Running is a low-cost form of exercise that can be done at nearly any time of day, alone or alongside a group of friends— making it incredibly accessible to everyone, whether you’ve never exercised or you’re a weight-lifting pro. Running—particularly trail running—can be one of the best measures of cardiovascular health and an efficient way to build resiliency and discipline while enjoying outdoor spaces. Trail running requires more commitment and strenuous than the average neighborhood jog, but the softer terrain and freedom from car traffic offer a positive alternative to pounding on pavement or a treadmill. Plus, the real treasure in taking your run onto the trails is the view you’ll snag while looping around switchbacks and cruising under the Ponderosa pine’s shade.

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Gear

1. Shoes

Everybody’s feet are different. It’s important to find the right shoes to minimize injury and discomfort. Many running stores can help you understand what kind of feet you have (flat, over-pronated, wide, etc.). Go get fitted even if you don’t intend on buying a pair from them. Otherwise, visiting a chiropractor or physical therapist can help you determine the best support needed to keep your feet happy and healthy.

In general, when buying shoes for trail running, look for a bit sturdier material than the average gym shoe. Many shoes come advertised as “trail running shoes,” but all you have to look for are a few key features:

  • Balancing weight and durability: with more elevation gain, big rocks, and tree roots, you’ll be lifting your feet higher and more frequently on a trail. All things considered, the lighter the shoe, the better. However, you want to make sure the shoe has enough material to protect your feet from any sharp rocks and sticks that you may run across.
  • Balancing waterproofness and breathability: waterproof shoes can be desirable, especially if there’s mud or snow. However, during the summer you want your feet to breathe. Either invest in a pair for each season, or find something that balances these attributes.
  • Tread: running on wet rocks can leave you slipping and sliding if your shoes are slick. Even minimal tread will keep you moving forward.

2. Socks

Quality socks are the secret to happy, healthy feet. The right socks can mitigate blisters, irritation spots, and even ward off stench. They’ll come in a variety of lengths, from “no show” to knee high, but what matters is the material. Cotton socks should definitely be avoided for long runs or wet conditions as they’ll soak in and keep moisture locked in your shoes. Look for nylon, polyester, and spandex materials that are quick drying and not too thick. Blends with merino wool will typically help to rid smells and keep your feet feeling fresh. High quality socks can be pricey, but it’s worth the investment. Darn Tough socks like the Vertex No Show Tab Ultralight Cushion come with a lifetime guarantee. They also offer Vertex Micro Crew Ultralight Cushion and Vertex Over-the-Calf Ultralight designs.

3. Time keeper

Knowing the time while you run can help in pacing and goal setting. A standard sport watch like the Timex Ironman will keep track of time and can track intervals. If you’re looking for more technological support during your run, the Garmin Forerunner 35 uses a built in GPS to track your mileage and can monitor your heart rate. Free apps like the Nike Run Club are also a great way to track time, distance, keep records or your runs and workouts.

4. Hydration system

Staying hydrated while running can be a tough decision. If you are running long enough or it’s hot enough outside, taking water along will keep you healthy and energized out on the trail. If you don’t mind carrying things while you run, a handheld bottle like the Amphipod Hydraform Minimalist Handheld Water Bottle can be a good option. If you need more water, or would rather carry it on your hips or back, try a belt like the CamelBak Delaney Belt Hydration Waistpack, or a pack like the Marmot Kompressor Zest Hydration Pack. Regardless, keep a full water bottle in your car, ready to rehydrate you after those hard-earned miles.

5. Apparel

Whether you prefer loose-fitting or body-hugging clothes, you want comfortable, quick-drying, and breathable materials. Generally stay away from cotton, and look for shirts and shorts made from polyester, spandex, elastane, or nylon. Some clothes, like the Marmot Elana Top or the REI Co-op Sahara T-Shirt, feature UPF sun protection woven into the fabric, which can be helpful when running outdoors.

Getting Started

Elevation gain means trail running can require more energy than the typical run around the block. It’s likely that you’ll log your miles at a slower pace than on flat ground and can sometimes run into obstacles that’ll require you to improvise as you move along.

