How to get started in trail running

  • Trail running: all you need to know before you start
  • Trail running: types of trail
  • Lacing Techniques for Foot Ailments
Date:23 August 2017 Tags:, , ,

Trail running is to road running what fly fishing is to traditional fishing: the main activity is the same, but the technical aspects are completely different. You’ve got to learn to read the land and trust your instincts.

By Kevin Dupzyk

Trail running is not the same as running around the block

You may find yourself climbing hills or descending along rivers, all while dancing around obstacles. Lean in a little when going uphill so you use the largest muscles in your body – your glutes. Going downhill, don’t lean back and ride your heels. That’s a good way to overload your thighs and end up sore or injured.

When you run through your neighbourhood, you probably don’t look too far past your feet. When trail running, your inclination may be to stare directly down, but your feet know what to do. Dodging those obstacles is pretty instinctive. You actually want to look about five metres ahead, so you can see approaching challenges with time to react to them.

Running injuries don’t usually come from doing it wrong, but from the stress of repetition, says Dan Lieberman of Harvard’s Skeletal Biology Lab. The natural environment pushes runners towards shorter, varied steps, which helps the body better absorb impacts.

What you need

Even though you’ll feel like a runner, you’ve got to think like a hiker: get gear suited to the place you want to run, and bring some backup for the unexpected.

Trail running shoes

Trail running shoes balance the light weight and breathability of road-running shoes with the durability and traction of hiking boots.

  • A rock-protection plate made of hardened rubber or plastic under the sole guards against the multitude of sharp objects you’ll encounter on the trail.
  • Lugs, the sections of tread on the bottom of your shoes, bite into softer surfaces like gravel, mud and snow for better grip. The trade-off: as lugs get bigger and chunkier, the contact area of the shoe decreases, making them less effective on harder surfaces, like rock faces. Lugs wear quickly on tar, too, so use them only on the trail.
  • Some shoes feature a waterproof bootie that wraps the foot, typically made of Gore-Tex. If you plan on running mostly in dry conditions and hot weather, you’ll appreciate the breathability of a less fortified shoe. But if you’re going to be jogging through rain and over riverbeds, a bootie will save you from soggy feet and blisters.
Trail running shoes

TIP: There’s a lot more debris on a trail than on the street. For about R350, you can get gaiters, cinching collars that cover the tops of your shoes to keep stuff out. (Some trail running shoes even come with gaiters built in.) Of course, you could also just wear taller socks, which you probably already own.

Lacing Techniques for Foot Ailments

Trail running: Lacing Techniques for Foot Ailments

1. Your toes hurt
Run the end of the lace from the bottom eyelet by your big toe to the top of the opposite side. Lace the other end in a zigzag fashion. This lifts the shoe off your toes.

2. Heel slippage
Lace the shoe as you normally would, but at the top two eyelets run the laces vertically, creating loops. Tie the laces through the loops to cinch the upper extra tight around your ankle.

3. The top of your foot hurts
Working up from the bottom, at the second set of eyelets, run the laces directly to the third eyelets to loosen the fit over your arch.

Trail running gear

Jogging in your neighbourhood doesn’t take much equipment, but in the woods, the right gear can be critical. Or at least keep you more comfortable.

Trail running backpack

You can carry two litres of fluid among the remaining 13 litres of cargo space in the low profile Adidas Terrex 15 backpack, which makes it great for extended excursions. It’s also breathable in all the right places, which is helpful. Backpack from: Duesouth

Trail running water bottle

Stash a 800 ml water bottle, cash and keys in the Capestorm Sprint Belt on a short run and forget it’s even there. Water bottle from: Capestorm

Trail running briefs

An internal mesh brief guards against chafing, three zipped pockets keep your valuables close at hand and moisture wicking fabric keeps things dry. K-Way’s Knox 14 has the perfect combination for running shorts. From: Cape Union Mart

Trail running shirt

Under Armour’s proprietary CoolSwitch technology uses a special coating on the inside of the moisture-wicking polyester/elastane fabric which pulls heat away from your skin. Strategic ventilation and a mesh back will keep you breezy in the open. From: Under Armour

Trail running top

“Cotton kills” is a mountain mantra that we won’t go against. Core Merino make a few fantastic lightweight 100 per cent merino wool shirts that regulate your body temperature, resist odour and wick away moisture. From: Core Merino

Trail running jacket

First Ascent’s Supreme running jacket is packable, lightweight and breathable, but will stop even the most vicious Cape Doctor and shrug off a Highveld shower. Jacket from: Sportsmans Warehouse

TIP: Runner Philip Gibb suggests keeping a first aid kit with you. A small kit with the basics could come in handy, especially if you fall when starting out.

Where to run

You can run anywhere you can hike. Just be mindful of crowds. Get out there early, when the air is fresh and most of the hikers are asleep.

Trail running: types of trail

Types of trail (left to right)

Rail trail
Wide, graded trail that uses rail right-of-way to get out into the wild without getting steeper than a train can handle.

Jeep track
Wide enough for a vehicle to use – these may be fire or access roads – but often rutted and remote.

Narrow, technical, secluded – what you picture in your mind when you hear “trail”. The experienced trail runner’s dream.

What to look for in a trail

By Stephanie Howe, The North Face trail runner and 2014 winner of the Western States 100, the most prestigious trail race in the USA.

“The best trails are the ones that take your breath away: narrow single-track that twists and winds up and down mountains and valleys. There are a lot of these trails that are accessible – when you’re ready for them. Those trails are usually littered with rocks, roots and scree, which forces you to be really careful about where you step.

“You won’t be used to that if you haven’t been off-road before. So when you’re just starting, look for something a little wider, because that will tend to be less technical. And when it comes to slopes, there’s something a little counterintuitive to keep in mind: though uphills are harder in terms of stamina, the downhills are what really can destroy your body, because of the heavy impacts, if you’re not used to them.

“You’ll feel sore the next day. Luckily, there’s a way to make sure the soreness is short-lived: keep hitting the trails.”

The trail map

The Trail Run Project’s Trail Finder (at or as an app) is a crowdsourced compendium of trails round the world. In addition to overall ratings for difficulty and quality, it includes stats like distance, trail type and elevation change, so you’ll know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.

Animals you may encounter when trail running

(in increasing level of threat)

Won’t bother you if you don’t bother it.

Mountain biker
If it follows you and doesn’t respond to repeated warnings, try putting a stick through its spokes.

Retreat slowly. If bitten, don’t apply a tourniquet or try to suck out the venom. Stay calm – an elevated heart rate will spread the venom.

Also watch out for other snakes, including cobras like Gauteng’s infamous rinkhals, black mambas and more.

Make yourself big, make noise, make eye contact, and back away slowly. (Or – like other big cats – just avoid running into one.)

Hippos are famously territorial and easily startled, always be on the look out and announce yourself if you do spot one. Make sure to stay on the land side, give it a wide berth and seek cover if it charges you.


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