Trail Running 101, part 1


Trail running: it’s just like road running but on dirt, right?

I wish it were that simple. The trails are a different beast. When you are dealing with nature there’s a lot more that can go wrong. But, in my opinion, you get so much more in return from the trails versus roads. I’m here to give you a primer on how to survive (and thrive!) without getting run over by a mountain biker or eaten by a snake. This is part one of a series I’ll be writing in collaboration with my MoveWith Trail Running 101 class. Let us start with how to behave on the trails…

Trail Etiquette

  • Pay attention. You will quickly learn you have to when that rock comes out of nowhere and sends you flying. You can zone out on the roads where every footstep is exactly the same but if you aren’t looking at the trail you will pay for it. I keep my eyes on the ground about 4 feet in front of me. 
  • trail yieldThe faster person yields to the slower person. Bikers yield to runners. Runners yield to hikers. Horses always have the right of way. Runner going downhill yields to person going uphill. This often isn’t the way things go, so just expect nobody will move out of your way.
  • Pass on the left when possible. Announce yourself by yelling “on your left!”  or “runner up!” When coming up behind a hiker, 90% of the time they will move to the left and look to the right. So again, assume nobody will be moving out of your way. 
  • Say HI to fellow runners and hikers. Don’t be a jerk. You aren’t out there breaking any world records so take a second to acknowledge the other human beings enjoying nature. Yes, even mountain bikers. 
  • Don’t play music out loud. This is my biggest pet peeve. You are ruining my experience in nature with your crappy music. Headphones are great and were invented for a reason! But keep music low so you can hear other people/bikes/animals approaching.
  • Stay on the trail. Shortcuts are tempting but ruin the purpose of the trail. Run through that puddle instead of around it. It’s more fun that way, anyway.
  • Don’t litter. Period. This includes during races. The volunteers aren’t out there to pick up your paper cups and GU wrappers. 
  • Your pace will be much more varied than on the road. Your ego may protest, but there will be walking involved. Get over it sooner rather than later. It’s easier to go by effort level rather than numbers on the watch.

pirates cove

Trail Confidence

  • Find a more experienced friend (like me!) or group to show you the ropes. We all had to start somewhere. San Francisco Running Company hosts a run every Saturday morning from their Mill Valley store with all distances and pace groups represented. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for directions on the trail. Us runners love proving how much we know. 
  • Study a trail map of the area you are running, and take a printout if available. I have a big map of the Headlands hanging on my bedroom wall where I often trace new routes and look for unexplored trails. 
  • Get out of your comfort zone. Experience on the trails will build confidence, especially if you push yourself a bit (within your limits, of course). So run that ridge or bomb that downhill. 
  • Downhill running must be practiced. It’s a skill that needs developing, just like anything. It takes a bit of fearlessness to send your body into a semi-controlled fall down an incline covered with rocks and roots, but with practice comes confidence. And to me, there is nothing more fun than running down a hill as fast as you can with wings spread wide.  
  • You will fall eventually. But scars are cool. 
  • Sign up for races! There are short 10k/half races on trails almost every weekend. It’s a great way to learn the trails on a marked course with aid stations. Find lots of local races here, here, and here.

Basic Gear

  • IMG_0006_2


    Trail sneakers: more foot protection, ankle stability, and tread. Useful on rocky or wet trails but not entirely necessary for someone just starting out. Go by comfort. Some shoes are very stiff with a rock plate, others are like big marshmallows with tons of cush. I prefer a more minimal sole so I can feel the ground, but enough protection so the rocks don’t stab my feet.

  • Water bottle: buy one with handheld strap and a small pocket. I recommend this Nathan one. Hydration packs are useful for longer runs, but I’ll get into that in a future post. Always bring more water than you think you’ll need. The water fountains can’t always be relied upon! 
  • 11425245_10206996074849929_5376495583333194836_n

    Just leave the selfie stick at home

    Phone: bring it, even though you probably won’t get service. A Spi belt works well to hold phone and keys. (Also: mountain top selfies!) 

  • Calories: bring at least one gel even on a short run. You never know.
  • TP: Wrap a few squares in a sandwich baggie and keep in water bottle pocket.
  • Headlamp: useful for early morning/evening runs, even in the city. I bring mine if I’m running within 2 hours of the sunset. Again, you never know. 

Coming up next in Part Two: How to plan routes, find your way when you have no cell service, and deal with animals!

2 thoughts on “Trail Running 101, part 1

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