To get a feel for how your body grooves with the trails, start with a time goal and don’t worry about the mileage; get out to the trailhead and commit to running 20 or 30 minutes. Once you start to understand how you feel during uphill runs and downhill sprints, start to tailor your runs to what strengths are calling to you on that day. Tons of energy? Battle a steep trail. In the mood for a rolling, scenic run? Find a moderate traverse in a valley. Thankfully Colorado has an endless variety of trail types.

Many websites will supply information about trailheads, trail distances, and elevation gain. The Trail Run Project is a great resource; in addition to its easy-to-use search feature and the thousands of miles in its database, if you search a particular trail, it’ll also note what percentage of a trail is “runnable,” i.e. how steep it may get and how mentally prepared you should be to walk a few sections. 

Hiking Garden of the Gods - Colorado Springs - Colorado - OutThere Colorado
Hiking into Garden of the Gods. Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photo Credit: OutThere Colorado.

Glossary

  • Minimalist shoes — shoes with minimal cushioning and material, often designed to “fit like a glove.”
  • Pace — how fast you are running per mile. In trail running, this’ll depend largely on the terrain and your energy levels.
  • Endorphins — the brain chemicals associated with the “runner’s high;” a feeling of elation that many might experience while or after running.
  • Technical trail — a trail with large obstacles like rocks that you may have to run around or over. Can make your runs entertaining, but typically a bit slower.
  • Switchback — when the trail zigzags up a mountain face so you don’t have to run up a vertical staircase.
  • Singletrack Trail — a narrow trail meant for one person at a time to travel comfortably.
  • Doubletrack Trail — a wider trail, typically with room for two people to travel side by side.
  • Exposed Trail — a trail section without trees, meaning you should prepare for potential weather issues, including intense sun and storms.
  • Out-and-back Trail — a trail or a run that will take you out to a point, and then have you turn around and retrace your steps back to your starting point. Good for running in unfamiliar places or for running exact distances or times. 
Trail Running - Garden of the Gods - Colorado Springs - OutThere Colorado
Trail running in Garden of the Gods. Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photo Credit: OutThere Colorado.

Pro Tips

Trail running is more dynamic than running on pavement or a treadmill. Different muscles will activate during your run, and you might feel sore in places like your arms or core, thanks to the help they provide your legs during a hard run. You’ll find your flexibility, strength, and core play important roles in trail running, so make sure to nurture and care for these parts of your body in addition to your legs and feet; balance your trail runs with stretches and strength exercises that revolve around your core. This, plus gradually increasing your distance and training, will help keep you injury free.

As with most athletic pursuits, nutrition also plays a large role in your trail running performance. Food and water are fuel; you want a balance between enough energy to run hard, but no food or water sloshing around your stomach. Test out what it feels like to run an hour after eating a light, healthy snack, and then what it feels like to run a few hours after a larger meal. Find what works best for your body and roll with that.

Running groups can help you explore new areas and meet others interested in pursuing similar goals to yours, all the while inspiring you to dig deeper into your own running passion. Clubs along the Front Range include the Denver Trail Runners and the training-oriented group Runner’s Edge of the Rockies.

Setting achievable goals can help motivate and inspire you to continue trail running. Incrementally moving from time-oriented goals to mileage-oriented goals is a natural progression that’ll take your running farther and into more wild open spaces. After all, the more you run, the deeper you can get in the mountain, the more spectacular views.

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Safety First

Many people like to listen to music while running. While this can be an effective way to motivate and stay energized during long runs, it can also present a hazard: you might be delayed in noticing or hearing animals, other runners or mountain bikers, or natural elements. Be aware and pay attention as you run.

When you sweat, you are more prone to sun damage. During long runs outside, make sure you’re protecting yourself adequately by using sunscreen, UPF rated clothing, and sunglasses.

If you are running alone, tell someone where you are going and what time you think you will be back. This can be a simple text to a friend, or a note on the counter for a housemate.

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Next Steps

Get out there and embrace the unknown. Find a trailhead with a route that suits your interests. Whether it’s a steep trail leading you to an epic overlook you’ve always wanted to see, or a long, wandering trail in a meadow, running lets you access deeper parts of the wilderness at a much faster pace than hiking. It’s likely you’ll come across some unknowns (“Wow, that was steeper than I thought,” or, “Wow, I’m thirsty and sunburnt and still two miles from my car…”), but half the fun of trail running is improvising. Be confident that you’ll make it back to the car—even stronger and more elated than when you began.

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