Trail Running: 11 Dirty Little Secrets to Help You Churn Dirt

Thinking about swapping all those road miles for trail running?

If you're new to running, used to pounding the pavement, or just ready to step into the secret society of trail running, you're in the right place.

Our WeeViews members have collectively ran millions of miles, and our Rising Stars (like WeeViews Ambassador Brynn Cunningham) have logged more miles than most.

Ready for some trail running? 

Use these 11 dirty little secrets to churn dirt, run more miles, and enjoy the adventure. 

Ready for some trail running? Check out these 11 tips to get started.

What is trail running?

Trail running can be defined as running off-road on an unpaved surface.

When we think of trail running, we might think of a forested path through tall trees.

Yes, trail running is definitely that, and more. 

It can can take place on a variety of terrain and geographical landscapes, such as:

  • Over fells
  • Up mountains and REALLY BIG mountains (also known as mountain running) that are nothing but rock
  • Across tundras
  • Upon coastal trails
  • Amongst the foothills 
  • Through desert paths 
  • Atop balds 

Let's take a closer look at the dirty little secrets of trail running to help you get started.

Trail running consists of many types of terrain. Maine’s Cadillac Mountain North Ridge to South Ridge Trail, Acadia National Park, is mainly made up of pink granite rock as shown. Trail markers consist of blazes on the rock and stacked rocks known as cairns. (Photo/ author)

1. Terrain

As you can see, terrain lies within the very definition of trail running and is what sets it apart from road running.

We could think of it this way: trail running and road running differ in the same way that hiking and walking differ: 

  • Trail running and hiking take place on unpaved paths, as described above
  • While road running and walking take place on pavement, such as sidewalks and roads, for the most part

What about the in-between terrain?

So far, we’ve covered what defines trail running.

But what about… 

  • Rail trails that follow old railroad lines, such as the one in my hometown, the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a “150-mile non-motorized path” with a “nearly level, crushed limestone surface” 
  • Dirt and gravel roads
  • And even beaches?

I suppose those simply lie within the category of running. Even though the surfaces are “non-paved,” they just aren’t quite what makes trail running, trail running.

2. Elevation

Elevation refers to the amount of uphill running, or climbing, and downhill running, or descending, that makes up a route or course. 

The number of feet or meters climbed is often called:

  • Elevation gain
  • Vertical gain
  • Or “vert” for short

The number of feet or meters of descent is often called:

  • Elevation loss
  • Vertical loss

An elevation profile or chart shows the ups and downs of a route. In trail running, the elevation profile is nearly as important as the number of miles a course is. 

“What’s the elevation?” 

  • ...is almost always the first question after telling a fellow trail runner about an upcoming race or a route recently run. 

3. Pace

When running trails, the pace is slower and less consistent than running on roads because of four factors (two that have already been explained):

  • Terrain (characteristics of the surface upon which one is running)
  • Elevation gain and loss 
  • Conditions (weather, surface changes, i.e., muddy, icy, snow-packed, etc.)
  • Trail markings and maintenance (how well is a path blazed, how many trees are down, whether poison ivy or overgrowth is obscuring the path, etc.) 

Trail running pace is almost entirely at the mercy of these external elements. 

To illustrate more clearly, let’s look at two trails I’ve run that are similar in distance.

Runner Brynn Cunningham on the Big Savage Mountain Trail.

Big Savage Mountain Trail (MD)

  • 17 miles point-to-point
  • Steepest climb in the first mile
  • 3,192 feet of elevation gain
  • 1,555 feet of elevation loss
  • 204 downed trees (that’s 12 trees per mile) 
  • Snow covering the last 15 miles of the 17-mile route the day I ran it 
  • 21 degrees at the start 
  • Blazes faded, barely-to-not-at-all-visible and covered in snow
  • Path barely distinguishable between the felled trees, snow and missing or faded blazing, forcing me to read maps and navigate with the compass on my watch
  • Time it took to complete the first ever female, solo, unsupported Fastest Known Time: 4:10:55 (15:14 per mile pace). When I’ve shared these stats with non-trail runners, I’ve gotten the following responses:
    • Blank face (as if they can’t fathom how running that slow can be considered a “fastest” anything)
    • People reaching out saying they want to run an FKT, because heck, if going that slow gets the job done, it’s gotta be easy, right?
    • My silent reply: I laugh and think, “trail running and road running at times feels like two completely separate sports, and running the Big Savage is a startling reminder of that.” 
Runner Brynn Cunningham chasing an FKT on the Que Trail.

