Trail terrain is always changing, offering you a new set of challenges at every turn and hill. And because the terrain is always shifting and evolving, trail running can enhance your coordination, agility, strength, and cardiovascular health.
It also cultivates a newfound connection to yourself and your surroundings, but that connection can be offset and impacted by tricky conditions and unexpected obstacles. Familiarizing yourself with the types of trails and races can help you feel more confident in your decision-making.
TYPES OF TRAILS
At Merrell, we’ve identified and defined the three most common types of trails—light, moderate, and rugged. Know that each state, country, and place has varying degrees of light, moderate, and rugged terrain—so a “light” trail in Michigan might be drastically different from a “light” trail in Montana.
Light trails are well-maintained, relatively flat, and consist of hard-packed dirt or loose gravel. They’re mostly clear of obstacles and debris, with few terrain changes. Elevation gain is minimal, though it can be noticeable. Trail runners can expect a pace similar to that of road running.
- Training Tips: Establish an easy cardiovascular baseline. Try running a simple, standard mile whenever you can. Tempo runs or fartlek sessions can provide additional strength training opportunities.
- Technique Tips: Take short, fast strides and keep your cadence high and your footfall within your center of gravity to cover terrain quickly.
- Recommended Trail Shoe Features: Mesh upper, small overlays for structural stability, and uniform yet shallow lugs. Barefoot to moderate midsole cushion is recommended for maximum connection, as less protection is necessary on light trails.
Moderate trails have inclines (or variations in altitude), are not maintained, and have irregularities such as small stream crossings, compressions, and rock outcroppings. Typically these trails are frequented by other outdoor enthusiasts, such as hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. There are some obstacles and debris with occasional terrain changes, and elevation gain is hilly or moderate. Trail runners can expect a slower pace than on the road.
- Training Tips: Try upping your mileage (safely) for longer distances, and run hill repeats when you can. Additional agility training can be helpful.
- Technique Tips: Remember that short strides help you maintain stability. Keep your stride soft as you navigate flat, uphill, and downhill sections. As you run, keep a slight bend in the knee and push your hips forward—avoid “sitting down,” as this puts excessive pressure on your knees and slows down your pace.
- Recommended Trail Shoe Features: Mesh upper with structural overlays, toe guard, and rock plate inserts for stability and protection. Midsole cushion is dependent on your preference, though we recommend moderate- to maximum-cushion trail shoes for shock absorption and energy rebound over longer miles. Sole should have moderate-sized lugs with a multidirectional pattern for enhanced traction.
Rugged trails are difficult, steep, and far from maintained. Terrain is extremely varied and features lots of heavy debris and obstacles with extreme elevation gain. A trail runner’s pace will be significantly slower than on roads. It’s strongly recommended to walk uphill and run downhill sections thoughtfully and cautiously.
- Training Tips: Utilize cross-training programs, such as high intensity interval training (HIIT) or rock climbing. Be sure to rest and take care of yourself, physically and mentally.
- Technique Tips: Adjust your pace periodically. Keep your glutes engaged and lean forward. Staying too upright impedes your momentum and strength. Additionally, pump your arms to help maintain power. Speed-walking uphill while gently pushing your hands off of your quads will help you maintain momentum.
- Recommended Trail Shoe Features: Very sturdy, durable mesh upper with substantial overlays. Cushion is dependent on your preference and should vary between moderate and maximum to provide shock absorption. The midsole needs to be stiff yet flexible to ensure traction on the uphill, with stabilizing inserts, rock guard, and a toe shield to protect the forefoot. Shoe may or may not have a waterproof lining to protect your foot.
Recommended Rugged Trail Shoes: Merrell’s Agility Peak Flex 3 for Men and Women
TYPES OF TRAIL RACES
We’ve compiled a list of the most common types of trail races you’ll encounter.
Much like road races, traditional trail races range from 5K to marathons. To find a race near you, visit the Trail Runner magazine Race Finder.
An ultra is a race of any distance beyond 26.2 miles. The 50K and 100K are common ultramarathon distances.
Some races, like the Spartan Trail Series or the Barkley Marathon, have obstacle components to make the race more grueling.
Relay races, such as Ragnar, are completed by a team of individuals. Relay races can vary in distance but last over multiple days and nights.
Stage races (e.g., Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) are completed by one person in sections over the course of multiple days and nights. Once a section is finished, the runners stop, camp, and sleep. Some stage races are self-supported (meaning you bring your supplies along with you as you run) while others offer communal sleeping and eating.
Per the International Skyrunning Federation, skyrunning is defined as “running in the mountains above 2,000m altitude where the climbing difficulty does not exceed II° grade and the incline is over 30%.” Skyrunning race distances can vary, but the terrain criteria remain the same across the board.
A virtual race allows you to skip the race-day jitters and competition—you choose your own starting time. You simply find a virtual race online, sign up, run, and upload your finishing time.
A hash run is a social running competition, though due to its wild rules and its tendency toward social drinking, a hash run might be better defined as a slightly competitive run club.
The beauty of trail running is its versatility and dexterity. It encourages you to define your own strength on a mile-by-mile and run-by-run basis, providing a deeper connection to yourself and your surroundings. Our hope is that this article will guide you as you identify trails and goals, so you can focus on the experience and connection.