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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Trail Running 101 : Tips for Beginners and Advanced Trail Runners

Trail Running Tips and Tricks I learned through Five-Peaks Ontario

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a Trail Running 101 clinic put on by the great team at 5-Peaks Ontario. Here are a few trail running tips for beginners that I pulled away from the trail running clinic.

Definition of Trail Running: Hiking + Running + Nature = TRAIL RUNNING

Before I jump into my Trail Running 101 Tips for beginners – for those that are not familiar with the 5-Peak Series of trail races let me give you a quick rundown.

Click here to jump right to the Trail Running Tips and Tricks for Beginners.

5-Peaks Trail Running?  What is that?

5-Peaks Logo - Offering trail running races across Canada.

“Spend some time in nature with us. 5 Peaks events are more than just trail races, they are special celebrations of nature, of the hard work we put into our training of strength, and of family and community.” 

5-Peak delivers trail races across Canada, hosted at some of the most spectacular natural spaces in the country.  Each race takes place on pre-marked natural surface trails with participants running over rocks, roots, tree stumps and logs, through mud puddles, snow and much more.  The running series goes from May to October, hosting one race per month.

5-Peaks Trail Race series consists of:

  • a free Children’s Challenge (50m – 1km),
  • a Kidspeaks Timed Kids Challenge (about 3k),
  • a Sport Course (5-8 km) entry-level course, and
  • an Enduro Course (10-15 km) intermediate to advanced course.
  • Certain races will also have a half marathon distance.

Races ate held across Canada and include:

  • Alberta (North and South)
  • British Columbia
  • Ontario
  • Quebec

Trail Running 101 – What are the Top Tips and Tricks?

Here are a few hints, tips and tips I took away from my morning at a trail running 101 clinics for beginners that was offered by the great 5-Peaks trail crew. A special shout out to Arc’Teryx who sponsored the event and warmed us up with post-run coffee and a goodie bag. I am in love with their Gore-Tex Norvan Jacket – time to start saving.

Tip 1) Look Ahead, not Down!

Picture of me: Dressed for a spring trail run.
Out enjoying a little trail run (April 2019)

Trail running is a balance between the wows of vistas, the excitement of what is around the next bend, and watching out for the next rock, root, rutt, twig, or hole.

It is amazing what your eyes and memory can take in – believe me, trust your brain! Look ahead about 20 meters, not down – your memory and reflexes will take care of the rest.

Don’t get me wrong, when you are approaching a technical piece where every foot plant is critical – take each step at your own pace. However, 9/10 times what gets you in trouble is not what is right under your feet but what you missed 10 steps ahead by not looking up as that branch attempts to close line you and succeeds in drawing blood, or that small innocent enough rock just sticking out of the sand that your toe, kicks and you stumble.

While trail racing, and particularly on a single track (A single-track trail is one where users must generally travel in a single file), we are continuously tempted to bunch up — however, all we are really doing is creating a wall and missing what is ahead.  Just think how much it drives you crazy being stuck behind a transport truck on the highway – not being able to see what is coming. IT IS THE SAME THING!

If you are really eager to move a bit faster — simply yell the customary “on the left” as you gently move past the crowd or better yet; just drop back a few paces and give everyone some breathing room.  After all – very few of us are podium bound so sit back, enjoy the run, make a new friend, take in the sights, the smells, and each twist and turn on the trail.

Tip 2) There is no shame in walking up the hills

A nice little hill climb to start off  5-Peaks Ontario Kelso Trail Run. At the top of the Niagara Escarpment gives yous some great scenic views.
A nice little hill climb to start off Kelso Trail Run.

My first trail race of the season was at a downhill ski resort (Kelso Conservation Area) – before you get all “OH WOW”, remember this is Ontario so we are not talking crazy B.C. or Alberta trail running.

A 1 KM climb is certainly a way to wake up the legs for the rest of your run. Now try to picture what is better — a brisk hike up the steeper grades and maintaining your heart rate or even better a bit of a recovery or pushing yourself and your heart rate to zone 5.  Who do you think is going to be able to maintain a better pace once you make it to the “flats” at the top of the hill? 

