How to Find the Perfect Running Trail

Trail runner with trekking poles
Trail runner with trekking polesAleksi Koskinen / Getty Images

Trail running is superior in so many ways: It promises softer surfaces, no cars, a diversity of terrain, and way better views. But finding a new trail in your backyard or the perfect one when you’re traveling can be tough. Here’s how to find a trail that both suits your geographic location, and your mood.

1. Pay Attention to Ground Cover
Trails range from super-technical (rocky, rooty, steep) singletrack up and down mountains, to mellow dirt paths through forests, to dirt roads in farmland, to beaches and more. Gravel and rock can pound more than asphalt while dirt roads are what most road runners are used to. Other places like sandy beaches and grassy marshes are both easier on your joints and also improve muscular strength and endurance (that’s not to say they’re easier on your lungs; sandy beaches are notorious for slow, hard running).

2. How to Find New Trails
To find a trail in your area, the easiest thing to do is ask a friend who trail runs. Or hikes. Or mountain bikes. Or walks their dog. Otherwise, inquiring at a running or outdoor store gives you access to folks who likely work at said shop because they spend a lot of time recreating outdoors. And shops often know of local clubs, races and events. Joining a trail or even road running club and participating in group runs exposes new trails, new routes. Hiking or mountain biking guidebooks and websites offer up data, too. (For web searches, type in “running (or hiking) trails in [your town here]”.) And then there’s always exploring on your own: heading out on a run from home and keeping an eye out for dirt, grassy, sandy paths…. Just keep your bearings so as to not get lost, and bring your phone.

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3. Plan a Trail-Running Vacation
Always wanted to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail? The Colorado Trail? While you may not run these multi-mile routes start to finish, know that any trail you can hike (or mountain bike, or horseback ride), you can run. Traveling to — and discovering by running — trails on your bucket list lets you cover more ground than if you were hiking, and you have time to soak it all in (bring your camera), running step by running step.

4. Change It Up
It’s human nature to want to push yourself — go farther, faster, see how you measure up to other trail runners. Whether your goal is to enter, finish or place well at a race, complete the longest climb in your area without walking (or heck, get on the leaderboard for a Strava segment), or run comfortably with a faster friend, amping up training will get you there. Like training for road running, adding workouts like tempo runs and hill repeats (on trails), and exercises at home like monster walks and pectoral stretches (improve lung capacity!) make you faster and stronger. The more running you do on technical terrain — even repeating the same section on the same run — will make picking through rocks and ruts second nature.

For more about trail running, check out Lisa Jhung’s new book, Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running.

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