Take A Run On The Wild Side

A Beginner's Guide To Trail Running

Mountain Leader Simon James tells us everything we need to know before hitting the trails.

When most people start running, they start running on the roads or a treadmill. Any form of running is great exercise. It lowers our levels of stress, increases our sense of well-being and of course, enhances our physical health overall. However, if you really want to elevate your sense of freedom and well-being, then you really need to try trail running.

What's Trail Running?

There’s a fair amount of debate in the trail running road about what actually constitutes a trail. Purists argue that a trail must be remote. That it needs to undulate; it should gain and lose elevation along the way. Yes, of course it’s unpaved, but how much of it? All of it or just part? I’m going to keep things simple and say that a trail is basically a footpath that’s mostly unpaved. So that means you don’t need to head out into the sticks to find one; there’s a trail waiting to be run in your local park. 

Why Trail Running?

There are several key reasons why trail running really elevates health benefits vs other forms of running and many of them tick those boxes which health professionals advise to live a healthier life. 


First – the physiological; it’s less likely to induce repetitive strain injuries that come from running on road as every footfall on a trail is different. It requires stronger muscles and engages the full body (arms, legs and torso). It’s less impacting on joints through softer surfaces. Finally, it takes you away from those more polluted road sides with their hazards of fast-moving vehicles. 


Second – the psychological; it requires mindfulness. Unlike road running, you have to be present in the moment (so you don’t fall over!), the trail is constantly changing direction and combined with undulations, it requires complete concentration, a sense of meditation. Add to that the health benefits of being in green spaces, you have the ultimate form of headspace. 


Third – the freedom; your options for running different routes suddenly moves from being limited to just a few to almost limitless options! 

Where Do I Start?

You can trail run, whatever your level of experience. Start with running in a park or on canal paths and pick days when the weather is reasonable — choosing shorter routes that are close to home is wise when you're first starting out.


As you get more comfortable running footpaths, you’ll naturally want to try more varied terrain and be more prepared for different kinds of weather. Be mindful that you need to slow your pace down and start off steady. Tripping and falling over is one of the most common hazards on a trail, and it only happens when people either are moving too fast, don't think about where they're going or don’t have the right shoes on their feet.

Do I Need Specialist Kit?

Trail running though is quite different to road running. The boundaries are gone and you’re free to explore a lot more of the world as a result. With this though, handy road signs, street lights and all the things we take for granted are gone and you need to now provide these on your own to create some level of security. Depending on the conditions under foot and the weather, you’ll need a pair of trail shoes to protect your feet and grip the trail. 


Trail shoes provide better heal support, strong soles to prevent stones breaking through and large lugs to provide friction in the slipperiest mud, just some of a long list of features available. Preparing for the weather and not getting cold or wet is key. Your kit list will increase with distance and remoteness but starting out on short close to home runs require essentially just trail shoes and a lightweight waterproof jacket. For those who are more adventurous, invest in a map and compass (work out how to use them!) if you are unfamiliar with the area and a navigation app on your phone. Carry a head torch for evening runs, as streetlights don’t come as standard with footpaths! 

Are There Safety Concerns?

Trails by their very nature are often more remote than roads or pavements, so getting help if you get lost or injured is more of a challenge. It’s also likely that there will be fewer people using them. Although this is somewhat a good thing, some pre-trail run planning is necessary.


Always check the weather forecast and plan your intended route. When out on the trail go prepared. It’s important to always take some extra kit that ideally you won’t have to use, but ensures some self-sufficiency be it changes in weather, being out on the trail for longer, losing your way or getting injured. Manage your own expectations of your ability and sign-up to an outdoor skills course like those offered at Run the Wild

What About Technique?

Getting into trail running is relatively easy but there is technique you need to hone. A relatively straightforward countryside path is a good place to start, but if you want to head into the mountains or more remote areas then building up your strength and technique will make sure you stay injury free for longer.  


A trail is three dimensional. Watching out for loose or slippery ground, trip hazards such as tree roots, steep up and downs; all add to an experience that is both more mentally and physically engaging. A strong core, good posture and foot placement as well as quick reactions require training and practise whilst a steady build-up of difficulty will help avoid muscle or tendon damage. 


Running downhill is probably the most technically challenging with a delicate balance of trying to control but not fight the effects of gravity. If you get it right, the health benefits of running trails are significant, not only will you be using more of your core and in some cases your whole body, but also you'll get stronger and build endurance by the variation in terrain. Plus, it really is the ultimate adrenaline rush for runners.

Pacing And Objectives

Running on trails is more difficult than on a road, so throw away those PBs and minute mile expectations. The trail will dictate the pace, so go with the flow. And bare in mind that some areas of trails are completely un-runnable, especially in bad weather. Roads will never produce the steepness trails can, nor the rocks and tree routes. So set your objectives based on the trail and leave your pacing expectations at home. 

The Rewards

The rewards are amazing. What could have been a dull training run, becomes something that engages all your senses and is a healthy distraction from the usual weekend plod. Some of my best memories are running along mountain paths, feeling a total sense of freedom. Not only do you get to break away from the confines of the road but you have the ability to leave the stop watch at home. It’s not always about pace, as this will often be dictated by the trail.


Even though you may live in a city it’s possible to find trails, be it in parks or alongside a canal. Escaping the urban is healthy and even in the large city of London you can get out into the countryside in less than 20 minutes. The rewards are great — it’s much easier to get involved than you may have at first thought. What are you waiting for? Take a run on the wild side.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us, Simon! If you’d like to start trail running, check out Run The Wild. Discover their run adventures and step out onto the trails with experienced runners. 


If you need advice finding the right kit, stop by your nearest store and speak to a kit specialist. Alternatively, you can book a one-to-one appointment and gait analysis here


Simon James is the founder of Run the Wild - the UK’s first premier, dedicated trail running holiday adventure company. Operating in the UK and the Alps, they deliver holidays that combine the sense of 'team' from mountaineering, with the thrill of trail running in wild places. Simon is a keen trail runner and marathon runner with a PB of 2hrs 37mins. He is a qualified Leader in Running Fitness as well as International Mountain Leader and offers treks in the Alps.

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