How to run on trails — without making newbie mistakes (like I did)

by lachicaruns on

I’ve been running for five years now (three of them on trails) and I still make newbie mistakes. But you don’t have to.

There are lots of ways you can run on trails without getting lost or getting eaten by mosquitoes. Here are my best tips:

  • Plan. Just last week, I headed out on what I knew would be a three-mile trail run with no water, gear or phone. Sure, I was fine, but I would have been a whole lot more comfortable in the full sun with a little bit of water. I also missed taking pics of the deer I saw on the trail. And a bit of mosquito repellent would have saved me from bites all along my ankles.
  • Leave a trail. OK, you’re not Hansel and Gretel, but at least tell someone where you’re going, how far you’re planning to run and when you expect to be back.
  • Know where you’re going. Get as much information about the route before you head out, whether that’s getting a paper map or taking a picture of the map on the trail head.
  • Learn to read a map. In Michigan, trail maps typically show you where each marker is. Most trails also are assigned a color and list a distance. For example, I just ran through the yellow trail around Fort Custer State Campground in Battle Creek, Mich. Because I looked at the map, I knew it was a four-mile loop and that I could pick it up right by my campsite. But you should know that the distance between each marker does not necessarily correspond with a particular mileage. So, there may or may not be a full mile between mile marker one and two. The map may or may not show the distance between the mile markers either.
  • Related: Use the map, but pay attention. I ran that yellow trail three times in the week we camped at Fort Custer. The first time, I had already been running for a mile around the campground, so I went out a mile on the yellow trail, turned around and headed back. However, the second time, I didn’t look at the marker by the campsite, so it took me a few minutes of looking at the map to see where the trail connected with the campground so I could get back to my campsite. Doh.

    After a while, most trails look the same, so pay attention.

  • Pick one trail and stick to it. If there are multiple trails that intersect, pick a color or a trail name and stay on it the whole time. If you’re new, you may notice that some trails appear to split off, leaving you wondering whether to make a turn. Remember that most trails are like the highway; you want to stay on the main road unless there’s an arrow pointing to your exit (in this case, trail).

    Look closely: The yellow trail continues on the left, but you would have wanted to turn right if you were following the red trail.

  • Run with friends if you can. I don’t mind running trails by myself, but running with friends is a whole lot more fun. Plus, you get validation from them that, yes, you are definitely approaching a hill and should walk instead of run for a minute to catch your breath. And the jokes about just needing to be faster than all the other runners when encountering a bear never get old.
  • Have fun. Trail running — at least for us back-of-the-packers — is supposed to be slower and more enjoyable. Look around. Enjoy the view and the sounds. Maybe you’ll even fall in love with trail running. And remember: not every stick is a snake!

Do you run on trails? Any tips for newbies? Any mistakes you’ve made that you’ve since corrected? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

Written by: lachicaruns

My name is Gisgie. It's pronounced geese (like the birds) and gee (like the letter). Now that we've met, I'm glad you're here. I'm an injury-prone runner who manages to find reasons to keep coming back to the road despite ongoing challenges. Most recently, I've struggled with piriformis syndrome. I'm currently winning. Most days.

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