Trail Running Tips

White Water Center

I traded in street pavement for a run at the U.S. National Whitewater Center last week. It was the first time I’ve tried trail running and it pushed me both physically and mentally.  

The level of concentration to avoid roots and sticks when running, is alone, a big challenge. I hit the trail not knowing what to expect along the route and the constant terrain and elevation changes kept things interesting.

Trail running is a great way for runners to increase lower body strength. Elevation changes challenge the large lower body muscle groups including glutes, quads, hamstring and calves.  The run may have given me a break from the hot sun, but I felt a pretty good burn in my legs after that workout.

Below are a few tips for first time trail running adventures.

Time not mileage

Instead of focusing on a mileage goal, focus on a time goal. If your goal is to run 3 miles, and you normally run a ten-minute mile, run for thirty minutes on the trail.  Don’t be afraid to start with smaller goals as running on a trail will challenge your legs.

Be visually aware

When trail running, it’s important to constantly adjust your eyes.  When road racing, it’s often easy to let your mind drift with the flat terrain.  It’s different for trail running.  Look 10 -15 feet ahead to avoid roots, rocks, and other potential dangers.  Sunglasses can also help keep dirt out of your eyes. Unplug from music to stay focused and aware of other runners on the trail.

Stride adjustment

Although I normally recommend road racers use a tempo of 160-180 steps per minute, when trail running, it’s important to shorten your stride. This adjustment allows you to make quick shifts as terrain changes.  There is a lot of lateral movement in trail running that you don’t see with paved roadways.

Trail prepping

Here’s a few things to consider bringing along on your run.

Trail Running Shoes – Getting dirty doesn’t give you an excuse to wear an old pair of running shoes. Invest in a pair of properly fitted trail running shoes. Trail running shoes offer stiffer soles, more tread/grip, and protective padding and plates to keep injury free.

Hydration Pack – Water isn’t always as accessible on the trail, so carry what you need.  I use a hydration pack, which also allows my hands to be free while running.

Buddy System – There is always the chance of injury on the trail.  And a lot of these trails are in the middle of nowhere.  Consider running with a friend or bringing a cell phone in case of emergency.  

Stay Clean Tools – Trail running is messy.  Wearing calf sleeves helped keep my legs clean and were easy to take off post-run. Bring an extra towel, you’ll need it to wipe away the dirt and sweat after a great run.


Aaron Hewitt PA-C is a physician assistant with the Ortho Carolina Sports Medicine Center. He is a former assistant athletic trainer with the Minnesota Vikings (NFL) and is an orthopedic provider for UNC-Charlotte and Myers Park High School. He also is a physician assistant team lead for Sports Medicine, Spine, Hand & Pediatrics and a clinical and surgical preceptor for Physician Students.


April 29, 2017

"Sunglasses can also help keep dirt out of your eyes." I run trails whenever possible, but never have experienced this. Maybe if you're following a car on a dry, dusty, unpaved road?
- Towner Blackstock

September 08, 2016

And don't forget the great abdominal workout from bracing for the footage and the side-to-side motion of dodging roots and rocks. The WWC is an awesome place to trail run. I live in Mt. Holly just across the river from Charlotte. I hope you share more area trails! My running buddy (Vizsla pup) is getting older and bigger and will need lots of trail running love. Thanks again, Tamberlyn and Piper Quinn
- Tamberlyn Collins

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