Trail Running Guide for Beginners + 3 Workouts to Try
From flat gravel paths to rolling wooded hills, trails offer challenging terrain—and usually an inspiring natural setting—that activates more muscles and tones all over. Here’s how to get started, plus three workouts to try.
Emma Coburn, the Olympian and three-time USA Track & Field outdoor champion will inspire you to try one of these six track and trail workouts designed to improve speed, rev your metabolism and tone muscles. Happy trails!
Trail Running Workouts
Strengthen Muscles: Off-Road Hill Repeats
“Trail running works every muscle in the body,” says Tim Neckar, founder of RunnerOne coaching in Houston. “With uneven terrain, winding trails and hills of various steepness, you’re constantly adjusting and seeking where to put your feet.” Pumping your arms, especially on the uphill, works your upper body, too. (To avoid hunching over, which puts more stress on your quads, keep your gaze out in front of you.) Bonus: Uphill work is a targeted way to tone the butt.Maximize these total-body benefits with this hill-interval workout from Kim Dobson, a USA mountain-running champion and high school cross-country coach in Grand Junction, Colorado: Find a gravel or dirt path with about a half mile of gradual elevation gain. Start with lunges (forward, backward and lateral), leg swings and 10 minutes of easy jogging to warm up, then run four minutes uphill at level 8. Slowly jog back down and repeat. Work up to five or six intervals.
Melt Fat and Stress: Trail Tempo
A mile on the road or treadmill isn’t the same as a mile on the trail because of variations in pace, elevation and terrain, says Erica Gratton, a USA Track & Field–certified coach with Conejo Valley Trail Runners in Westlake Village, California. Many outdoor athletes use the trail to run “by feel,” forgetting about pace or mileage and focusing on perceived effort. When you find that sweet spot where running feels challenging yet comfortable, you’ll be in an optimal fat-burning zone. Plus, the scenic views and chirping birds can provide a lasting mood boost. For a fun but effective workout, try a trail tempo run. Set a goal (say, to run for 30 minutes) and divide that into thirds. Make the first third an easy warm-up jog; the second, a run at level 8 you’re able to talk, but not for long); and the third, a nice, slow recovery. As you gain stamina, increase your segment times for each part.
Work Your Core: Trail Mix
The sidestepping, bounding and rock-hopping motions of trail running are, in many ways, more effective than conventional ab exercises, Gratton says. They engage every core muscle while also improving balance and agility. To get an even fuller core workout, find a trail that has fitness stations—like balance beams and parallel bars—or one with natural obstacles like fallen logs, tree stumps and stream crossings. Keep your balance while running across a log. (Test it first to make sure it’s not slippery.) Do 10 step-ups on a tree stump, or tougher yet, jump up for a plyometric burst. Running near a stream? Pick a good path across the water and rock-hop for a challenging physical and mental workout.
Learn the Lingo
Elevation Gain: The amount of climbing, in feet, along a trail. You can gauge a trail’s difficulty by its elevation gain and distance. For a gentle run, look for less than 100 feet of gain per mile.
Technical: When a trail is described as technical, you can expect rugged elements like rocks, roots or steep sections. Take your time (walk if you have to) and watch your step.
Rail Trail: Many cities have converted old railroad beds into gravel or paved rail trails, sometimes called greenbelts. They tend to be smooth and gentle, ideal for beginners.
Singletrack: A narrow trail that forces you to run single-file. Doubletrack trails are wider. Either way, stick to the route: Deviating from it can be dangerous and bad for the environment.
Know Before You Go
When heading off-road, follow these rules of the trail:
- Start on a relatively smooth path, rather than one full of rocks, roots and steep hills. This will ease your muscles into the challenges of trail running, while minimizing your risk of falling.
- Use your arms for balance. Spread them wide, elbows bent, while traversing technical terrain.
- Focus on the ground 10 feet ahead of you to give your brain time to read the trail. If you’re staring at your feet, you’re more likely to stumble.
- Uphill runners yield to downhill ones, particularly on trails that are singletrack; all runners yield to mountain bikers. When you approach hikers or slower runners, announce “On your left!” or “Runner up!” so you don’t startle them.
- Be prepared. Carry water, snacks, keys and your phone in a hydration belt or backpack.