Trail Running: a beginner’s guide to trails, trail safety and trail running shoes & gear
Explore some scenic southern beauty with running’s cooler, more fun and laid back little sister—TRAIL running! Ashley Walsh, an ultramarathoner and trail runner, outlines the best, beginner-friendly ways to get started, from choosing a trail to choosing the perfect trail running shoe and gear.
Find a running trail
It’s important to keep in mind that running a route on trails generally takes longer than doing the same distance on pavement. For instance, a six mile run that typically takes you an hour on asphalt could take an additional 20 minutes on trail.
Many of Georgia’s larger parks have nature and hiking trails hidden in them. To scope out which trails your local parks offer, check out the park’s website, the park’s information booth, or find a trail with the Atlanta Trails map search. Familiarize yourself with a map and description of the trails you want to try. Pay attention to the elevation gain, and difficulty level of the route so you know what your legs are in for. And plan your water and food needs accordingly! It’s important to stay well-hydrated on the trail.
Before you get your feet totally wet, it’s a good to start with shorter trails to get comfortable with trail running. Your first trail run should be fairly flat and void of heavy elevation change, and non-technical (which means none of that difficult, rooty stuff just yet!). Look for a route that is marked well, and doesn’t wander too far from the trailhead or parking lot.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite non-technical routes, all a short drive from Atlanta:
Cochran Shoals Trail on the Chattahoochee River (3.1 miles)
Sweetwater Creek State Park Yellow Trail (3.3 miles)
Fort Yargo State Park Lake Loop (5-7 miles)
Many runners are scared to transition to trail running because they fear injuries. While you’re certainly more likely to twist an ankle while jumping over roots and rocks, you can lessen those chances by learning to run more cautiously. Constantly scan the ground in front of you as you run—looking up and ahead, and then also 2-4 feet in front of you, keeping an eye out for any change in terrain, sneaky roots, and rocks. The more covered the trail is by pine needles or leaves, the more careful you need to be. Adjust your stride to pick your feet up a little higher than you would on pavement, and step lightly: you should always be prepared to land on something that could be unstable.
Running on trails safely requires you to pay attention to not only the trail, but also your surroundings. Try to avoid ‘zoning out’ or listening to loud music with headphones. Take care to remember any turns your route takes and any signage you pass. Many parks have emergency markings on their trails. Pay attention to these numbers as you pass them, just in case you need them in the future!
While learning a new trail, I like to run ‘out and backs’. This means that I start at the trailhead and run in one direction for a set amount of time. Then, I turn around and retrace my steps back to my car. This helps me gain more familiarity with specific parts of the trail, so that I can run on them more confidently the next time.
And bring a buddy: it’s a good idea to always run with a friend in the woods. If you do decide to run alone, stay prepared for an emergency. Be sure that someone knows the exact trail you’re running, how far you’re running, and when you’ll check in after the run. Carry a cell phone, a snack, and ample water with you at all times.
Gear up: trail running gear & shoes
You don’t actually need anything at all to take a short run in the woods, but the right trail running shoes and gear will enhance your experience. Check out our full trail running gear list for the full list of our favorite, trail-tested gear.
I like to stash all of my necessities in my favorite hydration pack, the Nathan Intensity. (This is the women’s pack design; the men’s is the Nathan HPL #020). This running pack provides 2L of water storage, and generous pocket space for everything you need to run safely in the woods. It also doesn’t bounce at all, so your shoulders and back will thank you for after a few miles!
While it’s not absolutely necessary to wear a shoe design specifically for trail running, finding the right shoe for your adventures will definitely optimize your experience. Trail running shoes offer better traction for uncertain trail conditions, and protection for your feet as you venture over rocks, roots, mud, and streams. Features like toe guards help prevent stubbed toes, rock plates help prevent stone bruises, and thicker mesh help keep debris out of your soles. If you already have a favorite running shoe, do some research to find if the brand offers a trail-running-specific shoe.
Most of the running specialty brands such as Mizuno, Brooks, Adidas and Nike offer a trail specific shoe. Sticking with a brand you already love will help make the transition to a trail shoe easier. My go-to trail shoe is the Mizuno Wave Kazan: it’s lightweight, and has great traction for all of my adventures.
You can find trail running shoes in Atlanta’s local running specialty stores, and outdoor retailers like REI.
To map your runs, and keep track of your performance, use a GPS watch or running app on your mobile phone. I use a GARMIN running watch to track how far I’ve gone, and how much elevation change I’ve covered. But free apps like MAPMYRUN and STRAVA can help you track your adventures as well. GPS watches and apps can also point you back to the trailhead in case you get lost, so it’s a good idea to keep one of these on you, charged and ready, during every adventure.
My favorite way to stay motivated and keep my running strong is to sign up for a trail race. Participating in races provides a fun way to meet other trail runners, and experience new trails. Follow my beginner 5k training plan for training tips and an 8-week plan to help get to the starting line in great shape.
There are many races around Georgia throughout the year varying in difficulty and distance. Some fun beginner-friendly races include the Dirty Spokes XTERRA Georgia Running Series, the Run Bum Tours “YETI NIGHTmare” 5/10 mile race in Douglas and the “Helen Holiday Half” Half marathon/10k in Helen, and the GUTS “Red Top Rumble” 11.5 miler at Red Top Mountain State Park.
From beginner to ultrarunner
My name is Ashley Walsh, and I’m a certified trail junkie! I grew up on a huge horse farm in the country. Our farm was inundated with beautiful rolling trails that my father carved with his own machete. I spent my childhood submersed in the natural world surrounding me—exploring, discovering, imagining. The woods became my first love! As an adult, I found that love restored in hiking and ultramarathon trail running.
An ultramarathon is any running race longer than the traditional 26.2 mile marathon in distance. These races take place in many mountain ranges and trail systems across the country. I’ve finished six different 100 [continuous] mile races. Trail running is my favorite mode of fitness and health. Taking my run into the the woods gives me the solitude, peace, and balance I crave on a daily basis. As much as I love running trails now, I didn’t become an ultrarunner overnight! I started small, and over time, my knowledge and love for running trails grew extensively.
I believe that anyone can enjoy the breath of fresh air that trail running provides! Taking your workout to the trails can add an adventurous flair to the typical mundane routine. It can help you unwind after a long day, or make that new goal of getting in shape more enjoyable. Trails can take your workout to more scenic places: waterfalls, mountain tops, and through tranquil woodland settings.
Get out there!
Hopefully you’re well on your way to enjoying running’s cooler, more fun and laid back little sister: TRAIL running! After you burn some miles on a few trails, check out our collection of Atlanta’s best running trails to find new adventures and keep things exciting. Most of all, remember just to have fun, get dirty, and enjoy the ride! The rest will fall into place. Happy trails!
Thank you for your support! - the Atlanta Trails crew