Top 7 Mistakes to Avoid When Trail Running
Updated: Aug 21
Have you found yourself on a run around your neighborhood, sometimes wishing for something a little bit more exciting? Trail running can be a great way to spice up your exercise routine without shelling out lots of money for extra gear.
If you’re a beginner, trail running can be as easy as running in a local park or a dirt road. However, there’s plenty of room for advancement as you explore steeper hills and more rugged terrain. Before you know it you might end up perched on the side of a knife edge ridge clinging on for dear life and wondering how on Earth you got there (see above).
Trail running is one of the best ways to connect with the outdoors on a regular basis without spending tons of money. It’s also a great way to connect with other people--while road runs tend to be faster and solitary, trail running is best done in a group. Finally, many exercise scientists believe trail running can help prevent long-term injuries, since trails tend to be more cushion-y than roads. Trails also tend to be less consistent than roads, forcing runners to deviate from their repetitive running motion and use different underutilized muscles to break up their strides.
Before getting started and running off into the nearest woods, make sure to avoid these common pitfalls to help you get going on the right foot.
1. Wearing shoes that don't fit right
Picking the right shoes is especially important for trail runners. Trail running shoes differ from typical road running shoes in that they offer significantly better traction and oftentimes have lower stack height and heel drop. Stack height is the distance from your heel to the ground. Lower stack height means lower center of gravity for your foot which means a lower probability of rolling your ankle! Relatedly, heel drop is the difference in height between the ball of your foot and your heel. Typical road running shoes will have a heel drop between 8mm to 12mm.
However, a recent trend in trail running—popularized by the best selling (and semi-contentious) book, Born to Run—is to minimize heel drop, since it is believed this is conducive to a more natural running stride and helps runners feel the trail better. The running company Altra was formed on this premise, designing and manufacturing exclusively “zero-drop” trail running shoes. Just a note for those of you intrigued by the zero-drop frenzy: if you’re used to running in normal road running shoes for all your life (with standard 8-12mm drops), then it’s best to transition to zero-drop shoes gradually. Although zero-drop is more natural, it takes some time for our calve muscles and tendons to make the adjustment after spending all their lives conditioned for 8-12mm drops. Altra sells middling 6mm-drop shoes for this specific purpose!
No matter your skill level, make sure the trail shoes you get fit your feet! That’s why it’s important to buy trail running shoes from a shop which accepts returns like Switchbackr—browse some options here!
2. Not telling other people you’re going trail running
The fundamental difference between trail running and road running is that you’re running on trails. The important thing to know about trails is that they tend to be more treacherous than roads, as well as farther from basic amenities such as phone service and hospitals. As a result, the downside risk associated with trail running is higher than that of road running. To mitigate this risk, just follow a very simple procedure: if you’re running alone on remote trails, always make sure to tell people where you are going and when you’ll be back. (BTW: This is a good principle to apply to pretty much any other outdoor activity). An added bonus of doing this is that everyone will know you’re cool and outdoorsy and go on trail runs.
Relatedly, know your route and how to get back. Be comfortable reading maps and following oft-ambiguous trail signs. Pay attention to unique landmarks which may be helpful if you become discombobulated and need to find your way homeward-bound. If you have a GPS, it’s a good idea to bring that. If you don’t have a GPS and don’t want to dish out dat dough for expensive Garmins, you can use exercise apps like Strava which help track your runs. It is also super stylish to bring basic safety kits in case of any injuries.
3. Not knowing your terrain
Three trail miles are not equal to three road miles. Part of this inequality is gradient: trails tend to have steeper ascents/descents than roads. At an extreme, you may find yourself crawling up a wicked steep trail and then crawling (carefully) down the same trail. Knowing a trail’s total elevation gain and loss is essential to understanding its difficulty. But elevation isn’t the only factor to consider.
