Five Things Every Road Runner Should Know Before Switching to Trails

If road running is a sophisticated urbanite, trail running is its scruffy lumberjack cousin—laidback and a little rougher around the edges. The beauty of either sport is that you don’t need to be a superhuman athlete or gearhead to partake.

If you identify as a runner but have never ventured out on the trails before, read on for five key things to know about trail running.

1. It’s OK to walk.

Ever wonder how people run up a mountain? Welcome to every trail runner’s dirty little secret: often, they don’t. When climbing steep trails, it can actually be more efficient to hike briskly than to run. Practice “hiking with purpose” on steep uphills. Run the downhills and flatter, rolling sections.

2. Burritos and PB&J sandwiches are all perfectly acceptable forms of race fuel.

Forget energy gels. Trail runners like real food. Because trail running is generally done at a slower pace—and often for longer durations—than road running, trail races are sometimes jokingly referred to as “glorified eating and drinking contests.” Trail snacks with some protein and fat are ideal for longer, slower efforts. Try tortilla wraps with the following combinations: turkey and hummus, banana and peanut butter, black beans and guacamole.

trail shoes

3. Train by perceived effort, not pace.

If you try to sustain your regular mile pace on your first off-road run, be prepared to keel over in an exhausted heap on the side of the trail, most likely still within sight of the trailhead. In other words: beware that your pace will be significantly slower on most trails. Trail pace varies based on whether you’re going uphill or downhill, and how smooth or rocky the terrain is. Rather than stress about running a consistent pace like you may do on the roads, ditch the GPS watch and practice training “by feel,” or perceived effort.

trail shoes

4. You don’t need a bunch of new gear to get started.

Don’t be intimidated by the funny-looking hydration packs or knee-high compression socks. There will be plenty of opportunities to geek out on technical running gear in the future. All you really need to get started is a pair of good running shoes. Though it’s wise to eventually invest in trail-running shoes with grippy tread to better handle mud and rocky terrain, regular old road-running shoes make a fine starter pair.

5. Your body will thank you.

If you’ve ever hobbled away from a road race feeling like your knees just got put through a meat grinder, trail running could be your new best friend. Dirt trails are far more forgiving on a body’s joints than concrete or asphalt. That’s part of why some trail runners can eventually work their way up to running ultramarathon distances like 50K, 50 miles or even 100 miles, without incurring injury. It’s also why you’ll see men and women cruising hard at trail races well into their sixties, seventies and eighties. Trail running’s low-impact nature makes it conducive to lifelong participation.