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20 trail running tips for beginners from a running coach

KMD HK JAA1550 RT

When he's not on the trail himself, Majell Backhausen spends his days coaching athletes towards success in endurance trail running. Here are his top 20 tips to help you get the most out of trail running.


1. No single trail or trail race is the same.

Every trail has its own unique conditions, terrain and challenges. So embrace the individual traits of each trail and realise each different aspect can challenge you and help you improve every time you run through it.

Just like each trail is different, so are trail races, not even the same event year to year is the same! With so many variables on trails, its a great way to just run free of any expectation that can come with controlled running environments.

2. Your ego has no place on the trails, please leave it at home.

Trail running is a sport of many changing variables. It can be frustrating at times when you run slower due to the conditions. However the only way to overcome this is to relax and let your ego and expectations go. Certain training sessions may call for slightly higher expectations, but for the majority of your training runs on the trails, its best to slow your pace and focus on finding a new rhythm.

Enjoy that moment you are in and the environment, develop a sense of being one with the terrain, not one with your watch.

3. Keep safe.

Trail running can take you to places with amazing views, but also where help in an emergency isn’t in close proximity. To minimise any instances of danger, run with a group or a friend, borrow a trail running dog, tell someone where you are going and which trail, and take a phone and ID with you.

You can also leave a note with your planned route. If you intend on going for a long run make sure you carry extra calories/fuel and water. Make sure you are aware of the route and have a map. Most of the time you wont need any of the above, but when you need it you really need it.

4. Respect other trail users and the trail.

Its simple; say ‘hello’ and be friendly. Share the trail and give way to other trail users (equestrian, hikers, mountain bikers). If you're running uphill on a narrow track, it’s best yielding to downhill runners. Stay on marked trails and run through puddles, not around them (making the trail wider). Leave no trace, and don't litter.

5. Keep your eyes on the trail.

Most injuries in trail running come from a moment of lost attention. Always be aware of the terrain as it can change quickly. If you want to take in the views, it's OK to stop or walk and take it all in. Make it a habit to look four to five steps in from of you — this will allow you to have a better opportunity to pick the best ‘line’ and section of trail to run. In time you will build confidence and an ability to traverse more technical trail with ease and enjoyment.

6. Slow down and feel your run.

Running on the trails can be a lot more demanding than the roads, especially if it's a particularly technical trail with roots, rocks, snakes and other obstacles. This can lead to a slower pace than what you may be used to when road running.

If this is the case, learn to run by your perceived effort level. If you can not speak a clear sentence while running you are working at a high tempo effort. Most of your runs should be done in an easy state, which should allow you to have a clear conversation with your friends. This may mean hiking uphill, which is totally acceptable.

7. Focus on time over distance.

It’s important to understand that 10km on the trails can be significantly longer to cover then 10km on the roads. With this in mind, adjust your training to hit certain time goals as opposed to distance. To help understand what a 40 minute easy running on the trails will translate to in terms of distance, run an out-and-back section of trail.This is a great way to get to know your trail pace at an easy effort.

8. Change gears to work with the terrain.

Be comfortable with adjusting your pace according to the terrain, and maintain a consistent effort level as you climb uphill. When in doubt, hike. Don’t put any pressure on yourself. Just try to maintain a consistent effort level and feeling throughout the entire run. Tackling common obstacles on the trail will get easier as your body and mind gets stronger and more conditioned to trail running.

9. Trail shoes.

If trail running is going to become a part of your lifestyle and routine, consider investing in a pair of trail running shoes. They differ significantly from road-running shoes with more protection against rocks and roots, in the form of a Pro-film (rock plate), a more aggressive tread offering better traction, and a more robust upper material to protect against the elements. Having trail running specific shoes will also provide more confidence on the trails.

> Find out how to choose trail running shoes

10. Take care of your trail running shoes.

Take the time to look after your shoes and they will stay around longer. Remove the insoles to allow for a more effective drying, wash off the mud and remove all the stones and debris you may have collected. Be careful not to put them too close to the heater as they can get easily damaged through the exposure to high heat. Hot tip: stuff with newspaper or paper towels to dry overnight.

11. Protection from nature.

Trail running exposes you to the elements, which is a great thing. Just be cautious of a few natural dangers that may come with the natural beauty. Get the basics right, wear sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses. These can not only protect you from the sun, but also tree branches, bushes and it will keep the rain out of your eyes too. Shoe gaiters are also a great idea if there is a lot debris and small stones on the trail.

12. Carry additional water even if you don't need it.

Bringing fluids with you on a trail run is a very smart idea. Anything can happen on the trails and some days might take longer than others due to mud, water crossings, hail or even snow. There are a few convenient ways to carry fluids on the run such as; handheld bottle, waist belt with a soft flask, or a running vest pack.

13. Consider using poles.

For steep, hilly, or mountainous trails, consider using trekking poles to help you navigate the terrain with more efficiency. Poles can aid balance, reduce the impact on your legs and boost your strength on the uphills. It may seem awkward or uncomfortable at first but with practice they can be extremely comfortable and helpful.

14. Work with the hills.

When you come up against steep uphill terrain, you need to adjust your movement. Adopt short, quick steps and use your arms or poles. Some hills can be walked and many trail and ultra runners walk the hills and run the downs and flats — it’s a common trail thing, and it’s okay to walk!

Over time, build your confidence and ability, On the downhills, lean into the downhill, keep a consistent stride and cadence, and let the gravity pull you down. Lead with your mid and forefoot, use your arms to balance, remain relaxed, and breathe.

15.Use your arms!

Allow your arms to be relaxed and free to move. Your arms counter balance your legs — so if you are moving wildly below to jump logs and hop over rocks — your arms will likely be moving in a wild fashion too.

16. Work on your technical trail skills.

Repeated, purposeful practice will increase your skill in any discipline. Running interval repeats will improve your fitness and speed, just like running repeats on technical trails will help your confidence, ability and create new neuro-pathways. Find a technical section of trail and run it over and over; remain relaxed, focused on form and choose the safe line of less resistance to keep momentum.

17. Work on your strength and balance.

Include a simple 20–30 minute strength and balancing routine in your weekly training. Perform exercises with perfect form and technique. Exercises could include: lunges on a pad or stability disk, single leg squats, bridge, push-ups, dead lifts, calf raises, and using a wobble board to develop foot and ankle strength and stability. If you miss a session, try balancing on one foot whilst brushing your teeth and closing your eyes.

18. Patience and recovery.

Trail running can provide some good times and tempt you into wanting more then is sensible. Be smart about your foray into trail running and always allow for adequate recovery between sessions. The different movements and muscle recruitment in trail running, can tax your body more then you realise. This calls for extra attention during your recovery. You will also have to allow you muscular skeletal system to adapt to the different movements and forces of trail running.

19. If you plan on running a trail race, plan backwards from the date of the event.

Allow enough time to train your fitness and your skills and then allocate time to a taper period before your event. This will prepare you for the challenge mentally and physically. Start easy and take time to build up your trail running confidence and ability. Try to mimic the conditions and terrain of your event in your training.

20. Find new places and people to run with.

There are a variety of ways to find new trails and people to run with. Connect with local running stores, running clubs, events or use a service like Suunto Heat Maps to help find new places to explore. Be sure to take caution to the trails and ask about the specific nature of the trail, including wild animals, hazards, bathrooms, snakes, spiders, and anything you may need to know when running in a new area.


Majell is an Endurance Coach and Elite Athlete for Salomon, Suunto and Compressport, and an an advocate for simplicity, patience and longevity in the sport of trail running and outdoor pursuits.


NZ