedule has you burned out, and you are wondering, “Has the runner’s high gotten away from me?” But then, you are in a new neighborhood and you notice that the pavement ends and at the end of the pavement begins a trail and with it brings a new running life. See you on the Trails!


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