The Art and Science of Trail Running

The Art and Science of Trail Running

Perhaps you’re not exactly sure what it is, but by now you’ve no doubt heard of trail running. With an estimated 20 million new participants in the last decade, this rugged outdoorsy running has been one of the world’s fastest growing sports, according to the International Track and Field Federation.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact birth date of trail running. It had a big push through Europe in the 1990s and early aughts, but the first organized races actually took place in California back in the ‘70s. As a fitness pastime, the pandemic helped it become more and more popular as people looked beyond the gym and home treadmills to spend more time out in nature, soaking up Vitamin D, while also getting in a workout.

As the name suggests, trail running is a type of running that takes place off roads or tracks - and typically on wilderness trails. Generally, the runs involve more changes in elevation along with a diverse range of surfaces. At its best, the sport provides an immersive experience within natural landscapes, through the mountains, near water coastlines, in the wilds of the desert or in the depths of the forests.

One of the greatest benefits of running in nature (besides the fresh air) is the unpredictability. As any coach or trainer will tell you, the key to getting better in any physical discipline is getting a little uncomfortable and challenging yourself. If you never step outside your comfort zone, you’ll likely miss out on growth and experience. Even if you run the same trail day after day, the subtle shifts in the natural landscape provide enough changes to keep you alert and guessing. That can be intimidating, especially in the beginning for city dwellers or treadmill junkies. But it’s what makes you better.


As you start running in the wild, you’ll notice that this is a different kind of stride. Pavement runners utilize longer strides to cover more ground quickly, but in trail running, to maintain balance with the uneven ground, you’ll want to practice taking shorter strides that keep your feet under your body and provide you with plenty of traction. You might want to swing your arms a little more too, to help with your balance.

The upside to the rougher terrain is that it’s actually better for your body. It thoroughly engages the muscles in your core, while activating more of the smaller muscles in your feet and ankles - this improves your running game overall, be it on a trail or the track. You’ll notice improvements in your stamina, endurance and balance. Plus, many runners feel the trails are easier on your knees and legs since you’re not impacting hard asphalt or concrete. And since you’re covering more challenging terrain, you typically get a higher calorie burn than with straightforward road running. What’s more, this natural and immersive experience is often more empowering and mentally stimulating. Perhaps there’s a primal connection to running through the wilderness.

Of course, due to the varied surfaces and obstacles, trail running is more physically demanding than standard running on a road or track. Which is why it’s imperative to take your time easing into the sport. This is a less pace-driven run -  different lengths and elevations will inevitably lead to varying speeds. David Kilgore, who made his debut for Team USA in 2019 and is sponsored by On, says to start easy and grow from there. “Try an hour and then try more the next time,” he told Runner’s World. “Once you understand what your body needs on the trail, you’ll spend more time out there.”

The most important piece of equipment for any runner will always be your shoes. But for trail running, you want durable sneakers that are built to tackle the terrain. These sneakers tend to be designed a little lower to the ground, yet offer substantial protection for the soles of your feet. Most have substantial lugs for better grip. And while most sneaker brands (think Nike and Adidas) make trail runners, a lot of runners prefer more modern, specialized makers like On and Arc’teryx for their footwear.

Ready to run? If you’re looking for the best trails near you, Kilgore recommends the Trail Run Project, Strava heat maps and Alltrails as good places to start.

* Further Reading: Trail Running Illustrated: The Art of Running Free is a simple, straightforward book packed with solid info and tips for getting the hang of trail running; there’s even some instruction on how to fall properly to avoid serious injury.
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