Terrain complexity is another huge factor which determines a trail’s difficulty. There’s a significant difference between running on a consistent dirt road and “running” atop wet, mossy boulders. Unlike elevation gain/loss, terrain complexity is not something you can immediately find by looking at a topographic map or seeing a Strava segment. If you’ve got your sights set on a new trail, make sure you get the full picture by checking out trail reviews and getting input from people in the know. Alltrails is a good place to start if you’re ever unsure of terrain complexity.
4. Not paying attention to the weather
Unlike with road running, the safety of trails depends greatly on recent weather. A firm dirt-packed trail can easily turn into an icy, muddy slide after just a day of rain. Also, if you’re expecting more than a few thousand feet of elevation gain, make sure to pack layers--hypothermia is super unchill.
Similarly, if you’re in a mountainous region, keep in mind that weather can change on a dime. One instant you’ve got sun; the next, torrential downpour. Thunderstorms are a particular point of concern during the summer. If you’re in an area where thunderstorms are known to occur frequently, try to get started as early as possible in the morning (since most thunderstorms spool up in the afternoon). Always be prepared and have a backup plan to get below tree-level if Zeus comes a’chuggin your way.
5. Not bringing enough food/water
Mile for mile, trail runners will typically burn more energy trail running than road running. As a result, it’s pretty common for new trail runners to go out for what seems like a “short” trail run only to find themselves starving for nooootrients by the end. Simple fix? Bring lots of food! Our favorites here at Switchbackr are Jelly Belly Extreme Sport Beans as well as anything you find in your fridge that fits in a ziploc bag. As expert trail runner Laura Ippolito shared with us, “the snacking potential is literally the reason I do trail runs—pizza, M&Ms, pop tarts, sour skittles, edible cookie dough, cake frosting, snickers bars… you name it, I’ve probably eaten it on the trail!”
One thing they teach you in elementary school but you sometimes forget when trail running is that water is the stuff of life. Unlike road runs, where water fountains or convenience stores or neighbors’ hoses are always around the corner, water can be hard to come by on trails. When planning a trail run, you should always think about the water situation: how much will you need? Where will you be able to find it if you need it or run out? Even if you are in an area where there is running water, it’s advisable to bring a water filter so you don’t get fun diseases such as giardia. Katadyn BeFree makes a good portable water filter that you can fill up and squeeze to get filtered water on demand.
One nice thing about trail runs is that it’s pretty “in” to run with dorky backpacks/vests! All the cool kids do it, and you should too, because you can carry all the snacks (also known as “snackrs” here at Switchbackr), water bottles, cameras, selfie sticks, and safety equipment that your heart desires.
6. Not staying focused and getting a super preventable injury
After a hard trail run, you might find yourself not only physically exhausted, but mentally drained as well. That’s because running on trails takes much more focus and attention than running on roads. Staying focused on your terrain and being intentional about your footwork is crucial to not injuring yourself.
One of the most common injuries is scrapes and cuts from plants as you run. To mitigate this, pay attention to where you’re running and wear long socks to keep your skin protected. If you’re running in a particularly thorny area, you might want to consider throwing on some hiking pants. You get 3x cool points if you show up to the trailhead wearing those zip-off pants/shorts.
Nothing sucks more than rolling your ankle. Switchbackr co-founder and serial ankle sprainer, Alex Friedman, can attest to this fact. To minimize the risk of ankle sprains, make sure to pay attention to the trail and not go (in Friedman’s words) “full spider monkey” when running downhill. Doing ankle balancing exercises at home can also help you prevent sprained ankles.
Finally, cramping is quite common on more strenuous runs. To reduce the risk of cramps, make sure you drink plenty of water, carry electrolytes, and have fuel in your body.
7. Quitting too early
Especially if you’re a beginner, trail running is best done with an optimistic and clear mindset. Understand that you are on your own journey, and that it’s not something to be compared with other people’s. Take the time you need to rest, recover, and push yourself at your own pace. Building up stamina and not going too hard too fast will allow you to approach trail running with more ease and motivation and help you love it so much more!
All photos courtesy of Laura Ippolito