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7 Mistakes Beginning Trail Runners Make (And how to avoid them)

Are you new to off-road running?  You’re certainly not alone.  More and more road runners are taking it to the trails these days.  And for good reason.  Road running certainly has its perks, but there’s something special about being away from buildings and traffic and running on softer surfaces with the scent of nature in your nose.  But have you ever wondered if you know what you’re doing (I have 🙋🏻‍♀️)?  There are some mistakes beginning trail runners tend to make (regardless of how long they’ve been running anywhere else).  This post attempts to outline some of the most common ones.

7 mistakes beginning trail runners make and how to avoid them

1. Worrying about pace

Many trail newbies are often surprised to find their average pace to be quite a bit slower than what they’re used to.  The truth is, your trail pace will almost always be slower than your pace on the road.

This can be due to a number of factors.

Hills, rocky terrain, roots, switchbacks, mountains (hello, climbing!), and other obstacles can all slow you down.  Depending on how technical the trail is and how much climbing you have to do (which is sometimes a power hike instead of a run uphill), your average pace can be anywhere from 30 seconds per mile slower up to 5+ minutes per mile slower than your road pace.

Hills will slow you down, especially as a beginning trail runner!
Hills like these are sure to slow you down!

Even a simple, flat, non-technical trail can yield a slower pace because you’ll fatigue sooner on the softer surface.

How to avoid this mistake

Instead of worrying about your splits, try enjoying the fact that you get the privilege of running out in nature.  You don’t have to leave your Garmin at home, but try ignoring it when you’re on the trail (preaching to myself here, too 😉).  Focus on your effort instead of your pace.  

2. Leaving water (or electrolytes or fuel) at home

This is one of those mistakes that’s not fun to make.

You’ll typically be out on the trail for a longer period of time for the same distance run on the road.  Add getting lost to that, and you could be in trouble with no water (and possibly without electrolytes or fuel of any kind).  What you think might be a quick 4-mile run, can easily turn into much more.

I’ve been out on longer trail runs and run out of water because I underestimated just how hot it would be and how much fluid I would need.  Having to cut a run short or walk the rest of the way back to your car because you’re dizzy and tingly from lack of hydration/electrolytes is probably not how you want to spend your morning. 😜

How to avoid this mistake

Don’t make it.  It’s that simple.

Seriously though, bring water!  If you’re unfamiliar with the trail you’re going to, definitely bring water.

You don’t have to have a fancy hydration vest or belt to carry it.  You can bring any bottle you have, although there are some handheld options on the market that will make it a little easier to tote your fluids around on the trail.

Duck tape a Zephyrhills bottle to your hand if you have to, for goodness sake.  Just bring some water.

A few of the many hydration options available…

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And if you plan to be out for a longer run (say anything over 45 minutes to an hour), bring a snack (or two or three) as well.  Real food, gels, chews…whatever your preference is.  You also would be wise to bring some form of electrolytes (I like this and this), most especially if you’re running in warmer weather.

3. Not knowing where you’re going

This is a safety issue.

If you don’t know where you’re going, you just might…

  1. Get lost
  2. Be out waaay longer than you planned
  3. Need a bathroom
  4. Get stuck in the dark.  On the trail.  Without a light.  😬

How to avoid this mistake

Plan out your route beforehand.  Use an app like AllTrails to help you find a beginner-friendly trail with an easy-to-read map.  Look for trails that are marked.  Are there bathrooms at the trailhead?  If not, you may have to go on the trail.  Be prepared for that.

AllTrails is a great app to help beginning trail runners find trails
AllTrails is a great app for finding trails

Better yet, go with a friend who has some experience on the trails and knows where he or she is going.

4. Not telling someone where you’re going

This is another potential safety issue.

You may be used to lacing up your sneakers and heading out in your neighborhood without telling anyone.  While I think you should let a friend or significant other know anytime you go out for a run (as women, we can’t be too vigilant), heading to the trail leaves even more reason to let someone know where you’re going.

Now, I don’t say this to scare you or create an unnecessary fear of trail running, but it’s important to be aware that a number of different things could happen while out on the trail (especially one that’s new to you).

As mentioned above, you can get lost.  You could trip and fall, injuring yourself.  You could encounter a dangerous critter.  You could run out of water (see #2).

If someone knows where you’re going (and what you’ll be doing), they can get help to you should you need it.

How to avoid this mistake

Tell a friend or family member where you’re going and how long you plan to be there.  It’s also a good idea to let them know what you’re wearing so you can be spotted more easily should the need arise.