Quemahoning Reservoir Loop (PA), aka the Que Trail

  • Approximately a 15-16 mile loop
  • No major climbs
  • About 1,383 feet of elevation gain (I’ve gotten up to 1,800 on my watch before)
  • Similar elevation loss
  • Zero downed trees
  • Dry, clear trails with one or two rocky sections
  • Low 70s and humid 
  • Maintained by mountain bikers
  • Excellent signs and blazing
  • Time it took to cinch the female, solo, unsupported Fastest Known Time: 2:25:45 (9:53 per mile average pace). When I share these stats with people, it is a much different reaction than with the Big Savage. 

It took me nearly five more minutes per mile to run the Big Savage than it did to run the Que Trail because of the tremendous difference in the terrain, conditions and trail markings and maintenance. 

Clearly, pace is nearly always determined by external influences. 

Of course, it goes without saying that internal factors such as fitness, genetics and running experience, comfort with the outdoors, mindset and more affect individual pace, but external factors hold an undeniable influence. 

4. Visualize

 Go ahead and imagine yourself running:

  • Five miles on a wide, smooth, fairly straight coastal path with 100 feet of elevation gain 

versus...

  • Five miles on a narrow, off-canter, rocky, technical, wet, exposed ridgeline trail with 1,000 feet of gain

Obviously, your pace for the coastal run might look more like your road paces, while your pace for the latter might be twice as slow.

As one final example, let’s look at a race, one that exemplifies this point perfectly: the Mount Marathon 5k in Seward, Alaska.

External factors such as elevation gain and loss greatly affect trail running pace. Take, for example, the elevation of the Mount Marathon 5k in Seward, AL. Runners race up 2,675 feet in 0.9 miles and then back down. (image from www.mountmarathon.com)

 The Mount Marathon 5k course records:

  • Men: David Norris, 41:26
  • Women: Allie McLaughlin, 47:09

Meanwhile, the non-trail 5k world records:

  • Men: Joshua Cheptegei, 12:35.36
  • Women: Letesenbet Gidey, 14:06.62 

To sum up, when trail running, expect the unexpected, plan to be out there longer, ditch the desire for negative splits and go with the flow and feel of your body as it moves across the earth, obstacles and all. 

5. Gear

 Patagonia says it best in its fall 2022 trail running promotions: 

“You don’t need much to accomplish quite a lot.”

Many of us started trail running in road shoes and cotton shirts, perhaps with a plastic water bottle in hand.. 

The more we run trails, though, the more we find that the right gear can take us farther and longer.

The most important piece of gear for trail running are the shoes. 

Your best bet is to visit a local running store to try before you buy and talk shoes with the knowledgeable reps.

Yet, many of us live hours from the nearest running store, and even farther from those that carry a large selection of trail running shoes. 

To get started, check out these guides from leading trail shoe experts:

Outerwear to protect against the elements, such as:

And that brings us to the next item in our list…

6. Fuel

Running rails requires more output, so it’s a good idea to carry fuel.

As an example, check out the differences in how I’ve fueled in a road marathon versus a trail marathon:

2016 Pittsburgh Marathon:

  • Orange segments handed to me by spectators
  • Skratch hydration dissolved in water
  • Plain water

2018 Vermont Infinitus Trail Marathon:

  • Fresh apricots
  • Coconut water
  • Beet juice
  • Skratch hydration dissolved in water
  • Half of a dark chocolate bar
  • Dates
  • About 10 raw almonds
  • Vegan coconut macaroons 

Simply put, running trails makes me want real food, while running roads does not have the same effect, even on a supposedly “hilly” road marathon, as Pittsburgh is often described. 

