Group of trail runners smiling in the forest

Trail running: beginner’s guide

Is it true that trail runners have more fun? Only way to find out is to give it a try. You don’t need steep mountains or thick forests to have a good time trail running – think of it more as off-road running. Gravel paths along the river, bark mulch routes in your local park, or hiking trails near your campsite all work as trails.

Get a taste of what trail running’s about with our intro to trail video created in partnership with Canadian Running magazine and Salomon ambassador Nat Korol:

Trail running vs. road running

Compared to road running, trail running brings a whole new set of scenic benefits. If you’ve been road running for a while, trails are a way to bust out of your routine. Why try trail running? Here are some things you’ll notice along the way:

  • Since you’re running on unpaved, softer surfaces, there’s less impact on your body.
  • Hopping over rocks and stabilizing yourself on uneven terrain provides more of an overall body workout than road running.
  • Trail runners are a fun, welcoming community – it’s like discovering a whole new run crew.
  • You’ll learn skills, like map reading and route planning.
  • The views rock! Trails unlock new landscapes, forests and hashtags (#seenonmyrun, anyone?).

Tips for beginner trail runners

Do you need special shoes? How do you know where to go? What the heck is a “technical trail”? All valid questions covered in our trail running 101 tips below:

Trail running gear

Runner tying running shoes on the trail

When you’re just starting out, your regular road running shoes and breathable, moisture-wicking layers will work just fine. Once you get into muddy, wet routes or trickier terrain with roots, rocks, hills and narrow sections (a.k.a. technical trails), grippy trail running shoes are worth it. Learn more about how to choose trail runners.

A hydration running pack or vest is also handy if you’re not near water sources. Plus it gives you a place to stash your keys, phone, a spare layer, snacks and safety essentials for longer runs. For more details, learn about essential gear for trail running.

“When you’re trying on packs, take the time to secure all the straps to make sure it fits well. Then do the same before you run – there’s nothing worse than a pack that bounces around.” – Dennis B., MEC staffer

Where to go trail running

The best way to find trails near you? Follow other friendly neighbourhood trail runners. MEC stores have regular trail running crews that head out as a group. There are also trail running clinics that cover tons of useful tips in addition to hitting the local trails.

“Run clinics are the place to be for new information, success stories and inspiration. There’s a lot to learn and it’s a great way to up your game and reach new heights.” – Giuseppe G., MEC Barrie staffer

MEC run clinic

If you can’t join a run crew, then grab a run buddy and research the trails near you. Start with beginner-friendly trails that aren’t far from people or urban areas, like a local park. Plan out your route in advance and tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back. If you’re heading into the backcountry, then carry the 10 essentials.

Local trail running races are a fun way to find inspiration and learn new trail zones. Check out the route descriptions, maps and elevation profile to get a sense of how challenging the route is, or sign up for a race. Learn tips for your first trail race.

Trail running pace

Forget everything you know about pace calculators and negative splits. Instead, listen to your body, not your watch, and speed up or slow down as it feels right. Uphills, downhills and ever-changing surfaces mean your 5K trail pace will be different than your 5K road pace… and it’ll even vary from trail to trail. Runs can totally fly by since you’re not zoned in on your watch. Since running trails can take longer that roads, budget extra time so sunset doesn’t catch you by surprise.

Learn trail running technique tips and how to plan for a long trail run.

“A trail doesn’t have to be steep, rocky or riddled with roots to be called a “trail.” Simply finding a non-paved surface, like a packed dirt road or wood-chip-covered path, allows you to enjoy nature.” – Wendy M., MEC staffer