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Trail Running Made Easy: A Beginner’s Guide to Ditching the Pavement

Leave the pavement behind for running Detroit's pristine natural trails this summer! Here's your crash course into the health benefits, top gear, and best techniques for trail running throughout Metro Detroit.

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If you're a regular road runner looking to switch up your routine this summer, then trail running might just be your next obsession. And if you’ve been thinking about trail running for a while, let this be your sign to finally give it a try! 

This beginner's guide to trail running aims to help you transition from pavement to natural paths. We’re here to inspire you to embrace the wild, challenging, and exhilarating world of trail running. 

In this article, you’ll explore:

  • The basics and benefits of trail running

  • Recommended gear and training plans for getting started

  • Trail running technique tips

Discover a whole new way to get that running high. Let’s start with the basics.

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What Is Trail Running?

Take a moment to think of the image that pops into your head when you read the words "trail running." Trails that wind through towering mountains or dense forests? How about alongside rivers and creeks or on pristine beaches? Maybe you're jogging through an expansive, untouched wildflower field?

If you imagined any of those idyllic destinations, then you’re exactly right! Trail running can take place anywhere you run on natural terrain. Think dirt paths, not paved surfaces.


In reality, you can choose to run on a wide variety of different trails.

  • Multi-use trails. Designed to host various activities like hikers, mountain bikers, horse riders, etc. 

  • Fire roads. These roads are wide enough to accommodate fire trucks and other maintenance vehicles. 

  • Single-tracks. Narrow trails that are usually only big enough for one person at a time. 

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Types of Terrain

You can best prepare for your next trail run if you understand the different types of terrain. We've prepared an easy reference guide on the types of terrain via the chart below. It also includes potential challenges and benefits of that terrain type.

Type of Terrain

Potential Challenges


Dirt Trails

Muddy, slippery, loose soil

Gentle on joints, less technical

Gravel Trails

Unstable footing

Firm running surface, less likely to get muddy

Rocky Trails

Technical, demanding 

Builds strength, balance, and agility

Root-Laden Trails

Tripping hazards

Shaded, builds agility 

Grass Trails

Slippery when wet, can hide uneven ground

Easy on joints, less technical

Sandy Trails

Requires more effort, slower going

Builds strength and endurance

Hilly Trails

Steep inclines, strenuous, thin air at high altitudes

Stunning views, builds endurance

Mud Trails

Extremely slippery, risk of losing shoes in deep mud

Builds mental fitness and endurance

Snow & Ice Trails

Slippery and cold, requires specialized gear

Builds stability 

As a beginner, we recommend you find some dirt and grass trails to start. These have more stable footing and less technical challenges.  You can tackle more technical trails later on. This lets you build up your trail running skills to reduce the risk of injury.

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Benefits of Trail Running 

Spoiler alert: running is good for you (duh). But putting that commonsense fact aside, why should you consider trail running over sticking with the paved roads?

Let’s take a look at the different benefits of trail running vs. road running. 

Less Impact on Your Joints

When running on softer surfaces like grass, dirt, or gravel, there’s less strain put on your joints. This in turn will reduce your risk for injuries like shin splints and stress fractures. 

In the long run (pun unintended), the lower impact will help you run for longer periods of time and cover more distance, WITHOUT as much wear and tear on your body. 

Lower Risk of Overuse Injuries

Running on flat and hard surfaces can lead to overuse (i.e., repetitive stress) injuries. 

The varied terrain you encounter while trail running is a big benefit because it diversifies your movements. This in turn will assist your body with developing better muscle balance. 

You’re Less Likely to Get Bored

Running paved paths is great, but let's be honest - sometimes it can get a bit boring. When you’re trail running, your natural surroundings will help keep all of your senses engaged. 

You get to see beautiful scenery. Hear the sounds of nature. Smell the fresh air. You need to pay more attention to the ever-changing terrain to keep your footing. Stated differently, trail running keeps both your body and mind active the entire run.      

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Getting Started

So how does one even get started with trail running? We’ll go over the basic gear you need and tips on how to pick a training plan. 

Trail Running Gear

You do need some basic trail running gear to get started. This way you're safe, comfortable, and prepared for the varying terrain and conditions. 

Here’s a list of essential gear for beginners:

  • Trail running shoes. Provides better grip and stability on uneven terrain.

  • Trail running socks. Protects your feet from blisters and provides comfort.

  • Hydration system. Staying hydrated is crucial, especially on longer runs. You can go hands-free with a hydration pack or hydration belt. 

  • Fitness Tracker. For us, our Garmin Instinct Solar 2 watch is the ideal companion for tracking each training or competitive training run.

  • Moisture-wicking clothing. Keeps you dry and comfortable by pulling the sweat away from your skin and allowing it to evaporate.

  • Trail running backpack or vest. Carries your essentials like water, snacks, and a first-aid kit. 