Trail running is a balance between running when the environment gives you a nice twist and turn through the woods, letting your legs guide you down the declines, and balancing the uphill’s between letting your momentum take you up the first bit of an incline and steady hiking to the crest.

Like our hill training on the road – as we progress through the season, those hills will get easier – however, as I suggested at the beginning – why try to run the hills, when you can power hike just as quick and make up the time over the next few hundred meters?

Tip 3) Leave your Headphones at Home

Why are you trail running in the first place?  To get away from the hustle and the bustle of running in the city, to enjoy nature, the sound of our feet on the path as we crunch over twigs, and if we are lucky a few encounters with nature.  How can you hear the leaves rustling if we have headphones in?  You are missing out on the best part of trail running.

Image: A nice dusting of snow through and early season trail run.
Yes – snow the end of April (2019). However, was great, just me, the trail and the falling snow.

If nature isn’t a good enough reason to leave your earphones at home during trail running you will encounter a combination of double and single track trails. A quick-moving trail runner, especially one who seemingly emerges from out of nowhere on an unsuspecting trail user, can be quite alarming. Give a courteous and audible announcement well in advance of your presence and intention to pass hikers or other runners on the trail stating something like, “On your left,” or “Trail” as you approach the trail users. This is equally as important during a trail race when you are in a pack of a few hundred runners spread across a race route. These announcements do not work work well for those who are wearing headphones and blasting music.

As trail runners – let’s set the standard; leave the headphones at home.  If you are really stuck with wanting to have your music on the trails – check out bone conduction headphones like AfterShokz Trekz Air; allowing you to retain full awareness of ambient sounds and hear your music too. I wish I had a pair (just not for the trails) — they are on the bucket list along with my Arc’Teryx Norvax Jacket.

Tip 4) No Special Equipment is Required to Begin Trail Running

I joke that running is the “most expensive free sport” – at the same time, it doesn’t need to be.  Start a road or trail running with your sneakers; a pair of shorts and a t-shirt.  Most of the trails are well worn – you will do fine as a trail running beginner.

As your distance / time in the woods progresses – consider a hydration pack of some sort. A water bottle you carry, a hydration belt, or trail vest.  Don’t laugh – I got lost last week on a little trail run.  My 4 to 5 kilometres turned into 10.  In my defence, my “getting lost” is a bit of a jaded definition — I was determined to find a loop back to my starting position over an out and back – I hate out and back.  The trail won, after a couple of false loops, some doubling back to try a different trail, I finally took the same route back as I started.  However, where I was going with the story is you never know how long you will be out – getting lost; injured; just deciding to go a few more KM – my water came in handy after 90 minutes on the trail.

Compare: Trail Shoe (Solomon SpeedTrax) vs Road Running Shoe (Mizuno WaveRider).  A bit different tread pattern.
Trail Shoe (Solomon SpeedTrax) vs Road Running Shoe (Mizuno WaveRider)

Secondly – a pair of trail shoes.  Yes, road shoes and now trail shoes (see the most expensive free sport).  Believe me; you will thank me for four reasons.  The same race I mentioned earlier was after two days of rain – – under the forest canopy life was beautiful, dry, pristine, your road shoes were happy. Then there were the sections close to a pond that had crested its banks or the odd creek.  Mud, mud, glorious mud! 

So why trail shoes?

  • Reason 1 – In addition to a more rugged of a sole to provide great grip (look at my photo of my road vs trail shoes)
  • Reason 2 – Trails shoes are also made from Gore-tex which as we all know = dryer feet, and as an added bonus
  • Reason 3 – Most trail shoes have a reinforced toe to save you from the ouch when you kick a rock or two.  However, if for no other reason –
  • Reason 4 – To save your pretty road shoes from the disaster of mud – LOL (you should see the other side of my trail shoes)

Tip 5) Plan Ahead, Inform a Friend, return home safe

This rule applies to every run, however, even more so for trail runs when the chances of having a car or another person run by the next 10 minutes or an hour is pretty slim.

Plan your route ahead of your run

Know your route; plan it out from a local trail guide, the internet, or your favourite running app.  Remember; add 25 – 50% effort to your distance.  If you usually run a 5K in 30 minutes – expect a trial run to take you 45 minutes. You pace is slower, your footing not a secure, and loads of uphill and downhill.  This is even more important when you are not familiar with the route.

