How to Up Your Trail Running Game

Trail running offers a unique blend of mental and physical training. These expert tips can help you stay injury-free and enjoy fitness gains.

Runner on trail in woods

Trail running is not just running off-road. By stepping out of your local concrete jungle and onto the varied terrain of the great outdoors, you can strengthen your body and your mind. Aficionados love the challenge of tackling dirt, rocks, roots, mud, sand, and more — all of which guarantee that they rarely have the same experience twice.

“A run on trails can take you up and down mountainsides, with rocky, rooted, sometimes muddy footing, or across desert or coastal landscapes, escaping the sights and sounds of urban life,” says longtime ultrarunner Sarah Lavender Smith, author of The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras.

While providing a new perspective on nature, trail running also offers tremendous physical and mental benefits. “It’s easier on the body than road running, and you have a lower chance of most injuries because every footfall is different, depending on the terrain,” says Life Time trail-running coach Ryan Krol, who competes in Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100 Run event. “It’s also a great way to get out in nature and connect with a welcoming community,” he notes.

The range of terrain provides a full-body workout while benefiting our brains, which adapt to new experiences, adds Terry Chiplin, event director for the U.S. Trail Running Conference. Plus, it’s a natural meditation.

“Running on the trails is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the importance of being in the present. You have to be in the moment — focused — while also aware and connected with what is going on around you.”

More than 10 million Americans run off-road, nearly double the number from just five years ago. But the sport’s growing popularity belies the reality check that many — especially seasoned road-, track-, and treadmill-runners — face when they first take up trail running.

Since the pace for tackling hilly and technical terrain is generally slower than that for cruising along concrete, Smith suggests taking a step back from time expectations: A 9-minute miler on a paved road could easily turn into a 15-minute miler on the trail.

And be prepared for “downshifting” into power-hiking mode. “It’s OK to be slow,” she says.

It’s also important to budget more time and patience — and carry more hydration and nutrition, too, to handle the extra time on the trail.

Developing greater physical resilience and fitness will make the tradeoff of slowing down worth it in the long run.

is a Colorado-based outdoors, health, fitness, and nutrition writer.

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