Your Most Common Trail Running Questions, Answered

Should you stretch before you run? What’s the best kind of running shoes? How often should you run? Your top questions, answered.

Photo: Getty Images

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Should I stretch before running?

Should I stretch before running?

As runners, should we really be stretching? And if so, how much, what kind, and when?

It’s complicated, but the most up-to-date research suggests avoiding static stretching before you run and focusing instead on dynamic movements to warm up your legs. 

Most of us are familiar with static stretching: holding a muscle-lengthening pose for a set amount of time. Think about bending over to reach your toes, or grabbing your ankle to bend your leg and stretch your quad. Dynamic stretching involves moving a limb through its full range of motion, like leg swings or lunges. 

Instead of stretching, we recommend following this warm-up routine from Coach David Roche:


How often should I run?

Running frequency, or how often you run, is one of the fundamental variables in training (the others being intensity and duration). Generally speaking, research demonstrates that people need to run at least a couple of times a week to get any benefit, though most people won’t need to rack up the triple-digit mileage weeks of elite athletes. 

There’s no one right answer to this question, and you’ll need to take your goals, life stress, and athletic background into consideration when formulating a running plan. Most experts agree that beginner runners should aim to run three to four days a week, with at least one day of complete rest and optional cross-training on other days. You can see our sample training plan for beginner runners here

More advanced runners can work up to six or more runs a week, aiming to keep including at least one rest day, and potentially adding in easy doubles (a second, very easy run at the end of the day) throughout the week after workouts. 

How often should you run? How many miles should you run?

What running shoes are best?

Simply put: The best trail running shoes are the ones that work for you. The most important aspect of a trail running shoe is how it fits the size and shape of your feet and, to some extent, how it works with your gait style. 

As you’re considering the features for specific trails, the width, volume, and secure fit are equally crucial as the traction, cushioning, and protection—especially because your feet move, flex, and land differently on every single stride on the varied terrain of the trails, and you’ll want a reliable connection between shoe and foot.

When sizing a trail running shoe, you might want to consider a shoe with a little more room in the forefoot, to reduce the chance of “toe bang,” a common sensation of smashing your toes to the front of the shoe when you kick a rock or root while wearing a snug-fitting shoe. 

That said, all trail running shoes fit differently, even within the same brand. Figure out the type of trail running shoes you need, and try on a few models within that category to understand how each shoe fits. Our best advice? Understand the different types of trail shoes out there, then visit your local running store and try on several pairs to see which ones work best.

RELATED:The Most Googled Trail Running Nutrition Questions, Answered

How many miles should I run each week?

The number of miles you run (or the amount of time on your feet, because technical trails with lots of elevation gain can make mileage less relevant) should determine the structure of your week. In general, the more miles (or time) you are able to run while staying healthy and recovering adequately, the faster you’ll get. 

Starting with your current weekly mileage, go up or down until you find what’s best for you in the context of your life. Never increase mileage by more than 10 percent in a single week—that comes with increased risks for injury or overtraining, though risks vary depending on your athletic background and life context. Most elite trail runners train 50 to 90 miles per week, though some may rack up significantly more or slightly less mileage.

Some athletes might have more success training by time than by mileage. Switching from tracking distance to time places the focus more on effort, rather than how far you go. That’s consistent with our understanding that the body doesn’t know miles, it knows stress. Capping time on feet for technical terrain or winter conditions is a good way to maintain a training load that’s productive, without over-stressing the body, since uneven surfaces can slow you down and add to effort. For altitude or challenging terrain, training by time can more effectively manage load, mentally and physically.

How often should I take a rest day?

Most coaches and training plans recommend resting at least one day a week, or even twice a week for athletes with higher stress or who are more injury-prone (that second rest day could also be active recovery or easy cross-training). 

Athletes should also rest at the first sign of injury. A small niggle can quickly flare into an all-out injury if you continue to run on it, and you’re much less likely to regret taking a couple extra days now than being forced to take weeks off down the road. When in doubt, rest. 

Should you strength train to run? Should you cross-train to run?
James Bonnett trail running in Val De Malatra, Courmayeur, Italy

Should I strength train?

Short answer: yes. 

Longer answer: how much, and how depends on your athletic background and goals. But, most research indicates that strength training will boost performance and minimize injury risk

We recommend starting with an easy-to-complete program like this one, or this one aimed at injury prevention. You’ll find that the overarching advice is the same: don’t overdo it and hobble your running. The strength should largely work in service of the running, not against it. 

Stack strength training on harder run days like workouts, and don’t overdo it and make yourself sore before your long run. Focus on single-leg strength that mimics patterns similar to running (doing a million squats will only help your running so much). A little bit of strength goes a long way. 

In an ideal world, you might be able to work with a strength coach to assess your goals and weaknesses to determine a personalized program tailored to fit your needs. If that’s not feasible, we have a library of resources here

RELATED:The Most Googled Trail Running Nutrition Questions, Answered

Should I cross-train?

The best way to get better at running is to run more (to a point), but cross-training can be a productive way to build aerobic capacity while minimizing the impact from running. 

Cross-training can be anything from hiking, aqua jogging, rollerblading, swimming, rowing, boxing, or using the elliptical. While things like basketball or skiing could technically be considered cross-training, most coaches and training programs recommend focusing on low-impact, aerobically-focused activities that reduce musculoskeletal stresses. 

Cross-training can help add volume to your training while limiting injury risk. It can act as a preventative measure against injuries by reducing the impact and forces on your muscles, joints, bones, tendons, and ligaments, adding variation to the repetitive stress imposed by running, and correcting muscle imbalances caused by running by strengthening opposing muscles. 

Cross-training exercises that complement the muscular demands of running by relying on opposing muscles are also ideal because they can help correct muscle imbalances and make you a more resilient athlete. For example, cycling puts different demands on your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, so it can be a good addition to your running regimen. Mixing it up with different activity levels can also help avoid mental burnout. 

So, how much should you cross-train?

The answer depends on your ideal training volume (see the above answer on mileage).  Depending on your level of fitness, goals, injury risk, and interests, your training program should include cross-training workouts anywhere from an occasional, one-off workout to a weekly staple. Runners who are more injury-prone, new to the sport, or returning after an extended break should rely more heavily on cross-training than seasoned runners with demonstrated tolerance for higher mileage weeks.

Cross-training workouts are usually used as substitutes for lower-intensity recovery runs, following long runs, tempo runs, races, or other hard efforts. The duration and intensity of your cross-training session should be in line with an average easy-to-moderate run. 

For example, if your typical training run is 5-6 miles at a 10-minute pace, a good cross-training substitute would be 45-60 minutes of aqua jogging, spinning, swimming, etc. at a similar heart rate or intensity level.

Is it okay to walk?

Heck yes! Almost every trail runner walks at one point or another during competition. It’s an effective way of regulating output and traversing technical terrain, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. 

To quote an article by David Roche: “Walking is an essential part of trail running. Almost every trail runner on the planet walks, from the fastest superbeast to the superathlete just starting out. Walking is imperative for efficiency, speed and health, even if it might not be on every magazine cover. Walking is something to celebrate with love and joy. Walking doesn’t make you less of a trail runner … in fact, embracing walking may be part of what makes you a true trail runner.”

Over time, it can be helpful to try to run more sections of uphill, even if your effort goes beyond purely easy. The impact forces are lower, so the injury risk is lower. The musculoskeletal system can adapt to that stress and make it possible to run more hills more easily down the road. 


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