Off the Beaten Track: US Trail Runs

In Outdoor, Running

Scrambling up rocky hillsides, dodging hikers and remote, long distances – trail running may sound extreme, but it doesn’t have to be. At its simplest, it is just a run off the beaten track. Sure, some runners notch up hundreds of kilometres across treacherous terrain, but plenty of others do short runs through a field, or along coastline.  It falls under the ‘fell running’ umbrella, also known as mountain or hill running.

Woman enjoying keeping fit, in the midst of a trail runThere are many competitive trail runs, but generally the focus is on participation, fun and camaraderie.  Compared to hitting the pavement, trail running burns 10% more calories, while improving balance and agility.

It has all the benefits of road running, but you’re likely to find yourself in slightly more awe-inspiring surroundings. It can put less strain on your joints – often a downside to running on tarmac. This is because trails tend to be found on softer ground, which absorbs some of the strain as you land foot-by-foot. You also have to really focus on your footing and balance without the consistent pounding that comes with road running.  Trail running encompasses all of the usual mental benefits, such as release of endorphins and that sense of escapism, but it is enhanced by being in the great outdoors, surrounded by nature instead of fumes and can be a very mindful experience, encouraging you to focus your awareness on balance and footing, plus, it often presents a new and exciting physical challenge, which is also great for mind and body.

Between 2012-15, trail running increased in popularity by 35%. What’s more, the American Trail Running Association has seen a staggering increase in trail races of 143% in the past 10 years. If you fancy spicing up your running life, this could well be worth a try. You could get hooked and start looking for global trail running events – these range from a few kilometres to multi-day events. But with so much on offer, particularly across the US, how do you get started?

Couple running through the grand canyon on a trail run

We’ve put together some pointers to help you on your way:

Pick a Route

There are lots of route planners and trail run maps online to choose from,  pick a route that you think works for you and let someone know where you are going. Better still, go with someone – if you need help and you are off the beaten track you are less likely to have the help of a friendly passer-by!

Consider joining a club

If you are a bit nervous about getting started, then it might be worth joining a club of other likeminded trail runners. This can help with route planning, as well as motivation, plus it can be a lot safer to run with someone, or in a groupThere are lots of different clubs, so get online to find one that suits you.

Think Terrain

For your first trail run, start out with a relatively flat to rolling course. Don’t attempt to run up a 14,000 foot peak on your first trip out of the door! Gradually add more elevation, distance, and challenge to your run each time. Challenge comes in terms of footing, steepness and altitude.

When you are running uphill be sure to use your entire foot, as opposed to running on your toes. Roll through the ball of your foot. Toe runners often have screaming calves at the summit of an ascent. On downhill sections avoid using your breaking muscles and slow down in order to save your quadriceps. You can also use a ‘traversing’ technique on very steep downhill sections, similar to a skier, weaving from right to left across the width of the trail.

Many trail runners also use special shoes with very knobby soles. These tend to be more rigid than road running shoes and lower to the ground to provide better stability on uneven terrain.

Think Distance not Time

If you are used to road running, you probably measure your achievements by distance, but you need to change your mentality with trail running and think time – it may well take you a lot longer to run five kilometres off road than it would on the road, and, often, it is harder work from head to foot, but equally, if not more, beneficial.

Look where you are going

Sounds obvious, but most trail running injuries are acute, such as sprained ankles, or a bruised hand, because runners look up to enjoy the scenery for too long. To really enjoy the view, take a breather and stop and look around, otherwise it is important to keep an eye on your footing, as the ground is uneven.

Dress for all occasions

Always be prepared for current weather conditions and plan for changes. If you are heading out for a 20-minute run, chances are the conditions will remain similar throughout its duration. However, if you are going out for longer, the weather can change very quickly, or the wind direction might make you really feel the chill.  It is worth taking appropriate wind jackets, tights, or a cap to keep you warm if needed. It might help to take a backpack with you, too.


Make sure you take enough water with you and possibly even an energy snack, depending on your planned distance.

Man trail running at dusk

Finding a Trail Run

With more than 1,500 trail run events across the US, the continent really is your oyster. But if you’re a first timer, or relatively new to the sport, then check out, which has a map where you can pick your area and difficulty. If you’re looking for a race, then take a look at

Here are a few options that we’d love to try:

Breakneck Ridge Trail via Wikimedia Commons ScubaBear68Breakneck Ridge Trail, Hudson Highlands State Park

Breakneck Ridge Trailthis trail is located in New York State’s Hudson Highlands State Park, and rises from river level up to a knobby ridge. This is one for the hardcore trail runner, since the start is a steep scramble and not actually suitable for running. However, get past that and you’re good to go. You’ll also be rewarded with views of the Hudson River, Shawangunk, and Catskill Mountains.

Grand Canyon Half Marathonthe Grand Canyon has to be high on many an outdoor lover’s ‘must-see’ list, but if you fancy making it really interesting, why not try a half marathon? It won’t be easy, but the landscape will more than make up for it, with views of one of the most beautiful environments in the US.

Glacier Gorge Traverse – this is another toughie, but again your efforts will be rewarded with the spectacular Colorado scenery, including cascading waterfalls, and beautiful alpine lakes. The Traverse is a classic among hardcore trail runners and involves plenty of climbing, as well as running.

Appalachian Trail leading from Crampton Gap To Harpers Ferry, West Virginia – this 9.8-mile stretch of Appalachian Trail is particularly popular thanks to a secluded forest ridgetop, views of the Potomac River, and the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath. It’s a fairly easy trail without too much climbing, but it can get crowded with hikers.

Silver Falls Trail half marathon – this is a loop course that takes you through the fir tree forests of Oregon’s 9,000-acre Silver Falls State Park and past an impressive 10 waterfalls. You’ll also get the opportunity to run right under the 136-foot North Falls. Probably one of the reasons that it has been voted best Oregon trail half marathon.

Tuck Fest – why not make it a family affair with this three-day outdoor festival in North Carolina? It features a variety of outdoor sports competitions, including trail running and biking. The name comes from a local historical landmark, called the Tuckaseegee Ford and Trail. It’s open to everyone, including a family obstacle race. You can pay a flat fee of $35 to take part in as many events as you like. For trail runners, there’s a half marathon, a quarter marathon, or a five-kilometre race. Or, try the 5K twilight run, which starts just before sunset.

Image Copyright: Fitness couple on Grand Canyon trail run maridav / 123RF Stock Photo Trail run at dusk warrengoldswain / 123RF Stock Photo Hero image of woman on trail run warrengoldswain / 123RF Stock Photo