Trail Running 101

Trail running can offer a scenic and invigorating change to your regular routine. It can be a valuable supplement to your training, and once you get out there you might realize you prefer trails. Whether you’re thinking about trying it for the first time, or looking for additional guidance; here are some tips to get the most out of your trail running.

Trail Running Pace and Effort

Forget everything you know about your usual (road) pace when you hit the trails. Uneven terrain, roots, rocks, tight turns and other obstacles will slow you down. If that doesn’t, the steep and rolling hills probably will. That’s not to say you can’t find flat trails that aren’t very technical. Depending on the terrain your pace might vary from one trail to the next. This varying terrain can be a great boost to your training. Instead of worrying about pace, focus on maintaining a reasonable effort by listening to your body and/or monitoring your heart rate. It’s normal to experience a higher heart rate when you’re running trails. After trail running training for a bit, you’ll start to notice your fitness elevate and road runs might feel easier.

Trail Running Technique and Stride

Avoiding rocks, roots and other obstacles on more technical trails will naturally shorten your stride. If the trail is relatively smooth you might want to make a conscious effort to shorten your stride to give yourself more agility and lessen the impact. Better agility is necessary to avoid obstacles you see as you’re about to plant your foot. Lessened impact will help you avoid or at least mitigate injuries from rolling an ankle or falling. When you fall, just make sure to tuck-and-roll. I’ve survived several falls unscathed this way.

Trail Running Gear

There’s a lot of trail running gear that might be helpful at some point, but it’s not necessary for starting out. You can take just about any running shoes and gear out on the trails for a short run. Don’t postpone your trail run because you don’t think you have the right gear. Here are a few basic items that can be helpful on a trail run.

Cell phone

I’m usually an advocate for leaving the phone behind on runs, but if you’re exploring new and unfamiliar trails you might want your phone’s map/GPS in case you get lost. Sometimes I carry it in my hand, or stuff it in a pocket or pouch. There are also hydration bottles, packs and belts with pouches that a phone can fit in.

Handheld water bottle

You’ll want to carry water with you if you spend more than 60 minutes on the trails. Depending on personal preference you can either carry a handheld water bottle, a hydration pack/vest, or a belt of some kind with water bottles. I prefer a handheld water bottle, but it really depends on personal preference. When you carry it with you on your runs is also a personal preference, but I’d recommend bringing it with once you start getting into the long run category.

Trail Running Shoes

You don’t necessarily need trail shoes, on most trails you can do just fine in a pair of road shoes. However, trail running shoes are helpful on more technical trails in helping you stay on your feet when it has been raining or snowing out. Don’t think of trail shoes as a precursor for getting out on the trail. There are plenty of trail runners (even elite ultra runners) that race in the mountains wearing road shoes. You’ll be fine around the Twin Cities. Get out on the trails with the shoes you have now, and decide for yourself whether you need to invest in a pair of trail shoes and what those trail shoes need to offer.

Just Run

Most importantly, don’t overthink everything you just read. Whether you’re running on paved surfaces through the city, a gravel road in the country, or a dirt trail through the woods; it’s still running. If you can run on roads, you can run on trails. Go out and be adventurous, and let yourself learn as you go.

Running Trails in the Twin Cities

Watch for more posts that will help you discover some of the best running trails in Minnesota and Wisconsin. For now, start with one of these 6 great running trails near the Twin Cities.

Twin Cities Trail Map


Jared VanderHook

Jared is a trail runner, beer enthusiast and lover of mountains. He just started running a few years ago and seems to enjoy the pain and elation of running ultramarathons.

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