5. Zoning out on the run

One of the things we runners like to do is zone out while we run. Whether we’re listening to music or letting our minds wander, we put one foot in front of the other and don’t pay much attention to the ground in front of us.

This doesn’t work out so well on the trail.

A lack of being present and focusing on your surroundings can land your head smack-dab into a branch or, even worse, flat onto a path of sand and rocks.  Ouch.

Running on trails demands ankle strength and mobility, which many of us don’t have a ton of, especially when we’re just starting out.  This makes it even easier to trip over a root or twist an ankle.  Even more reason to pay attention.

Beginning trail runners - don't zone out when running on terrain like this!
Stay alert to avoid tripping over rocks like these on the trail!

How to avoid this mistake

If you’re new to the trails, know that it’s very likely that you will trip and fall at some point in your trail running career.  Don’t be embarrassed – it doesn’t mean you’re a bad runner.

But you can take some precautions to minimize your risk of falling or getting hurt.

Stay alert and pay attention.

  • Be aware of what’s around you – especially on the ground.

Leave the headphones at home.

  • Most especially when you’re new to the trail, you want to be able to hear someone or something (critters!) coming around the corner.

Keep your gaze on the terrain in front of you.

  • Watch out for roots, rocks, and other obstacles, and plan your steps accordingly.
  • Also look up regularly to check for hanging obstacles (i.e., tree branches).

Listen and watch out for bikers.

  • Many local trail systems are shared with mountain bikers.  In my experience, they’re usually pretty good at letting you know they’re coming (and how many are coming after them), but this isn’t always the case.  Sometimes they don’t know you’re there because they don’t see or hear you.  It’s your job to be aware of them.  It’s much easier for you to hop off to the side of the trail real quick so they can pass by than it is for them to stop or to try to ride around you.

6. Wearing the wrong shoes

For many flat, non-technical trails, you can get away with wearing road shoes.  That’s not the case for other types of trails.  If you’re going to be on rocky, hilly, slippery, or mountainous trails, you’d be wise to invest in a pair of trail shoes.

Trail sneakers have important features that road shoes lack to help you get the job done. 

They typically have a “stickier” bottom with lugs (the “bumps” on the outsole) to improve traction on dirt and other soft surfaces.  Many models also include a rock plate for added protection when going over jagged rocks and roots. Finally, trail shoes are made to withstand the extra wear and tear that comes with running off-road.

Beginning trail runners - wear proper shoes for rocky trails!
I would avoid smooth-bottomed sneakers like these – especially on a trail like this one!

How to avoid this mistake

Fleet Feet experts make this distinction: “If you’re on singletrack (only wide enough for one person to run) or you have to look down at the trail to find solid footing, you should probably be running in trail running shoes.”  So if that sounds like you, go getcha some trail sneakers!

Just like with road shoes, there’s no one-brand-best-for-all shoe.  Different runners have different preferences based on what works best for their feet.  You need to find the trail shoes that work best for your feet.

If you’re on singletrack (only wide enough for one person to run) or you have to look down at the trail to find solid footing, you should probably be running in trail shoes.

If you have a local running store in your area (and especially if you’ve never been fitted for running shoes before), go and let the experts there help you find your best fit.

Here are just a few of the many trail sneaker options on the market.

7. Not picking up your feet (hello, tripping)

I’m sorry my friends.  The marathon shuffle isn’t going to cut it out on the trail.  Not picking up your feet is a surefire way to trip and fall.  Many trails are bumpy, uneven, and may have rocks, roots, and other obstacles.    These become major hazards to shuffling feet.

How to avoid this mistake

Pick up your feet.

Sounds simple, and it pretty much is.  It’s one of those things you’re going to have to remind yourself of, especially as you get tired.  And if you find yourself shuffling and tripping because you’re fatigued, it could be a sign that you need to walk for a bit (or even call it a day).

Also focus on taking smaller steps instead of larger strides.  You’ll reduce the likelihood of slipping by keeping your center of gravity over your feet.

7 mistakes beginning trail runners make and how to avoid them

Are you ready?

So, my beginning trail runner friend, which of these “mistakes” have you made?  I can tell you that I made at least 4 of them when I was first starting out.  🤦🏻‍♀️

I hope this list was helpful and gets you ready to go out and conquer those trails with more confidence.  You can do it! 💪🏼

Disclaimer: You should understand that when participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in exercise or training I recommend, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself, and agree to release and discharge Running With Roots from any and all claims or causes of action, known or unknown, arising out of Running With Roots. Please speak with a medical professional before making any changes to your diet or exercise. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. The views expressed are based on my own experiences, and should not be taken as medical, nutrition or training advice.

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