After finishing several marathons, I found myself in a spot where I felt that I was chasing PB’s and was losing some motivation and joy in my running. So I gave trail running a try, and guess what, I loved it. And, I thought it would be helpful to share what I’ve picked up while running trail events.

So what is trail running?

In short trail running is a race or run of almost any distance in a natural environment (forest, mountain, fields etc.) with minimal possible paved or asphalt road.

Difference with roads

Running trails differs from the road. As you run in a natural environment, the course might contain hills, corners, and all kind of off-road surfaces. Therefore a trail run might take you much more time than the same distance would take you on the road, depending on the course’s difficulty and elevation differences.

Most events mention not only the distance but also the amount of elevation. This means the total elevation gain over the course. If a race says 20km / 600m+ it means that on a 20km run you ascent a total of 600 vertical meters. (and most of the time also decent these). This is to give an indication of what to expect. For example, running 25km in a mountain area climbing 1500 meters can take a lot more time and energy than running 32km with just a few hills in it.

As you run in a more natural environment, most trail race organizations try to keep the number of participants limited to a smaller number. Littering on a trail can lead to disqualification, and some events even require you to bring your own cup, to limit the environmental impact.

One important difference to look out for is the number of fueling stations / water stops. Where in road races these are usually every 5km, but don’t be surprised if some 42k trail marathons have only 3 stations. So if you are signed up for a trail race, make sure to read the course plan.


If we we’re to believe what we see in magazines, Trail runners look a lot different from marathoners, but most of the time these are sponsored ultra-athletes, so no need to worry. You don’t have to go on a shopping spree for your first trail.


One of the most seen things on the trails is the backpack (or rucksack). As most trails have less water stops, it might take you quite some time to get from one to the next one. You could carry a bottle in your hand, or a water bottle belt, but there are also small backpacks with a water bladder in it so have your own water with you and some food/snacks.

But there is another story behind the backpacks. As trails take place in nature, it can take more time for aid workers to get to you in the event you get injured or need to stop. So you’ll need some food and drink or other items while you wait. On longer (ultra) distances, or mountain races there might even be a list of mandatory items to carry with you, such as a phone and raincoat in the mountains. If this is the case, it is mentioned in the regulations.


As for shoes it all depends on where you’re going. There are several types of trail shoes out there. If you are running a trail in Holland in the dunes or meadows, you might be also fine on your road shoes. As for a trail in the Alps, a pair off trails shoes would definitely have some benefits. The sole of trail shoes have more grip and traction and usually the toe box is harder than a normal shoe for protection if you hit a rock or tree branch.

Have Fun and Enjoy

So if you’ve never run a trail before, give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised. The trails I ran all had a very good atmosphere. There’s a different vibe, as most of the runners aren’t chasing a time and like to enjoy the surroundings. A little sit-break with some food and drink and a small chat at an aid station are not uncommon.

What’s your experience with running trails? We’d love to hear your tips or stories. Please share them with us in the comments below.

Rob Schakenbos

Rob has been part of the House of Running community since day one when he joined us to train for his first marathon. Since joining House of Running, Rob's completed a number of long-distance events that include the Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Munich and the Leiden Marathons, the 50K Salland Trail, and the challenging mountain trail Allgäu Panorama Marathon, to name a few. Now, after having run a few marathons, Rob's moved away from chasing PB’s and his current goal is to enjoy running more. As part of this quest, he's moved on to exploring more trail running events. At House of Running, Rob has served as a Pace Group leader for many years and in 2017 he joined the coaching team to share more of his experience and knowledge with our runners.

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