Getting started with trail running (Contributor: Dan Chabert)

For this post, we welcome first-time guest contributor Dan Chabert. Enjoy! (Photo: Unsplash)

California is one of the best places to live because among many other reasons, you can be active outdoors year-round. Whether you’re surfing at the beach, skiing down the side of a mountain, or running under a canopy of redwoods, you have so much outdoor perfection at your fingertips that it basically boils down to choosing your own adventure day in and day out. I’ve been a runner for basically all of my adult life, and my running here in California has been among my best – and specifically, the trail running and hiking I’ve been able to do here.

I think running is one of the most liberating and accessible sports out there simply because it doesn’t really inherently require a lot of “stuff.” As long as you have shoes on your feet – if you want to, that is – and more often than not, propel yourself in a forward direction, I think it’s safe to say that you can call yourself a runner and proudly proclaim that you run. While it’s still the same sport at its core, trail running, when compared to road running, does have some key differences. Any running is good running in my book because I’m so biased, but if you get to run in California, you get the best of both worlds year-round.

Generally speaking, trail running is typically challenging in different ways compared to road running, particularly because when you’re running trails, you may be literally running or power-hiking up the side of a mountain: meaning, among other things, that your pace is significantly slower than usual, that you’re using many muscles that you usually don’t use when you’re running on flat roads (such as all the stabilizer muscles), and that you’re often moving in many different planes of motion and not just going exclusively forward. Trail running can also be dangerous, especially if you’re running in precarious spots, but there’s a great thrill element to it as well because it allows you so many opportunities to experience nature at her finest in ways that you typically can’t access from a car or bicycle. Plus, trail running can do wonders for your mental health and mental training. It sounds ridiculous and New Age/hipster-ish, but I honestly think trail running is just good for the soul. You might be out there for a much longer period of time than it’d take you to cover the same distance on the roads, but at the same time, you’re also running through and over and under some of the most beautiful places in the world.

If you’re on the fence about including trail running and hiking into your fitness routine, don’t be! Anyone can do it, provided you have a little bit of planning and flexibility within you, and it’ll confer so many benefits to your physical and mental health that you’ll be asking yourself why you didn’t take up the sport sooner. Plus, again, California is where it’s at with the trail running and hiking. We have such awesome opportunities here that people will come from literally all over the world to experience what we probably take for granted.

Here are some tips to help jump-start your trail running and hiking adventures:

Get to know people who know the sport.

Sure, it can be intimidating to do something new for the first time, but don’t let the fear of failure hold you back. When you’re new to trail running, I can’t implore you enough to hook-up with people who have been doing it for a long time. Glean from their wisdom and experiences, and learn from their mistakes. Ask them all the questions you have, regardless if you think they’re valid or not. We were all new once, and runners are friendly people; let them pay it forward to you! Practically speaking, too, if you hook-up with a more experienced trail runner, you’ll be less likely to get lost the first few times you run trails that you’re unfamiliar with. Once you become well-acquainted with the sport, you’ll be able to then pay-forward your new-found-knowledge to another trail n00b, too.Check-out your local running store or look online to find trail running-specific running groups.

See what’s out there.

We have so many places to run trails, whether it’s on the coast or somewhere up in the mountains, and many of us also have the luxury of having smaller, more regional and local parks and trail systems very near where we live. If you’re wanting to run or hike trails but don’t know where to begin, check out a map to see what’s near you. Look for big patches of green – which usually indicates parks – or little triangles – which usually indicates hilltops or mountain peaks – and see what’s in your proximity. You could also consider looking for trails near bodies of water, like the ocean, lakes, or rivers, because they often have adjoining trail systems that run parallel to them.

Hold-off on buying trails-specific gear.

It can be really tempting to eagerly buy a ton of new stuff in anticipation of your new-found love for trail running and hiking, but I’d encourage you to wait before whipping out your credit card. You might be surprised to find that a lot of your gear that you already have will work just fine on the trails. Give yourself the opportunity for trial and error to see what you really need before shelling out a ton of money based on blanket assumptions. Maybe, for example, the clothing and watch you have will work just fine, but you figured out that your shoes aren’t great for the trails where you are running or that you need higher socks to keep out all the debris. It’s not inherently bad to spend money, of course, but you can probably use more of what you already have than you think.

Participate in a race on the trails.

If you heed my tip above, then surely you’ll still have money in your pocket that you can spend on trail races, right?! Running has become very popular in the past five years, and especially in California, you can literally find a race every weekend for the entire year. As you begin to spend more time running or hiking trails and become more comfortable with it, I’d suggest that you consider participating in a trail race. There are distances out there for everyone – from a 5k all the way up to (and beyond) a 100 miler – so it’s mostly a matter of you finding a distance that you’d like to do and one that you can reasonably train for, given the demands of your life. If running isn’t your thing, you can still participate in other events, like geocaching, or make your own “event,” like doing a multi-day, multi-stage hike across a big trail system. The sky’s the limit! Tap into the wisdom and experiences from your new-found trail-running/hiking buddies, and see what they recommend.

Trail running and hiking are both such excellent ways to escape from the daily grind – especially when you’re used to the go-go-go lifestyle of California – and fortunately, there is no shortage of trail options in California. Getting strong on the trails will leave you in extraordinary physical and mental shape, and this fitness can easily transfer over into other sports as well. Famous Naturalist and father of our National Park system John Muir wrote in a letter to his sister, “The mountains are calling, and I must go” – go run or hike some trails for a while, and you’ll surely be saying the same.

chabertDan Chabert is an entrepreneur, husband and ultramarathon distance runner. He is a contributing author to Runners 101 and also spends most of his time on,, & and he has been featured on runner blogs all over the world.

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