7. Benefits of trail running

  • Varied terrain ensures that we move our bodies in a less repetitive motion, thus reducing the chance of repetitive stress injuries.  
  • Softer surfaces are easier on the feet and joints - is this scientifically proven? Probably, but I’m going by feel here. The trail surfaces simply feel better.
  • Develops stabilizing muscles by using balance and small muscles to maneuver oneself over rocks and roots.
  • Utilizes more of the total body by incorporating the core for balance and side-to-side movements which are often employed on the trail to make it through technical sections. 
  • Incorporates hills and downhills by default, two types of running we should all practice in order to balance the muscles of the front and back sides of the body.
  • Prevents burnout by getting runners to seek out new trails and areas to explore.
  • Exercise + time in nature = the ultimate runner’s high. In other words, trail running produces those happy, feel-good hormones.
  • Again, gives the mind a mental break from the monotony of running the same things all the time. 

8. How to start trail running

It seems simple enough, right? Just go to the woods and run.

Yet, these tips can make for a smooth transition to the trails. 

  • Take shorter strides. Small steps aid in balance and prevent falling or tripping.
  • Use your arms for balance. The elbows might not stay so close to your torso, and that’s OK. Take the arms wider as you travel over the most technical terrain. Sometimes I grab onto trees or rocks to help myself up or down steep, gnarly sections of trail. 
  • Employ the run/hike method. It’s OK to walk, or “power hike,” up the hills. It’s also OK to take it slow and steady on the downhills. Listen to your body.
  • Account for possible obstacles. Sometimes trail runners must climb over or under fallen trees, squelch through mud, wade across creeks, figure out how to get past rattlesnakes, and more. Expect the unexpected!
  • Choose a route that’s easy to follow
  • Take a map 
  • Go with a friend 
Trail running with a group is a good way to get into the sport. Upper Baughman Trail, Ohiopyle, Pa. (Photo/ member of the Trail Run Tribe)

9. Trail running groups

Adventuring into the wild with a group can be a rewarding, fun-filled experience, especially if you’re new on the trail running scene.

Recruit your friends to try trail running with you, or, if you’re more experienced and can offer to show others the ropes of trail running, start your own group, like I did, with the Trail Run Tribe.
 

Find a trail running group near you:

10. Racing

What comes to mind when you think about trail racing? 

I’ll share some of mine:

  • Travel
  • Destination races
  • Seeing new trails and new sights near the race location 
  • Exploring 
  • A grassroots feel
  • A small-crowd vibe (usually trail races have a cap on how many runners can participate based on restrictions from local governing bodies such as state parks, forest service, etc.) 

UltraSignup is perhaps the most popular trail racing registration website across the globe.

The site does more than provide a list of trail races. It also:

  • Ranks runners based on previous race times
  • Sends out an e-newsletter 
  • Provides stories on the latest running news on their website 
  • Stays active on social media
  • Is a community for all things trail running 

11. Trail running retreats

Retreats have become popular in the past few years and are a perfect way to fully immerse yourself in the sport while taking time away from regular life. 

Let's go trail running!

Trail running can be a wondrous, joyful, playful sport. 

It can build and shape your character, making you a more adaptable, resilient, environmentally aware, safety-conscious runner and human. 

Whether your life revolves around trail running or you simply want to add it into your training schedule once or twice a month, trail running can enrich your running practice and keep you running happy and strong for miles and years to come. 

What’s more, you don’t have to run ultras to run trails - even small doses of trail running does the body, mind and spirit good. 

So get out there and allow the trails to inspire you. 

Happy trail running!

Rate This:


Share This:

Subscribe

and never miss our new running content!
(you also score chances to win gear)
500
Brynn Cunningham
Ambassador

Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, backcountry skier, yogi, mom and writer. www.inhaleexhalerun.com

Comments

Login to your account to leave a comment.

Related Articles

Trending WeeViews

User uploaded image of Baleaf Laureate UPF50+ DWR Hiking Pants
Full Review
User uploaded image of Hybrid Gloves
Full Review
User uploaded image of Alhambra Pumpkin Run 5k
User uploaded image of The Rescue Mission of Roanoke Drumstick Dash
User uploaded image of Speedgoat 5
Full Review

Join the Community

It’s FAST and FREE. Create a short profile and link any desired social media accounts, personal websites or blogs.

Search