Dirt over a white background

The Dirt with Jeff Browning

Part 12: Tips for Taking Your Runing to the Dirt — Trail Running Tips for Beginners by Jeff Browning


If you want to get into trail running but aren’t sure where to start, you’re in luck. As a hardcore, dirt-digging runner, Altra Elite Athlete Jeff Browning has detailed a beginner’s guide filled with tips and tricks for those starting out on the trails.

Ready to dig up some dirt, kick up some dust, and sift through the soil? Let’s get started!



Jeff Browning Running across a creek


Trail running is a creative expression of movement through wild spaces. Rocks, roots, water crossings, and varying degrees of technical terrain provide an intimate experience of the natural world. It’s enchantment, peace, and exhilaration all wrapped up in one big adventure. If you’ve been tempted by dirt but are unsure of how to make the transition to trail, here are a few tips that will get you into your forested flow state in no time.


Trail Diversity

No two trails are alike. Variety and uniqueness are the norm. While some trails have tons of vertical gain, others are flat, smooth paths meandering through the forest. Some trails offer rolling hills, and still others are strewn with rocks and roots that make footing challenging.


Choosing a Trail

Where to go? There are many online resources and apps that can get you started. Begin by exploring a few apps like Trail Run Project, Gaia, AllTrails, and CalTopo. These apps enable you to have a downloadable map on your phone and use the GPS in airplane mode to save battery. Knowing where you are is priceless. Once you’ve narrowed down where you want to run, it’s time to gear up.



Jeff Browning at the end of the Hardrock 100



Trail running isn’t much different than road running regarding gear. Your tried-and-true road shoe will probably handle many trails just fine. However, as you venture on to more challenging terrain, you will want to find a trail shoe with a more aggressive tread pattern and a stickier compound of rubber. Trail shoes will also be more stable laterally (side-to-side) and will give you a slightly firmer platform than that of a typical cushy road shoe. Some trail models will have rock plates, some won’t. What fits and what feels good is the best way to choose. Work with a local specialty running store to find a shoe that works for you.


Pace and Power Hiking

If you come from running roads and urban paths, the first thing you’ll notice is that the terrain will dictate pace. A steeply rising trail can demand a frustratingly slow pace. It’s okay to power hike, and this is sometimes difficult for newbie trail runners to wrap their heads around. Power hiking is not walking. It’s hiking with a purpose. When the trail rises and you feel the effort become labored, control your heart rate by power hiking.

Remember this cue: Chest over knees, knees over toes. Lean slightly forward at the waist so that your chest is over your knees and toes to engage the glutes. You can even experiment with putting your hands on your quads or knees to assist. With a little practice, you’ll be hiking up a 15-percent trail grade like a seasoned mountain runner in no time.


Chart for Rate of Perceived Exertion



Trail Techniques 

Form is slightly different in trail running. With the added toughness trails bring, you can’t simply run like a shuffling metronome. If you do, be prepared to kiss dirt. Trail running demands varied leg speed and stride length, as well as a slightly exaggerated heel lift to your stride to avoid kicking roots and rocks.

As in power hiking, keeping your chest over your knees and knees over toes is vital. Keep your feet UNDER you. Your feet should be active and your stride should be quick. When first learning, slow down your speed on descents and work on footwork. Maintain quick, active feet without going fast.

In technical conditions, read the terrain by scanning ahead 30-40 meters, then directly in front of you again for the snapshot of the next 10-20 feet. Constantly repeat. It will be extremely engaging.

Another stride cue I like to think about when running an especially technical trail is “heel to hamstring.” That movement pattern will keep your heels high and avoid catching a toe. Also, when the terrain is technical or steep, keep your stance slightly wider and be prepared to make small, quick side-to-side movements. For those runners that have played sports like soccer, football, or basketball — think of making mini-jukes and cuts as you descend down the trail. Again, always keep your feet under you and don’t overstride.


With these beginner tips for trail running, you’ll soon be ascending and descending the trail like a pro mountain runner. You too can follow a winding dirt path through the trees over rocks and roots and hop over a log while a deer crosses your path, and the birds sing. My, oh my, the trails are where it’s at. Remember to have fun, take time to check out the wildlife and views, and breathe in the serenity of the trail far from the choking emissions of the concrete jungle. Giddyup!


About the Author

Jeff Browning is a veteran ultra-runner and ultra-endurance coach. At 50 years old, he still likes to rip it up. You can learn more about him, his adventures, and his coaching at GoBroncoBilly.com or Instagram: @GoBroncoBilly