Swap boring bitumen for sexy singletrack. Founding Editor of Trail Run Mag, Chris Ord shows you how to take your running off-road the right way — here’s your ultimate beginner’s guide to trail running.
School Of Singletrack
You always remember your first. For me, it burst every preconceived notion I had of what was, back then, a fringe pursuit. It was harder, the terrain tougher. I should have trained more. It took longer than it should have and it hurt way more.
But then my first trail event was also much more fun, way more fulfilling and ultimately more addictive than I could ever have imagined it to be. So much so that I went on to make a career in trail running – not as an athlete mind you (I wish), rather I launched a trail magazine, established a series of trail running events and began hosting guided trail run tours across the planet. And when I do get downtime, I just run more trails; a healthy obsession all sparked by one little jog through the bush.
Yet, like any solid singletrack, the journey to becoming an experienced trail runner was often challenging. Injury. Pain. Exhaustion. Undertraining. Incorrect training. No training. The latter three were significant traps for me as a newbie.
So how can a beginner get on trail and make the physical going as smooth as possible to enjoy the rough going underfoot a whole lot more? Let’s break it down.
Pick A Trail Target
Motivation is key. Pick a target trail, distance or event that suits where you’re at fitness and experience-wise. If you’re a regular road marathoner, you might take your first step off-road at the half marathon distance before tackling the Full Marathon Monty. These distances off-road are a significantly different challenge to any on road version. Or if you’re not only new to trail running but new to running altogether (more common than you’d think) start out at the 5-10km distances.
Pick a route that specifically appeals to your adventure style — if you like forests choose a trail that runs through a few. If you like the thrill of mountain ridgeline views, scour the map for a trail or event that makes best use of those. If you’re nervous about running deep in the wilderness, there are trail events based in and around most big cities and regional centres and enrolling in an entire trail running series will also help you maintain your focus over time.
Too Much, Too Early
Ease your way into it. It’s very easy to get swept up in all the exuberance of the trail community it’s common for newbies to punch out their first 10km event only to eagerly start eyeing off ultras (distances in excess of a marathon) the following week.
Hold up. You’ve plenty of time to enjoy running trails — there are still 70-plus year olds knocking off 100-mile events — so take a step-by-step approach to your targets and your training.
Rather than up distances too quickly, try upping the inherent challenge by choosing same-distance runs over more and more technical terrain. Once comfortably conditioned to a ‘hard’ 10-15km route, then increase your distance gently over the course of a year or two. Those who ramp up distances too quickly risk debilitating (and common) injuries like ITB-syndrome, which can quickly curtail your momentum.
Ignore Time-Distance Correlations
If you’re coming from a road running background your lingua franca will be time, as in, “My marathon time is 3 hours and 45 minutes”. On road, different events of the same distance generally can be compared. On trail, no two courses, regardless of being the same distance, can be compared, because the terrain and mix of technicality and ascent profile will always be different. And forget comparing road distance times to those on trail. A 3½ hour road marathon can still correlate to you taking 5½ hours on a beefy trail marathon course!
Get The Gear?
Not necessarily. If you are starting out, you just need a sturdy pair of shoes (yes, road shoes will suffice in a pinch), especially for shorter distances. Sure, a trail-specific pair of shoes with better grip will definitely help, so they should be your first bit of kit. But hold off on all the fancy compression wear and hydro-packs until you have a few trails under your belt.
Once you start upping distances, a hydration pack is recommended as you’ll be out in the middle of nowhere and even events will have fewer aid stations than road events (if they have any at all).
Your Feet Get Wet
Forget Gore-Tex. Don’t try to hopscotch stones across the creek. Stomp right in and don’t complain. (Gore-Tex serves its purpose in a trail running shoe more for warmth — so when running in freezing temperatures and in snow!).
Walking Is Part of Trail Running
Yes, even the elites do it. There comes a time where the incline is steep enough that you actually go slower (and waste more energy) trying to run it. Power walk it instead. It’s more economical, just as fast and it exasperates those trying to run it huff ’n puff style while you walk the same speed right on their heels.