Inform someone of where you are running and when you expect to be back

Better be safe than sorry – if you are running alone, be sure to let someone know where you are running, and what time you are expected back.  Even something as simple as rolling your ankle 5 KM out makes for a long walk back.  There are few short cuts in the forest and UBER is non-existent.

Return home safe

Bring your phone, a GPS, or even your running watch with Map Mode on will all help you arrive home safe.  One word of caution – there are no guarantees you will get great cell reception away from the beaten path, so plan, plan, plan.

More Trail Running 101 Tips for Beginners

Well, that is it for my 101 Trail running tips. I will be sure to add more trail running 101 tips for beginners as this amateur / newbie trail runner gets his feet muddy and learns after every stumble. Check back soon for more helpful tips.

If you have any suggestions, feel free to leave a comment below. In the meantime, check out the 5-Peak races near you. MEC also offers a great race series that are worth checking out.

Trail Running Race Series in Ontario

Ontario 5-Peaks Trail Races

Ontario is an amazing place to trail run. You can find out about the races on the 5 Peaks website at: 5-Peaks Ontario Trail Races.

5 Peaks offers (fancy that) 5 races in the Ontario for the 2020 schedule:

Kelso – May

Not only is Kelso beautiful to visit (you should see how the escarpment changes in each season), but there is also so much to do: camping, picnicking, mountain biking, a ski hill, stand-up paddleboards, swimming, and even movies under the stars! You’re not bereft of choice when you visit Kelso Conservation Area. Beautiful trails with rock gardens and roots to challenge runners, two challenging ski hill climbs, picture-worthy view overlooking the park and GTA, and a beautiful sandy beach to relax on after the run. The race includes parts of the Bruce Trail

Rattlesnake Point – June

The Rattlesnake Point Conservation Area has some of the most inspiring scenic viewing found anywhere. Five breathtaking lookouts dot the edge of towering cliffs of Ontario’s striking Niagara Escarpment. With excellent hiking trails, this natural environment park is perfect for that therapeutic walk (or trail run) in the woods during any season.

Albion Hills – July

Set in the hills of Caledon on the banks of the Humber River, Albion Hills offers dramatic scenery, exciting activities and excellent facilities – only 45 minutes from Toronto!

Heart Lake – September

Heart Lake Conservation Area takes its name from the spring-fed kettle lake, which is roughly shaped like a heart. Located within the Etobicoke Creek watershed, this park is a popular destination for residents of Peel Region, with more than five million visitors since it opened in 1957. The park is also very popular with anglers in the area as it is stocked with hundreds of rainbow trout each year.  

Mansfield – October

Mansfield is located at the Mansfield Outdoor Centre in Mansfield, just south of Alliston on Airport Road. The course will be 6k-7k for the Sport course and 12-14k for the Enduro. Loaded with fast and flowing singletrack, with some doubletrack and lots of climbing for a ton of fun. The course is a combination of roots, rocks, sand but it is 100% enjoyable for all, including first-timers to experienced trail runners.

Other Ontario Trial Races

Check out some of these other great trail races in Ontario.

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC)

Has a great trail race series.  You can find their next race.  The schedule for my local MEC store is here.

Race ONEHeritage Park, Barrie5K/10KApril
Race TWOTree Nursery Park, Springwater (Trail)5K/10K/15KMay
Race THREEEarl Rowe Provincial Park, Alliston5K/10K/Half MarathonJun

Hardwood Hills Trail Running Series

Offers 6 races over the summer from May to November with 5 KM and 10 KM courses. Each race will take you through different parts of the Hardwood Hills ski and mountain biking trails. Register for the entire series or for individual races.

Check out the race series here.

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Mark Hanlon


Mark is an avid photographer, Starbucks addict, motivated cyclist, struggling runner, and rocking single parent living outside of Toronto, Ontario. Living with two chronic ilnesses, Crohn’s Disease and Diabetes, life for this Transportation Planner and Registered Professional Planner (RPP) can be an interesting mix.