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Trail Blazing: Introduction to Trail Running

Where the rubber leaves the road


As running continues to grow in popularity both in the US and worldwide, so too do the variations on it. Marathons, ultra marathons, team relays, obstacle course races, and costumed 5ks are just a few examples. There truly is a run for anyone. One of the simplest and probably the oldest variations is heading into the woods for some trail running. Ever since human beings started walking around on two feet, we’ve been trail running, well before cobblestones and asphalt made permanent paths for us to follow. Getting out into nature and doing something we were arguably born to do can be a welcome respite from the modern world and a chance to connect with nature in a very primal way.

While trail running is fairly self explanatory in its definition, there are a myriad of ways to participate: anything from jogging a walking path in your local nature reserve to running 168km at altitude in the Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc. Either way, you need to get off paved roads, off the treadmill and into nature. The truly bold might even forgo bringing their iPod/iPhone and simply listen to their breathing, their footfall, and the sounds of nature around them.

If you’re ready to jump the curb and hit the trails, we’ve outlined a few things to consider after the break.

Special thanks to Merrell shoes and clothes for helping make this post possible.


Where are you going to run:

Unlike road running, trail running requires a little more research and planning. It’s fine to step out the door and run around your town as there’s almost always someone to ask for directions, or a bus to catch home. On the trail, you’re often lucky to see another person the whole time, and there aren’t cabs to hail if you get tired. If you’re a frequent runner already, ask your running buddies if they’ve trail run in the area before and have any recommendations. Google is always your friend in these situations. Organizations such as the American Trail Running Association are another great place to start looking, since they maintain a robust database on trails by state. Depending on your fitness level, hiking organizations also provide excellent information on the trails they maintain — which can make for an exhilarating and challenging trail runs. We wouldn’t recommend starting off trying to run the Presidential Traverse though…20+ miles at altitude is rough enough just hiking.

Road running shoes aren’t going to cut it on the trail. Roots, rocks, mud, and detritus will all conspire against the slick soles of a road shoe and leave you stumbling and slipping your way through your run.

Who are you going to run with:

Take Note:
The Dipsea Race: America’s Oldest Trail Race


The Dipsea Race was first ran in 1905. It is run on the second Sunday in June, every year and spans 7.4 miles from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. It’s treacherous and stunning. This year’s race, the 103rd, will occur on Sunday, June 9th at 8:30 am

The Oldest Trail Runner in America

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Meet Jack Kirk, the 94-year old trail runner on his 66th consecutive attempt at The Dipsea race. Feeling inspired yet?

Prefer barefoot running? Consider reading our Back to Basics, Back to Barefoot article.

Running solo is certainly its own little slice of paradise at times, and it can be a cheap substitute for therapy. But, running with someone else can provide needed company, variety, and motivation on the trail. Plus, like in any workout worth doing, a partner can hold you accountable on those days you’d rather sit down with a pizza and catch up on your back logged DVR…it happens to even the most strong willed amongst us. Drag a friend with you if you can, or use your new venture as a way to make some new friends. Most running clubs will do the occasional trail run, and there are plenty of trail running clubs as well. Hit the interwebs and find a group to link up with.


Safety is incredibly important when trail running and links in with our previous two points. Know where you’re going to run, how far, and roughly how long it might take you. Whether you’re running solo or with a friend, tell someone else where you’re going and roughly when you should be back. If you twist an ankle 3 miles into the woods, it’s really nice to know someone might come to look for you soon. Go with a buddy if you can; there’s a reason why the boy scouts, military, and most athletes work and train in pairs, it’s safer. If something goes awry, having someone else with you can literally be a life saver. Check the weather; there won’t be a Starbucks to duck into if thunderstorms blow in suddenly. This way you can bring a rain jacket if need be, and worse case head to the gym if the trail isn’t a possibility for the day. Bring more water than you think you need. There’s nothing worse than running dry with miles to go. Dehydration kills no matter what season it is. Companies like Camelbak make super light weight hydration bladder backpacks that you can carry a few liters of water in and some Clif Bars in for emergencies. They’re worth the affordable price.


Running form is something we’ve covered before in our article on “Barefoot Running.” You’re better off with a mid to fore-foot strike, taking short strides and allowing the musculature of your lower legs to absorb the impact of your steps. The key difference of trail running form is that you’ll need to be more aware and conscious of where each step goes. Keep your eyes looking in front of you for obstacles like roots and loose rocks that could easily make you take a fall. Pick your steps and tread lightly. You’ll find yourself even more engaged in your run than usual. It can be tiring, but it certainly won’t be boring.


Road running shoes aren’t going to cut it on the trail. Roots, rocks, mud, and detritus will all conspire against the slick soles of a road shoe and leave you stumbling and slipping your way through your run. You’re going to want a shoe that’s light, as the probability of your feet getting wet or caked in mud on the trail is higher — and the heavier they are dry, the more they’ll feel like concrete blocks when wet and muddy. A grippy aggressive sole is another must. It will provide traction for on all types of terrain, and allow you to run with confidence in your footing.

As with the shoe options for “Barefoot Running,” Merrell makes some excellent trail running shoes. We’re partial to their new Mix Master 2 ($110). At 8.1oz a shoe, they’re extremely light on the foot. They also have a 4mm drop between the heel and forefoot, providing a close to neutral ride for your foot. This helps when trying to run with a mid/forefoot strike, which we always strive to do. The Mix Master 2 is built on Merrell’s Float platform which provides improved ground feedback as it’s 10% thinner and 25% lighter than before. Lastly, they feature Merrell’s mixed sole with sticky rubber lugs for secure footing.


Depending on how far you’re planning to go on the trail, we recommend packing more or less gear accordingly. As mentioned, Camelbak makes some solid running backpack options that integrate hydration bladders and room to bring food and spare layers. Clothing with built in insect repellent and SPF is always a good idea as well to protect from ticks and sun damage.

Do your homework and then hit the trail. No matter where your travels find you, you can run anywhere, and there are always new trails to be found or made. Stay safe and maybe we’ll see you at the Western States one of these days…we’ll be drinking an IPA and cheering though; there’s no way we’re running that one!

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