Picking the Right Trails to Run

This article was originally written for the Snowy’s Blog (find it here). I’m pretty keen on getting more people interested in trail running so was motivated to ensure that beginner trail runners don’t have a ‘f*** this, it’s all too hard’ experience when heading out for the first time. As such, enjoy the article, head over to Snowy’s to give it a like or comment there and maybe buy yourself some kit while you’re at it…and get trail running…

Going running is a pretty simple form of exercise. Head out the door, run around, breathe a bit, sweat a bit, come back in the door, exercise done. Tick, move on to the next activity. If you run in the city or the suburbs you might have to contend with a few dogs, traffic and lots of bitumen and it can be hard to build a routine to maintain the exercise habit with these obstacles always in your way. And that’s your end goal right, to get a little exercise into your week to keep your body functioning. So how do you make running a more enjoyable proposition? How can you create an environment for yourself where you are wanting to go for a run instead of feeling like you have to go for a run. 

For me the answer was to try trail running a bit more. Sounds nice in theory I guess. Go to a park, run around on some dirt or grass or sand, no traffic no worries right? Well not so in all cases. Just like cafe’s and bakery’s don’t always have the same standard of items, not all trails are the same.

For me, the answer to creating a more enjoyable running environment was to trail-run more often.

So, how do you know what’s a good trail to run on? Is it trial and error? Is there an Airbnb for trails that you can look at for reviews? Over time you’ll be able to answer those questions for yourself but you’re living in the now and present baby so keep reading and I’ll share my top tips to picking the right trails to run!

Tip 1: Location Location Location.

There’s a million trails out there and some are closer to you than others. For your mid week runs, find one that’s close enough to get to within a 30 minute drive. Yes, you may have to drive to get to the trail, but it’s worth it. Consider that the majority of other sports or hobbies people have involve driving to and you start to feel less weird about driving to go running. The idea behind getting there in 30 minutes or less is that:

  • It’s never too far away to make you feel like you can’t be bothered.
  • It’s probably a distance you can build up to running there and back one day on your long runs.
  • It’s a perfect amount of time to switch your brain from work/home life mode to running mode on the drive there and then switch it back and plan your post run meal on the way back.

For weekend trail running, driving 1-2 hrs is doable and obviously widens your choice of trails. Anything past 1-2 hrs and I’d suggest an overnight stay at the destination trail.

There are a million trails out there, some located closer than others.

Tip 2: Course Layout.

So you’ve found your little area to go trail running for your mid week runs or maybe you’ve hunted down a destination trail for a weekend trip. Planning your own course layout is simple enough provided you avoid these mistakes:

  • Any loops or trails that are less than 1-2km in length are best avoided. These will have lots of walkers/families/slow-moving traffic that will get in your way and are also too short to build up a rhythm.
Stretching in a carpark is perfectly normal, post-run!
  • Mountain bike trails are for mountain bikers so stay away. They also have lots of turns and rollers to again disrupt your rhythm.
Watch out for obstacles on the trails!
  • Running on a track with too many junctions/intersections and therefore turns to make is a recipe for trouble. Example: You design a course with ten different changes of direction. That means you might have to stop ten times, pull out a map, remember which way to go and then get back running. Or, worst case scenario, you relax into the peaceful bush environment around you and forget to make any turns and suddenly you have no idea where you are.
  • Try and pick a course with no more than 5 turns to make. And if you have trouble remembering them, write L or R (for left and right) on each of your fingers on one of your hands and look at your fingers for directions at each turn.
The worst-case scenario is when you start to relax, forget to make a turn… and suddenly have no idea where you are!
  • Find a good balance of hills. Too many is not fun. Too little is too boring. Like Goldilocks, you want the right amount. I suggest planning your course on a map or GPS app that will give you the elevation profile of your course. Anything with 100-300m worth of elevation change over 10km of running is a nice spot to aim for.
I suggest planning your course on a map or GPS app that provides the elevation profile.

Tip 3: Route Services.

Driving to Melbourne is easy with all the servo’s road stops, quaint little towns along the way etc. Driving across the Nullarbor is harder because there’s less of that stuff. The same concept applies to picking a good trail course. Keep an eye out for toilets, potential road access points (good for emergency pick-ups or stashing some water for your run) and whether there is phone reception around. Trail running involves a little bit more risk than road running so making sure you have the knowledge of what’s around in the area will help if something goes wrong. The worst things that have happened to me have been almost pooping my pants several times, getting an injury or running out of water. In all cases I solved my problems by using a toilet I knew was nearby, limping to the nearest road/exit point or knew I could make it to the next rainwater tank. All solutions that were possible because I chose my routes wisely.

One of the worst outcomes for me was running out of water, but I pushed it to the next rainwater tank!

Final tip: Are you a Sandy Sally or a Rocky Rupert?

Not every surface (sand, fire trail, single-track, gravel, purt dirt, dirt/gravel, rock, grass, mud) is appealing to all runners. I love fire trails because I don’t need to concentrate too much and I don’t sink into them like I do when on sand. I also enjoy single-track when going downhill because I flow down the mountain and pretend I’m on skis!

A little bit of single-track.

Experiment with different surfaces early on in your trail running career to work out what you prefer. A word of caution with trails though is that the more ‘out-there’ or obscure it is, the poorer condition it is likely to be in and will usually mean your ability to run with a good rhythm will be impacted. Example, a fire-track in a park close to an urban centre is likely to be well-groomed and fine for running. A single-track somewhere four hours away from the nearest capital city may not be as groomed and may have more bushes and rocks than dirt to run on…

After ten years of trail running I feel like I’ve got the process down pat now on selecting the right trails to run. I’m not saying it’ll take ten years but I’m not saying these tips will get you there straight away either. One ‘pinch of salt’ to take with this advice that may ‘bring out the flavour’ of trail running a bit more is for each time you pick a trail to run, take it slow and focus on enjoying the run first. That was the aim of trying to go trail running in the first place so don’t forget that’s what brought you there!

One response to “Picking the Right Trails to Run”

  1. Craig McAuley Avatar
    Craig McAuley

    If i was a younger man and a stronger body , your advice would be excellent to follow. Alas I’m not , but really enjoyed reading this article

    Liked by 1 person

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