With these basics, you'll be well-prepared to start your trail running journey. As you gain experience, you can add more gear. Based on your preferences and the specific trails you frequent.

Choosing a Training Plan

Ok, now you’re ready to dive into trail running (Yay! 🥳). Let’s talk about how to get started with a training plan that will ease you into this exciting new adventure. 

Here are the main considerations that you will want to keep in mind when choosing your training plan:

What’s Your Current Fitness Level?

First things first, be honest with yourself about your fitness level. Are you already running regularly on roads, or are you recently getting back into fitness? 

Knowing where you stand will greatly assist with picking a plan that challenges you, but doesn’t go too far too soon.

Start Slow

We cannot overstate this: Start slow. Trail running uses different muscles than road running, and the terrain can be unpredictable.

Look for a plan that begins with shorter distances. Then gradually increase the length and intensity, with the general rule being a 10% maximum increase in your mileage per week. This way, you can build strength and endurance without experiencing a season-ending injury.

Mix Up Your Workouts

Variety is key in any good training plan. You can include a mix of different workouts like:

  • Easy Runs: These are shorter, slower runs that help build your base fitness.

  • Long Runs: Longer runs at a comfortable pace to build endurance. 

  • Hill Workouts: Run up and down hills to build strength. And improve your ability to handle elevation changes.

  • Cross-Training: Substituting runs with other cardio activities with even less impact like cycling, swimming, hiking, or even roller-blading can maintain your training regimen while preserving your legs.

  • Recovery Days: Help your body recover and prevent burnout. Take a day off. 

Don’t Forget About Strength Training

Don’t skip the strength training! Trails are tough on your muscles, especially your legs and core. A good training plan should always include strength workouts a couple of times a week. Think squats, lunges, planks, and other exercises that target your trail running muscles.

Listen to Your Body

Trail running can be tough, so it’s paramount to listen to your body. If you’re feeling overly tired or sore, don’t be afraid to take an extra rest day. The goal is to challenge yourself, not to push yourself to the point of exhaustion.

Plus, when you listen to your limits, you’re more likely to stick with it. 

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Trail Running Technique Tips

These trail running techniques make your runs smoother, safer, and a whole lot more fun. Here’s a breakdown of the basics: 

Pace Yourself 

One of the first things you want to do is adjust your pace. Trail running is a different animal compared to road running. The varied terrain, hills, and obstacles mean you’ll need to slow down. Especially in the technical sections. Don’t worry about your speed. Focus on keeping a steady, comfortable pace that allows you to enjoy the run. 

Watch Your Footing

Eyes on the trail! 👀

We can’t stress this enough. Look about 10-15 feet ahead to spot any roots, rocks, or other obstacles. This helps you avoid tripping. It takes some practice, but keeping your gaze forward becomes second nature over time.

Use Shorter Strides

Long strides might work on smooth roads, but on trails, shorter strides are your friend. They give you better control and balance, especially on uneven terrain. Think of it as dancing over the rocks and roots rather than leaping.

Engage Your Core

Your core plays a big role in keeping you stable on the trails. When you’re running, engage your core muscles. This helps you maintain balance and absorb the impact of rough terrain.

Adjust Your Form For Hills

Hills are a huge part of trail running. Going up, shorten your stride, lean slightly forward, and use your arms to pump yourself up the hill. Coming down, take small, quick steps, lean slightly back, and keep your center of gravity low. Let gravity help you, but stay in control to avoid any spills.

Use Your Arms

Your arms aren't only for balance; they help with momentum too.

On uphill sections, pump your arms to help drive you forward. On downhills, keep them out for balance. It feels a bit like tightrope walking but with more speed and excitement.

Stay Light on Your Feet

Think of your feet as springs, lightly bouncing off the ground. This technique helps reduce the impact on your joints. And makes it easier for you to adapt to changing terrain. Staying light also means you can react faster to unexpected obstacles.

Fuel and Hydrate Yourself 

Trail running takes significantly more out of you from an energy depletion perspective than road running. Bring enough water and snacks to give you energy. You can carry a hydration pack and some energy gels or bars. Sip water regularly and take small bites of your snacks to maintain your stamina.

Don’t Forget to Enjoy the Experience

Trail running is as much about the experience as it is about the workout. Stay mindful of your surroundings, listen to the sounds of nature, and enjoy the views. 

Remember — at the end of the day, this is supposed to be fun! 👏

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Ready to Hit the Trails?

Lace up those shoes and grab your hydration pack. Get ready to explore nature, challenge yourself, and find a new sense of adventure.

If you’re eager to hit the trails but don’t want to go it alone, join us for a guided trail run

Our expert guides share their best tips and take you on some of the most beautiful trails around Detroit. It’s the perfect way to learn, meet fellow trail enthusiasts, and have an amazing time.

Are you in?!


This article serves as an opinion piece on trail running to educate but should not be used as direct fitness, training, or medical advice. Always consult your healthcare professional(s) before making changes to your physical activity habits.


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