The sun is shining, snow is melting, and birds are chirping. You head out on a run through your neighborhood and glance at Mt. Sentinel and think to yourself, “I wonder if I could run up there?” Our answer to you is simple: YES! Trail running is an incredibly fun variant of road running, and wildly popular here in Missoula. Below, we’ll dive into some of the differences between road running and trail running and offer some suggestions for how to hit the trails!

Road vs Trail Running

A group run on the Jumbo Saddle above the Lincoln Hills Trailhead

One of the big differences between road and trail running is that in trail running, the terrain is very inconsistent. When you head out on a trail run, there might be more hills, mud, ice, loose rocks, or a whole myriad of other conditions you would never find on a road. But aside from the terrain, trail running is still running! And after some practice, you will come to love these features of trail running!

Hills are fun (and don’t worry, you don’t need to run all of them😊)

A lot of people get overwhelmed when faced with a big hill while trail running. On the trails, you might find yourself heading up something a road wouldn’t go up, like Mt Sentinel or Waterworks. A common misconception is that trail runners run every step of the way up precipitous mountain trails. Aside from very few, almost all trail runners intersperse walking (we like to call it “power hiking”) with running. The goal is not to have a consistent pace on an inconsistent trail, but rather to match your effort to the terrain. Try to keep a consistent heart rate (or “perceived effort”), and let your pace vary in order to do so. This will make trail running far more comfortable and enjoyable! There is NOTHING run with walking on a trail run – everyone does it!

Traction for the trails: give trail shoes a try!

Trail shoes providing traction while splashing through a springtime puddle

When winter rolls around, most of us swap our all-season car tires for winter-specific tires. Similarly, when people head to the trails, they often swap their all-around road shoes for trail-specific shoes. Trail shoes offer better protection from rocks/roots, a reinforced toe bumper, and aggressive tread to grip the trail. Especially this time of year, extra traction is a huge bonus for keeping your feet securely on muddy trails. Learn more about some of our favorite trail shoes here.

Dress for success

Weather and trail conditions play a much bigger role in trail running than road running. When you’re out on the trails, expect conditions you wouldn’t normally find on the roads: mud, ice, snow, puddles, stream crossings, rocks and more! In addition to proper footwear, we strongly recommend a quality pair of non-cotton socks. Synthetic or wool socks will help keep your feet warm in winter, cool in the summer, and reduce the chance of blisters! Check out our running socks here, or drop by the store!

We also recommend bringing layers, especially if you’re headed from somewhere in the valley (like Runner’s Edge) to somewhere high in the mountains (like the top of Mt. Sentinel). A wind shirt is a super handy layer to have that packs down small, but offers great protection from the elements for its size and weight. 

Be respectful of other users

Sharing the trails is fun!

Always be respectful of other users!  Yield the trail to those going uphill, and always smile and say hello when you see other people. Keep dogs leashed or under voice restraint, pickup dog poo, and follow posted rules. The trails are very friendly places, and as more people head off the roads onto the dirt, it’s important to be polite to others and treat people with respect.

Stay safe

When you’re running on a trail, you are likely farther from help than when you’re on the roads. Be sure to carry a phone (and know whether you’ll have service or not). Download maps for your run so you don’t get lost, or carry a paper map. We recommend the OnX Backountry app! If you are in grizzly bear country, be sure to carry bear spray and know how to use it. Finally, consider also bringing a small first aid kit.

Have fun!

As always, have fun out there! If you have any questions about getting started with trail running, the Runner’s Edge team would be more than happy to help. See you on the trails!

Enjoying a downhill at Blue Mountain