Trail running for beginners: Start enjoying the benefits today

Discover the joy of exploring nature through trail running.

If you want to have an adventure, go trail running. Simply put, it’s running anywhere that isn’t a paved surface, such as tarmac. This could be on dirt tracks, in a wooded area or anywhere off the beaten track. It’s a chance to feel as though you’re getting away from the grind of daily life and discover a moment of joy.  

If you’ve taken the first steps of your amazing running journey and are looking to take your training further, trail running is a great addition to build your fitness while enjoying beautiful places. Trail running coach Matt Buck explains that the sport has grown in popularity in the past few years due to peoples growing desire to explore natural environments. “As a result, more people have begun venturing off road and onto trails. The challenging and varied terrain offered by trails appeals to athletes and fitness enthusiasts seeking a more engaging and adventurous running experience,” he says. 

With Buck’s expertise and my obsession for exploring untrodden paths, we’ll explain how you can get out and start enjoying trail running today.   

Senior beginner trail runner in the mountainsCredit: Shutterstock/Halfpoint
You’ll explore new surroundings as a beginner trail runner

What is trail running? 

Aside from just being away from tarmac, trail running has less of a time pressure. The emphasis is more on connecting with nature, enjoying being outside and challenging yourself to tackle the ever-changing terrain, explains Buck.  

“I consider it a completely different sport,” he says. “Beginners will follow trails, but as you get more advanced you could find yourself venturing into mountain areas, inhospitable places such as jungles and deserts, and trackless terrain.” 

Many of us are looking forward to our next adventure, and trail running offers that opportunity daily – whether that’s close to your home or further afield.

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Trail running is becoming more popular

Buck says: “In recent years, trail running has experienced a significant boom in popularity. The sport has attracted a broader demographic, with more individuals people seeking a break from the monotony of traditional road running and embracing the connection with nature that trail running offers.”  

He attributes the rise of social media and online communities to the visibility and accessibility of trail running, inspiring people to explore trails and share their experiences with others. Specific trail running companies, such as Running Adventures and Raw Trails, have also given people the confidence to try new routes with guided runs led by experienced trail runners.    

What are the benefits of trail running?

Aside from being away from car fumes, there are many other physical and mental benefits if you decide to start trail running. Spending time in nature is increasingly being prescribed by health professionals to patients in the UK and other parts of the world.  

Research has shown contact with nature can boost mood, lower your pulse rate, improve immune functioning and reduce cortisol levels (the hormone which regulates stress), making it an important addition for our wellbeing.  

Trail running will also take you on different terrain, which will build leg strength, balance and endurance, explains Buck. “Trail running will often send you up and down hills of varying sizes, which will work your body in different ways. But don’t worry, there’s no pressure to run hills if you are starting out, take them at your own pace.”  

Tackling different terrain will see your pace naturally slow as you navigate tree roots and other obstacles along the way. It’s an opportunity to enjoy your surroundings instead of chasing a PB (personal best), which can be exhausting mentally and physically.

Trail running includes walking

Being on the trails encourages you to just put one foot in front of the other in ever changing surroundings. If you’re looking to add more mindfulness to your life, this is the perfect activity. It’s a real opportunity to be in the moment with just your senses.  

It also includes a lot of walking, thanks to the ever-changing terrain. Some trails will be difficult and dangerous to maintain speed on, so you’ll need to slow down to stay safe. You’ll also see lots of trail runners walking up hills to save energy, as running uphill requires a lot of effort. Don’t be afraid to slow your pace right down, you’ll get the benefit of not feeling as exhausted and you’ll be able to enjoy running for longer.  

Trail runner enjoying the view as she runs along the top of a mountainCredit: Shutterstock/seeyououtdoors
Trail running can lead you to beautiful sights

What to wear when trail running

Our running gear essentials guide is a good starting point if you need some basic kit. Once you have discovered your love for the trails and find yourself out in nature more often, investing in some trail running specific items would be beneficial. 

If you only have road running shoes, it’s a good idea to get some that have been designed for the trails, too. They have better protection from debris such as sticks and small rocks, and they’re more supportive thanks to the stiffer materials used, including in the heel to stop your feet from sliding around. 

Buck’s trail running essentials include a Salomon running vest, Salomon waterproof jacket, running watch and running poles. He adds: “Ensure you have water and snacks with you, and always carry a foil blanket or similar. Even if you’re staying close to home, it can be a life saver if you run into trouble. A small first aid kit is also advisable, along with a headtorch and whistle.

Make sure you wear layers that you can put on and take off easily as the weather could change suddenly. The temperature at the top of mountains will be a lot cooler than at the bottom, so take some lightweight gloves and a hat with you too, especially in the cooler months. And if you’re running somewhere unfamiliar, bring a map and understand how to use it. 

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How to start trail running for beginners

Now you’re ready to hit the trails, pick a route that is close to your home and you’re familiar with, says Buck. “Don’t worry too much about getting lost (it’s part of the fun), just make sure you have plenty of time so that you’re not stressed about getting back or running in the dark.” 

The first couple of times you might want to take a friend, so have someone with you if you’re a bit nervous. Or you could book yourself onto a guided trail run or technique workshop, which will give you expert guidance and support to give you the confidence to take on future trails alone.  

Just remember to take your time, take plenty of photos, say hello to animals and people along the way, and have fun. Once you get started, you’ll be part of a growing community.  

The Saga Exceptional team enjoy trail running

Many of us here at Saga Exceptional enjoy making the most of our time off, taking in the nature and landscapes the UK has to offer. Phillipa Cherryson is a keen trail runner and most weekends she can be found running in the Black Mountains, near Abergavenny, Wales.

She says: “The trails are becoming increasingly popular with runners, for good reasons. Once you’ve puffed and panted your way up onto the ridge, there are miles of trails with epic views.” 

I also prefer trails to road and have booked the trail adventure of a lifetime in September, taking on the Snowdon Ultra 50 with my partner. We’ll be running (and walking), nearly 50 miles of the Snowdonia National Park, and I can’t wait to get out there and explore it all… I just hope it doesn’t rain the whole time.   

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Rebecca Frew

Written by Rebecca Frew she/her

Updated:

Becky Frew has written various articles for newspapers and magazines focusing on fitness, is a qualified run leader, and a certified sleep talker trainer who loves to help advise people how they can nod off easier. When she is not writing or reading about fitness, she is at hot pod yoga, bounce class, training for an ultra-marathon or booking anything with a medal and free food at the end.

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