How do you know if a trail is going to be good for trail running?
I get this question a lot from clients and fellow trail runners who’ve seen a hiking trail, but aren’t sure if it’s going to be a good choice to run. And it’s true. Not all hiking trails are great for trail running.
But, I have five metrics I use to figure out if a trail I’ve found online is going to be good for my trail run. After all, you don’t want your trail run to feel uphill both ways (unless that’s what you’re looking for!)
Trail Running Metric 1: The Type of Trail
There are three main trail types for trail running.
The Out and Back Trail
An out and back trail is awesome if you want an asymmetrical elevation profile. They’re also best if you have a very specific amount of time available to you. They’re the easiest to predict how long it’s going to take to get back to the start.
These trails tend to be the simplest to navigate because you are coming back the way you came from.
The Looped Trail
The second type of trail is a looped trail. They’re fun because you never see the same view twice and they do feel like more of a journey.
But beware, they are a little bit more of a commitment. If for some reason you can’t complete the whole trail, you’re going to have to go back the way you came. That could lead to a longer day out than you anticipated.
Straight Through Trail
The third type of trail is a through trail where you start in one location and you finish in another. Basically in a line from start to finish.
You want to make sure you think ahead about how you’re getting from your finish line back to your starting line.
Bonus! Combo Runs
And then of course, there’s combo runs. Maybe a run has partially a loop, but there’s an out and back included in it. Once you get creative with the type of trail you’re running, you can have endless possibilities.
Trail Running Metric 2: The Distance of the Trail
While this is pretty simple, it’s super important.
Going out on a trail run is typically more remote than doing so on streets or roads. You’re going to want to make sure that you’re confident in the distance that you’re traveling that day.
I had a client once who thought a trail was five kilometers, but it was actually five kilometers one way. She had to turn around and go all the way back. So she ended up doing twice the distance she was expecting to do.
So make sure that you know those metrics before you head out.
Trail Running Metric 3: Trail Steepness
Maybe the most fun metric to geek out on is the trail steepness. You’re going to want to look at two things to determine trail steepness.
The first is going to be the overall grade of the trail, and the second is the elevation profile.
Now, the way you calculate grade is you divide the overall elevation gain of a trail by the overall distance.
You want and you want both of those to be in the same unit, for example kilometers or meters. That’s going to give you a decimal, which you can then convert to a percentage. And just like that, you’ve got your trail grade.
Now, your average grade obviously is going to be representative of the entire trail. There are going to be portions of the trail that are significantly steeper and significantly less steep than that average.
And one trail running secret that not a lot of people know who don’t trail run is that most trail runners are hiking steep uphills, even if they are phenomenal trail runners.
Don’t let steepness of a trail turn you off. Remember you can walk uphill if you’re a trail runner.
The way to dig deeper into trail steepness is to take a look at your elevation profile. When we’re looking at an elevation profile, we have our elevation gain on one side and our distance traveled on the other axis. The first thing you’re going to want to do is take a look at your scale.
Look at the highest point on that graph and the lowest to know what you’re dealing with. I love elevation profiles because I can mimic upcoming trail races with the same elevation profile on a trail run.
The elevation profile is also going to tell you when the steepest climbs are going to happen throughout your run. That’s going to let you know if you need to pace yourself really well at the beginning for a climb at the end. Or if you’re going to have a climb at the beginning that might wear you out for later on in the day.
Personally, I love really steep uphills. I like getting that elevation over with quickly, and I absolutely adore gradual declines because I find they’re extremely fun to run.
Trail Running Metric 4: Trail Technicity
Yes, technicity is a real word. This metric looks at how much more energy it takes to run on a trail with roots and rocks compared to a treadmill.
The higher a trail’s technicity, the more difficult it is to run along that trail.
It is incredible how much longer it takes to run on a trail that has a lot of rocks, roots or odd sized stones than it is to run on gravel, flat or paved. And knowing the trail surface that you’re probably going to see on your trail is going to help you predict your timeline. This is really important for safety and letting people know when you’re going to be back.
Also, super important to note that if a trail is up on a ridge line, there might not actually be an established trail at all. You’re going to have to really know where you’re going before you set out.
Trail Running Metric 5: Trail Conditions
The final trail running metric is trail conditions.
This can be particularly hard early in the season for us folks who live near the mountains because we always want to know when the snow is going to be off the trails. If you live somewhere really hot and humid, you might instead want to know what months of the year are going to be cool enough that you can have a safe day out.
The best way to get information on trail conditions specific to the time of year you want to run the trail is by asking people. When people ask me about a particular trail, I love talking to them about when I did it and what I found.
I think you’ll find that in most of the running community. People are very open and excited to share their passion with you.
A couple hints I’ll use if I’m not sure what trail conditions are like is I’ll use the government websites if I’m running in a provincial or national park. They will often post about trail conditions or I’ll check alltrails.com and see if anyone has run or hiked that trail recently.
I will either reach out to them or if their review states what date they did it and it has pictures, I can also check out the pictures.
What Trail Are You Running Next?
The trails that become your favorites are often going to be based on who you are as a runner. One of my favorite trail running trails is the Snowshoe Trail in Waterton National Park. It has hills, it has views, but a relatively low grade for the entire 24 kilometers.
I’d love to know what trails have your heart. Pop them in the comments below and maybe one day, we’ll see each other on the trails!
If you’re just getting started on taking your running from the road to the trails, make sure to check out our other tips for getting started or look into one of our 8-week running programs.
Until next time, have a WILDR day!