Looking to venture off of the beaten path and into the land of roots, trees, and yes, mud? Runners have been ditching the pavement in favor of the scenic route to experience running in a whole new light. Whether a wooded 5K or an obstacle-packed mud run sounds more your speed, there are countless ways to escape the usual sidewalks and treadmills and discover a whole new world of adventure. Before jumping in feet first, check out this guide to getting down and dirty on the trails.

Into the Wild — The Need-to-Know

Running has long been a way to reduce stress, build brain power, and get in a great sweat session. But running on the ‘mill or the same old side streets can get monotonous. Running on hard surfaces also has a way of revealing injuries — especially shin splints. Enter: Trail running, a healthy break from the usual pavement-pounding cardio sessions. And with peaceful scenery and the sounds of nature all around, runners can take a deep breath of fresh air, relieve stress, and maybe even improve mood, tooBiophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being? Grinde B, Patil GG. Norwegian Institute of Public Health, PO Box 4404 Nydalen, 0403 Oslo, Norway, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2009 Sep;6(9):2332-43. Epub 2009 Aug 31.. Just don’t be fooled: A tranquil trail run can take a troubling turn without the proper preparation.

Undercover Runner — Your Action Plan

Ready to venture into the wilderness? Take these steps before heading from the concrete or treadmill to the packed ground.

  1. Pick the appropriate kicks. Traditional running shoes probably won’t cut it on the trails. Trail running shoes will provide more support and traction as well as help keep water out. Check a local running store to ensure the proper fit.
  2. Sock it! Splurging on socks can prevent blisters and chafing during a long run. Opt for non-cotton socks before hitting the trails for optimal wicking ability, and to keep those feet nice and warm.
  3. Get weatherproofed. Proper gear can prevent you from ending a run prematurely due to the elements. Pick up the basics like a moisture-wicking, windproof jacket to stay warm and dry. A lightweight cap can be especially beneficial to prevent sunburn as well.
  4. Transition slowly. Trail running is much different than an easy jog on the pavement. The loose terrain poses a challenge to the ankles and feet as well as the core. Drop the mileage when first venturing out and start with only a few miles on the dirt before building up.
  5. Scout out the trail. There truly are different paths for different folks. Don’t venture out on a run without checking out the details of the trail beforehand. Find out the length of the trail, its difficulty level, and any ups and downs, or twists and turns along the way.
  6. Learn how to navigate. Reading a compass seems pretty outdated with the popularity of GPS, but knowing the difference between north and south can make a huge difference in the woods. Learn quick ways to determine direction and always have a general idea of how to get back home. A cell phone can also be extremely useful in case of emergency (just resist texting on the go!).
  7. Bring a buddy. Play it safe by having a friend or two tag along for the adventure. Not only can they be a useful resource for motivation, they can provide security and comfort in the event that something doesn’t quite go according to plan. When running alone, consider wearing some identification (Road ID has some stylish options) that lists pertinent medical and contact information.
  8. Look ahead. To avoid any trips and falls, runners should gaze ahead to prepare for what’s coming up on the trail. Instead of staring straight down, look 10 feet up the trail at all times to avoid rocks, roots, and any unexpected ditches (or animal traps!).
  9. Shorten that stride. Runners should slow down the pace and take shorter, faster strides to maintain balance and keep most of the weight centered over their feet. With more obstacles and unusual terrain, slashing personal records shouldn’t be the goal.
  10. Walk it out. Runners will undoubtedly encounter a wide variety of terrain on the trails. Don’t be afraid to walk down the steep areas and hike it up rough inclines. Doing so will help prevent injury and conserve energy for later in the run!
  11. Get well rounded. Not all training should go down on the trails. Supplement trail expeditions with cross training like cycling and lifting weights to help strengthen the glutes and prevent injuries on uneven ground.
  12. Stay fueled! Hydration levels can have a huge effect on performance. Be sure to have a water bottle close by for runs longer than five to six miles, especially in warmer weatherInfluence of hydration on physiological function and performance during trail running in the heat. Casa DJ, Stearns RL, Lopez RM, et al. Department of Kinesiology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut. Journal of Athletic Training, 2010 Mar-Apr;45(2):147-56.. For those who don’t want to fiddle with a bottle, hydration packs are a popular way to get down the fluids in convenient fashion. Also, a snack like a granola bar can go a long way in case the outing lasts longer than expected.
  13. Learn to share. Hikers, runners, and park rangers aren’t the only friends you can expect to see on the trail. (After all, it’s called the “wild” for a reason!) Always approach animals with caution and avoid making any subtle moves.
  14. Stay on track. Thrill seekers, this one’s for you! Avoid venturing off-course for spur of the moment expeditions. These adventures can disrupt wildlife and expose ankles and legs to poison ivy and other not-so-friendly plants.
  15. Be invisible. To protect and conserve the beauty of the forest, do your part by picking up any used water bottles and other trash. Help out the wildlife and fellow trail runners by leaving without a trace.

Ready to give trail running a shot? Check out the American Trail Running Association for an off-road adventure near you.

Have you had a great experience on the trails? Tell us in the comments below or tweet the author at @JeremeyD.