Trail Running : ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal

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DEPARTMENTS: Fitness Focus

Trail Running

Roy, Brad A. Ph.D., FACSM, FACHE

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal 19(3):p 3-4, May/June 2015. | DOI: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000115
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In Brief

This copy-and-share column discusses Trail Running.

Summer and fall are terrific seasons to add variety to your workouts by indulging in a bit of trail running. Defined as anything “off road” or running on unpaved surfaces such as gravel and dirt paths, trail running has significantly increased in popularity during the past decade. Getting away from the hard surfaces, traffic, and pollution of the roads is mentally refreshing and may help to reinvigorate your training routine.


Because trail surfaces generally are more porous than pavement and sidewalks, they tend to be a bit easier on our joints and may lessen the likelihood of experiencing an overuse injury. Trails offer a variety of terrain that will stimulate strength development, both in the primary muscles and the smaller accessory muscles that provide support and stability as we move. In addition, the varied surfaces experienced during the course of a trail run stimulate improved proprioception (knowing where your limbs are in space), balance, agility, and mental focus.

Best of all, trail running is FUN. The wide variety of terrain and challenges makes workouts fly by!


Trails, especially those with significant elevation and surface changes, can be quite challenging. Thus, it is important to introduce trail running gradually by incorporating easier, flatter routes to begin with. Initially, introduce trail running 1 to 2 days each week. The varied surfaces/terrain will result in a slower running pace than a similar effort on the roads. Thus, it is important to run by effort (easy to moderate) and not focus on your actual pace. One of the most common trail running mistakes people make is starting too fast.

Successfully negotiating trails, especially more challenging routes, requires a strong mental focus, overall agility to maneuver over and around obstacles, and strength to negotiate hills and uneven surfaces. Thus, strength training should be part of the overall training program. An ACSM-certified personal trainer can assist with setting up a well-rounded conditioning program.


Varied surfaces, hills, obstacles, and trail angles require a variety of running techniques to travel the route safely. Following are a few tips that will help make the trail adventure more comfortable:

  • Relax — many beginners are fearful of falling and have a tendency to tense up. Tensing up reduces our agility and ability to maneuver around obstacles. Trail running is a skill that needs to be practiced and gradually increased in difficulty. Start with easier trails to build confidence and gain technique and conditioning.
  • Don’t overstride — Stride length on trails, especially for beginners, should be shorter than the typical stride used on the roads. A shorter stride keeps the foot plant closer to the center of gravity, allowing us to be lighter on our feet to react to rocks, roots, and other sudden terrain changes.
  • Uphill — Focus on staying relaxed, using your arms and taking shorter quicker strides with good knee lift. Should the pace uphill slow too much because of the steep terrain, consider walking for a bit because this may be more efficient.
  • Downhill — There is a tendency to overstride and brake while running downhill. This is hard on muscles and joints and makes it more challenging to avoid rocks and other obstacles. Keep your feet underneath you, not out in front, and your foot plant light and rolling.
  • Stay safe; follow the safety tips in Box 1.
Box 1:
Safety Tips

While fun, invigorating, and at times challenging, venturing off-road onto trails is not without risk. However, with proper preparation, technique, and safety considerations, trail running can add an enjoyable dimension to your training regimen.

© 2015 American College of Sports Medicine.