How To Start Trail Running: Everything You Need To Know To Run Off-Road

(Image credit: unknown)

In this Series

As much as we love road and track running, if you’re a runner who never takes to the trails, you’re missing out. The change of scenery involved in swapping Tarmac for trails is not only easy on the eyes, it boosts your mental and physical health in new and different ways from road running.

However, if you’re completely new to trail running there are some things you need to consider before you head off-road. Below you’ll find a comprehensive guide to taking your first steps on the trails, complete with expert advice from ultramarathon runner and Garmin ambassador Tom Evans.

The Benefits Of Trail Running

“For me there are three main reasons to start trail running,” says Evans. “One, the stress about pace goes. If you normally run at nine minutes per mile or whatever, on the trails that goes completely out of the window. It’s a bit harder to train on trails and a bit more unpredictable, but if it gets a bit tough you can stop and walk. It’s only going to be as hard as you make it.

“Secondly, the strength you develop is beneficial for every runner. That comes from running up hills, but also your ankle and foot strength increases from dealing with the different gradients and problems on the trail, like rocks or roots. That really makes you strong.

“Thirdly, it’s so good for your mind to get out of a busy city and away from cars beeping horns at you. Especially at that moment when you step onto the road to avoid running right past people. Out on the trails you don’t get any of that, you can completely relax.”

Trail-Running Shoes

On hard trails in the summer you might be fine in road shoes, but it’s worth picking up a pair of trail shoes, which are designed quite differently.

“One of the main differences is the outsole, the grip,” says Evans. “In the UK you probably do need specific trail-running shoes, because it’s often wet and it can be slippery in places. Trail-running shoes will afford you more grip so you’re a bit safer and you can enjoy your running more.

“Another difference is that they are a little but firmer and stiffer than a road shoe, which gives some extra protection to your feet, because you could step on sharp things like rocks.”


(Image credit: unknown)

There’s an even greater degree of choice than with road running shoes because terrain can vary so dramatically. “Not all trail shoes are built the same,” says Evans. “Some are built for speed, some for mud, some for forest trails. So doing a bit of research is important.”

Once you’ve identified the kind of trail you’re going to spend the most time on, Evans also recommends thinking about the road shoes you like using.

“There will be a similar trail shoe to your road shoe,” says Evans. “Take what you like from the current trainer you’re using, then look for that in a trail shoe, and you’ll find something to suit you.”

Trail Running Technique

“Running on the road is almost like bike riding,” says Evans. “Every step is the same and you want to be metronomic. On the trails, you need to relax. It’s important to be able to adjust your steps and not worry about things like cadence or stride length. A lot of people focus on form and think ‘my arms should be doing exactly this’ or whatever, but you’re using your arms to balance. Keep your shoulders and arms relaxed, and the rest of your body will follow.

“On downhill running, instead of lengthening your stride, shorten your stride a little bit to land on your midfoot and forefoot to give yourself some extra stability. The worst thing you can do is land on your heel. It’s a smaller surface area and you’re more likely to slip or twist your ankle, because it’s not as stable.”


(Image credit: unknown)

Running Uphill

The extra challenge will make you a stronger, better runner, but is there any way to make the big uphills easier? “Physically you have to practise,” says Evans. “The more time you spend running up hills the better you’re going to get at it.”

Keep at it and we promise the hills will start to feel easier, but there is also technology that can help you, especially for pacing your uphill efforts wisely.

"Garmin’s ClimbPro feature helps, because you know how long the climb is going to be. A lot of people go out way too hard too early, then they struggle and when they get to the top they’re so tired they don’t get to enjoy the view.”

Having some knowledge of the climb you’re on is important, because you often won’t be able to see the top of the hill from where you are. Whether you get that knowledge using tech like ClimbPro, via careful route planning or just by asking people coming downhill the other way, it will help a lot.

“Take the Tour de France riders – they know every in and out, every corner, every gradient of every climb that they’re doing that day,” says Evans. “Knowledge is everything.”


(Image credit: unknown)

Planing Trail-Running Routes

Knowing where you’re going takes on greater importance when trail running. It’s one thing to get lost in your local town or city – it’s another thing entirely for it to happen in an isolated area.

“People can get lost, I’ve done it,” says Evans. “My top tip would be to take time to plan your route before you go out. There are some great mapping tools for that. On Garmin Connect you can use routes that are popular in that area, which lets you know it’s runnable because lots of people have run there before.”

Many running watches from various brands offer breadcrumb navigation, where you get a simple line and pointer to follow once you load a route on to the watch, while some of Garmin’s flagship watches have colour maps for more detailed route guidance and the ability to create routes on the fly.

A lot of devices also offer a back-to-start feature that will point you in the direction of your starting point when you’re out on a run. Garmin calls this TracBack, and on some of its watches you can get it to create a new route for you back to your starting point, rather than just retracing your steps.

“Say you want to run for an hour. You get to half an hour and then click TracBack on the watch, which will take you back to the start the way you’ve come,” says Evans. “Or you can make the watch create a different route that will allow you to see a bit more of the area.”

Another great way to plan a route is to find a keen trail runner in the area and download their routes from a platform like Strava. If you can get hold of the .gpx file for the route, you can load this on to a compatible watch to get guidance on the run.


(Image credit: unknown)

Safety When Trail Running

“If you are going out on your own, you should tell someone you’re going, send them a route, and say what time you’re planning on starting and finishing,” says Evans. “If I’m ever on my own on the trails I’ll always take my phone and make sure it’s fully charged. Safety is important and there are far too many stories of even experienced mountain runners and other athletes going out into the mountains or hills and things going wrong. And things can happen very quickly.”

Once again technology can help you. Strava Premium users can share their live location with other people using the Beacon feature, and the same is true of Garmin devices compatible with its LiveTrack feature. The free what3words smartphone app (App Store (opens in new tab) and Google Play (opens in new tab)) is also a great way of helping people – and the emergency services – home in on your location if you’re in trouble.

Garmin’s Assistance feature also allows you to text an alert with your location to three pre-selected emergency contacts if you hold down the top left button for seven seconds until the watch buzzes three times.

Where To Go Trail Running In The UK

“We’re so lucky in the UK – the trails are so varied here,” says Evans. “I live in Loughborough where the local trails are great, and we have some big parks and forests to run, but I’m also just three hours from the Lake District. Probably my favourite run in the Lake District is the Fairfield Horseshoe (opens in new tab). I’m also just over an hour from the Peak District, and my favourite run there would be anything from Edale so you’ve got a big climb to start with. Then it’s only two, three hours to Snowdon.

“When I started trail running I started on the South Downs, and that’s a great introduction to trail running. It will always be up there as one of my favourite places to run in the UK.”

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.