How to Prepare for Trail Running

Trail running is easier on the body but you will come across many obstacles

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Days are longer and temperatures are higher – the perfect excuse to change your running environment. Many people opt for trails because of the scenic and stimulating views. That’s not all; they swap out the hard asphalt for softer ground as soon as possible because it’s easier on their legs and knees.

Trail running can be fantastic for your body as trails are three dimensional versus road running, which is two dimensional and repetitive,” Running and Fitness Coach Matt Wilpers says. “Roads are also hard surfaces that force your body to absorb more of the shock of each foot landing vs. softer surfaces which do more to aid in the absorption of shock,” he adds. “By reducing the amount of shock your joints, muscles, bones, etc. have to absorb, softer surfaces can help you run with less fatigue and with less injury.”

But there are some obstacles. Fallen trees, rocks and mounds of dirt are to be expected. Runner should prepare for them in order to avoid easily preventable injuries.

Like any added training load, Wilpers says, runners should take a gradual approach to trail running so that they don’t overstress the body. “Short runs on grass or sand provide a great way to ease into trail running as they are good at strengthening the feet and lower legs, and increasing proprioception,” he adds.


Runners may new sneakers in order to be able to still run well, maintain proper form and handle any surprises on the road. “A well protected shoe with an aggressive traction pattern, Wilpers says. “The shoe company that I love for trail running is Salomon because I think they really deliver what you need. Two great examples of shoes that I love for trails are the Salomon Wings for dry terrain and the Salomon Speedcross 3’s for wet and muddy terrain.

Exercises for the legs and feet

Your body will make sudden twists along the way to avoid rocks and handle slippery surfaces. Most runners are strong at moving in the sagittal plane (forwards/backwards) but are weak when it comes to moving in frontal (side to side) and transverse (twisting) planes, according to Wilpers. “When running trails, frontal and transverse planes of movement are more commonly demanded than on roads, so any exercises to improve strength and mobility in these planes of movement can be beneficial,” he says. He recommends hip adduction and abduction exercises.


Balance is crucial. You don’t want to fall after coming across every rock or hole. “Some great exercises to add are ones that challenge your balance like one-legged squats and one-legged running drills,” he adds. If you are hitting some steep hills, plyometrics (jump training) are really good at adapting the body for the power that is needed.

Going downhill

Downhill running can be tough. You are still fighting gravity as you don’t want to be free-falling down rocks, branches and dirt. Downhill running can be a free running experience, with gravity helping you to push your speed limit, but your quads take a pounding of forces more than your body weight, Wilpers says. “Running within your body’s space, and with the same angle of the slope significantly reduces your chances of injuries and helps to reach maximum speed.”

“It is important to keep your hands and arms active, using them as a balancing aid,” he adds. “Also, look ahead so you can plan out your moves and where you want your feet to land.  It is easy to roll ankles, so landing lightly will help prevent any serious damage.

Ankle strength and mobility

One legged exercises are good for ankle strength in addition to using resistance bands to help provide resistance when moving the foot and ankle through the full range of motion.

A combination of good shoes and lower leg exercises will help protect the ankles. “Again, exercises that challenge your balance and improve the strength and mobility of your ankles are best,” Wilpers says.

Get ready for the uphill/downhill intervals

Trail running is not like running on a treadmill – you don’t know what’s coming in a second and you don’t set the obstacles. You may be going uphill for 5 minutes, then downhill for 2, and then up for another 5. At that point, your legs will probably feel like jelly.

If you are stuck training on the flats, Wilpers says, try adding some short speed intervals to your training 1-2 times per week very gradually. “However, if you have access to a treadmill, you can simulate hills more effectively by adding incline intervals to 1-2 of your normal runs a week,” he adds. For example alternate 5 minutes at a 4 percent incline and 5 minutes on a flat.

Prepare mentally

“I personally think of trail running as both fun and therapeutic,” he adds. “While it may seem tough at first, you will soon look forward to the challenges and enjoy the mental state that it puts you in while you are out there.”

Other quick tips:

Be sure to have the proper clothing and hydration solutions.  Running on trails generally means you have more exposure and less access to potable water.

Take a friend just in case something goes wrong, and let someone that is not going with you know what where you’ll be running.  

Check the weather forecast. “A lot of time there is a lack of shelter out on trails, leaving you exposed if a storm hits,” Wilpers says.

Know your route well.

More readings: 

Find the Perfect Fit in a Trail Running Shoe

Trail Finder: 5 Awesome Urban Trails

Marathon Training Hydration and Fuel Tips