Trail Running Basics


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Bored with running the same old roads? Trail running opens up a whole new world for you beyond paved surfaces. As with road running, it’s a healthy, simple activity with few gear requirements.

In this article, we tap the REI Outdoor School experts for trail-specific tips and techniques that will help you get started the right way.

Start with Your Shoes

Shoes are the main gear consideration for trail runners. Trail-running shoes are generally beefier than road-running shoes and emphasize foot protection, support and cushioning. For a good analogy, think of the difference between a mountain bike and a road bike.

A road running shoe (top) has a less aggressive sole than does a trail running shoe (bottom) with its terrain-grabbing lugs.

You can also choose from a newer breed of stripped-down minimalist shoes that aim to promote a more natural running stride. It is important to ease into running with this type of shoe, since your muscles have likely been conditioned over time by the higher heel lift found in your old shoes.

Both traditional and minimalist styles are designed to offer better traction than road-running shoes. For more information, see the REI Expert Advice article, Trail Running Shoes: How to Choose.

To shop, see REI’s selection of trail-running shoes for men or women.

Other Gear Considerations

Water is a must for all but the shortest runs. Your water-carrying options include hydration packs, hydration vests, handheld water bottles or waistpacks with water bottles. If choosing a hydration pack, look for a narrow style that allows you to swing your arms freely.

Sun protection can include a combination of sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher is recommended), lip balm, hat and sun-protective clothing. Keep in mind that fair-skinned folks can get skin damage in as little as 15 minutes of mid-day sun.

Your running wear should be made of moisture-wicking synthetics rather than cotton, which absorbs moisture. Socks, too, should be merino wool or synthetic. For cool or wet weather, a lightweight rain shell is advisable.

If you’re running trails in an unfamiliar area, don’t forget navigational tools such as a map and compass or, additionally, a GPS receiver.

For longer runs, bring energy food such as bars, gels or chews.

Prefer rugged trails? A simple first-aid kit can be invaluable if you have a fall.

Like to run at night? A headlamp and reflective trim on your running wear are musts.

Optionally, a heart rate monitor (many with built-in GPS) can help maximize the effectiveness of your workout.

Trail Running Technique

The uneven terrain of trails presents you with different challenges than paved surfaces. Common obstacles include rocks, logs, roots and rock gardens.

Tip: Expect trail running to take longer than road running does for a similar distance.

Basic Technique

  • Use a short stride, especially as compared to road running. Keep your feet underneath you at all times to maintain your balance on variable terrain. Don’t overstride.
  • Try to run on the balls of your feet rather than heel striking; minimalist shoes help promote this stride.
  • Keep your eyes down and scan the trail 10 to 15 feet in front of you for obstacles. Try not to stare at your feet.
  • Swing your arms. This helps you to relax your core and keep your balance.
  • Lots of obstacles ahead? Be like a goat and pick the most sure-footed route.


  • When terrain steepens, further shorten your stride. Maintain your cadence by taking small, frequent steps.
  • Keep your back straight. On uphills, avoid the temptation to lean forward as this can reduce your ability to breathe effectively. On downills, avoid leaning back as this can strain your body and lead to injury.
  • Super steep? There’s no shame in walking. Bonus: You minimize erosion by not bombing down steep trails.

Natural Hazards

Trails put you closer to wildlife than roads do. Be aware of your surroundings. If you encounter a snake—venomous or not—give it a wide berth or wait for it to leave your path. Do not jump over a snake or harass it.

Contributors to this article: Michael Oliva, REI Arcadia (Calif.) footwear specialist; Ed Korb, REI Outdoor School instructor

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