Hiking Trails

Beginner’s guide to trail running

The benefits of running, even for short periods of time, have been well studied and documented. The benefits include everything from boosting confidence and cardiovascular health to reducing anxiety and depression while building muscle and improving bone density.

But when it comes to trail running—running on railroad trails, hiking trails, motorable roads, or anything that isn’t a manufactured surface—there are additional benefits.

“It’s just a great way to enjoy all four seasons,” says Mark Eisenhandler, an avid trail runner and triathlete who was co-race director for Rock-the-Ridge, a 50-mile run/walk challenge to benefit the Mohonk Reserve in May.

“You see [the seasons] in a different, more intimate way and the smells are incredible, running through a forest of hemlocks or that smell of pitch pines. And when you’re running on a trail, you only focus on where your feet land. It’s almost meditative.

Choosing a perfect trail to run can be as simple as a filtered search on Alltrails. But plan to ride a shorter distance than on the track or road.

Erin Quinn

Testing this theory, we went for a run on a drivable road and took the Coxing Trail to the Mohonk Preserve. It was wet. The rocks were slippery. There were fallen trees and branches from the ice storm earlier in the month. So we slowed down a bit.

“And when the trail gets too steep or too technical, you walk,” he says, as he lifts a limb crossing the trail and I swing left to avoid running straight into the river bed. We then walked a bit until there was drier, more stable ground to grab. “I think giving up a specific pace or distance that you want to run is key, because you can’t compare what you’re doing on the track or on the road with the trail. There is no comparison. I think it’s best looked at in terms of time spent and effort expended.

Phil Vondra, an ultramarathoner from New Paltz who recently set a winter hiking record in the Catskills in less than four days, agreed with many of those sentiments and added a few more.

“Being able to interact with nature is one of the biggest benefits of trail running,” says Vondra. “I would say it’s a bit better for your joints and you’re getting good exercise. Even when you’re running on flat ground, you’re still using smaller muscles that you don’t really use on the roads. The climbs and descents of the trail add another dimension to your training. I have fast friends from [New York City] who come here to run and they are in real pain before we even climb the first hill!

Running is also peaceful. There is a deep silence that allows the runner to focus only on their breathing, where to land their next step and the surrounding nature. Here, in spring, that means flowers and trees turning green, ferns unfurling, and the cacophony of returning migratory birds. So how do you start?

Steps to start the trail

Vondra recommends checking out local trails and parks, asking a running store or local running club for suggestions, and using the Alltrails app to find ideas. The search function allows you to sort by trails suitable for race, difficulty and proximity. “Every time I go somewhere new, I plug into Alltrails to find cool places to run. It’s very convenient,” he says.

At first though, Vondra recommends staying close to home and choosing a shorter route than what you’re used to running on a paved surface. “Start slow… If you are used to running 8 km on the road, choose a route of 3 or 4 km. Let someone know where you are going and how long you plan to be.

Like trail or road running, little gear is needed, and most regular running shoes are fine for trail running “unless you plan on doing something really wet, rocky, and beefy,” says Will go. “If you get to this point, you might want to invest in shoes with more grip.”

He suggests using the same basic safety measures as when hiking, including bringing water, a charged cell phone, and a map. “You can use a running belt to store these things, but there are also shorts now that have built-in pockets which are really cool.”

Running solo on a trail provides solitude, but running and running in a group also provides social connection.

A great way to get involved in trail running is to volunteer for a run. There are aid stations to work on, beacons to set up and take down, bibs to hand out and people to cheer on and remind people that the finish line is just ahead.

“I love volunteering,” says Vondra. “It’s great to see people’s smiles and cheer them on if they’re going through a tough time. The trail running community is incredibly welcoming. I have been involved in triathlons, rowing and cycling and nothing can compare to the culture of trail running. They’re very positive and accepting and it doesn’t matter if you’re first or last, they just celebrate that you’re there.

2022 Hudson Valley Trail Running Races and Groups

  • Beacon Endurance (Dutchess County) occasionally holds group runs and clinics.
  • Sterling Furnace Half Marathon (Orange County) on April 23 takes place at Sterling Forest State Park in Tuxedo and includes two courses: a 15k and a half marathon.
  • Breakneck Point Trail Races (Putnam County) are offering a marathon trail race on April 30 in the Hudson Highlands and a half-marathon trail race on May 1.
  • Cider Donut 5k (Dutchess County) runs through the orchards of Greig Farm in Red Hook in the fall and offers winners in every age group free cider donuts for the year.

Hudson Valley Ultramarathons

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