Carry a Snake Bandage
In Australia (but not New Zealand), snakes are everywhere. Hone your ‘radar’ and scan the trail when in season. Read up on what to do if bitten. And don’t sweat it too much — they are more frightened of you clomping through the bush.
So you have a target or three, you know not to be a bull at a trail gate, you’ve forgotten time expectations based on your flier at the local park run, you’ve packed a snake bandage and have a pair of old shoes you’re happy to get dirty and wet.
Trail Running Training Tips
Build up your weekly training distance gradually
Most running injuries are overuse injuries which come from pushing your body too hard, too fast. As a general rule, increase total distance over an entire week of training by about 10%. So if you run a total of 50km one week, the following week should only be 55km in total.
Strength and conditioning training is just as important as pure mileage
Running is basically hopping from one leg to the other and balancing each time you land, so your leg and core strength need to be good. Do some squats and lunges (quads and glutes) plus calf raises as minimum. Throw in some sit-ups, plus the dreaded burpees.
Train for the type of trails you are aiming to run. Most trails — indeed the most fun trails — feature technical terrain: rocks, roots, potholes, uneven ground, tree branches to duck and never-ending ascents and descents. If the trail has a lot of steep inclines, you’ll need to train on some hills, or at least some steps (noting that the action of going up steps versus a hill incline is actually different).
Also, if you’re used to running on generally flat roads it might take a while to adapt to the constant rollercoastering of a trail. You’ll feel out of breath with a high heart rate and struggle to find a happy rhythm. This is just down to practice and adapting your aerobic and muscular fitness to embrace a state of constant flux.
Technical Skills of Ascending and Descending
These are important for improving overall speed but also for safety and preventing injury. Find those hills (again) — however short — and run up and down them. Descending is about quad strength, balance and confidence — which is all about repetition.
You’re also looking to develop better proprioceptive ability and equilibrium by doing exercises that develop peripheral coordination. If the trails are going to be technical underfoot, train on rough ground with lots of underfoot obstacles (rocks, roots etc.) so your foot/eye coordination improves.
Climbing is about holding off the lactic burn using a powerwalk technique that can involve pressing hands on knees. Other times (pending steepness) trail running is about eyes and head up, chest out and forward and, importantly, remembering to breathe deeply.
Train As You Race
Depending on distance and remoteness, trail running will at some stage mean wearing a hydropack and, for longer runs, having to refuel with some form of nutrition, like energy bars, gels or general snacks.
The golden rule is always train with what you’ll rely on for event day. It’s best to sort out any technical issues or sore rub zones before you line up to race and train with the electrolytes and nutrition you will use on race day, to avoid potential stomach upsets.
Get With The Program
It is impossible to suggest a blanket training program that suits everybody. You’ll need to work out your schedule based on your current level of fitness, experience, strengths and weaknesses, natural capacities and individual trail running goals. There are plenty of online and personal coaching options, but as a general guidance:
- Work your way towards 4-6 training sessions a week. A minimum would be three runs a week plus 1-2 strength sessions (which can be short, taking only 20 minutes if well-designed).
- Keep most runs 10-15km, with at least one long run of 20km+ (for those running half marathons to marathons). Again, recommended distances are very specific to where you are at and where you want to get to with your trail fitness.
- When conditioned, try incorporating back-to-back mid-long runs to get used to running on tired legs (good for longer runs and multidays)
- Speed or Fartlek sessions that work on shorter, more intense running periods can be helpful even for longer run targets.
- Mix it up — build in the odd parkrun to your training and vary the trails you train on.
- Use the community network — make run dates with mates or join one of the many trail running social groups. If trail running doubles as your social life, you’ll get a whole lot more from it than just being able to run fast and far through the bush!
- Get inspired and research — with the explosion of trail running has come a growth in available technical information and inspiration for you to gorge on.
All photos by Chris Ord