Two trail runners on forest path

How to start trail running: tips for road runners

So you’ve been pounding the pavement for some time, and have started thinking more and more about trading traffic lights for trailheads. We say go for it! Here are some beginner-friendly tips to help you feel as comfortable running on singletrack trails as you do spotting your favourite characters on sidewalks.

Go for grip

While you can hit the trails in road runners, you’ll definitely notice a difference in trail running shoes, especially if the terrain you’re running is hilly or technical. Trail shoes have deep lugs on the soles for grip, so you’ll be less likely to bite it on mud or gravel, and you’ll feel more confident each time you plant your feet.

Be self-sufficient

When you head into the forest, you’re leaving behind the convenience of corner stores for stuff like a recovery beverage or band aid. So while running with a backpack might feel weird at first, it’s totally worth it to have a place to stash a few key items.

What to bring along? Your phone, a trail map (cell service can be spotty in some forested areas), an extra layer, a headlamp, and a water bottle or hydration bladder. Trail tip: after you fill your hydration bladder, flip it upside down and suck excess air out via the hose to prevent it from sloshing as you run.

Any runner – pavement or dirt – knows the agony of a blister, so bring a mini first aid kit too. And don’t forget extra snacks!

How to start trail running: tips for road runners

Find a trail crew…

The easiest way to get into trail running is to buddy up. Join a trail-specific running clinic, look for trail meet-ups in your area or chat with your current road running club about branching out. There are also MEC run crews across the country that head out on road and trail runs.

… and try a race

Trail races are super fun. Most are smaller than road races, which gives them a friendly, grassroots vibe. They’ll often feature awesome snacks and treats at aid stations, like gummy bears and chips, and some even have a theme (we’re talking everything from ugly sweater to zombie trail runs). They’re also an excellent way to get to know new trails or meet your local trail running community. Why not start with an MEC trail race?

How to start trail running: tips for road runners

Train your gaze

While it may seem like common sense to say “watch where you step,” it’s pretty easy to get distracted by the sights and sounds of nature (there’s no harm in slowing down to take a look). Many trail clinics recommend that you look about at least 4 feet ahead, or where you would end up in the time it takes to say “one-one-thousand.”

Walking is all good

While you may have spent time on the roads trying to cut out walk breaks or keep them minimal with something like 10-and-1s, you’ll need to think of walking differently on the trails. Walking the inevitable steep hills (up or down) isn’t lazy – it’s smart – and can save you lots of energy. Trail tip: don’t think of it as “walking uphill,” think of it as “power hiking.”

Plan ahead

Route planning is key. While 10K on the road might take you 50 minutes, it could take you twice as much time on the trail. Elevation, technical patches and a tendency to be distracted by cool birds or ripe blackberries are all important considerations when you think about how long you’ll be out.

Another thing that might slow you down? Unfamiliar trails. You’ll likely end up stopping at intersections to consult your map to make sure you don’t take a wrong turn. Give yourself extra time so you’re not chasing sunset or end up late for a post-run coffee date.

Run in the moment

Trail running has this awesome exploratory vibe to it that requires you to stay ready and alert – you’ll cross creeks, dodge roots and might meet some dogs to pet – but somehow, time seems to pass faster in the woods and you end up in that elusive flow state. It’s that something special about getting away from the city that makes the rest of the world feel like it’s falling away.

Kim Budziak

Wordsmith, avid skier and rookie road biker. Firmly believes the best days are the snowiest ones.