Trail Running: A Beginner's Guide
A swimmer first, I was never into running. That changed when I started trail running. The first time I went ‘off-road’ I was amazed at how enjoyable it was. The ever-changing scenery and the challenge of it had me hooked. Since moving to Basel I have found some new trails for inspiration and encourage you to try them as well.
A bit about me
I swam competitively for 15 years. I still view myself as a swimmer first and a runner second. I didn’t enjoy running, especially road running. Endless pounding on pavement, shin splints, boring views of cars...it wasn't for me.
Fast forward to 2015 when my husband and I moved to Hong Kong. Hong Kong has some incredible trails and I soon discovered how much I enjoyed it. After that, I was persuaded to enter an obstacle course race. That was the first time I ran ‘off-road’ and I was amazed at how much more fun it was.
I kept up with it and a year later entered a 14k couples race on Valentine’s Day with my
husband. It consisted of two mountains, a mix of paved roads and trails and a lot of stairs. Up until that point, I wasn't running regularly and the longest I had ever run was 5k.
During the race, I threatened divorce at least 4 times, cried twice and fell down once, but once the dust settled (literally and figuratively), I was hooked.
What is trail running?
Simply put – it’s exactly what it says on the tin – running on trails. Of course, there's a bit more to it than that and some preparation is required. As opposed to road running, trail running is a bit more unpredictable and ‘rough and ready’. It can change depending on the weather, the season and the terrain. There are a number of challenges that you wouldn’t encounter running on paved road; from thick mud, to stairs, to overly curious wildlife. It’s what makes it both a challenge and a pleasure at the same time. It's also a great way to discover new terrain, spend more time with nature and give your legs a break from the impact of pavement.
How to get started
If you are going for a quick run in the forest you can just grab a pair of shoes and go. However, if you want to dig a little deeper, here are a few helpful tips to get you started.
When you first start out you don't want to overdo it, aim for 5k or less and see how you go.
Since running on trails is defined as ‘running on an unpaved surface’, your running
technique will be a bit different than running on a road. Here are some things to keep
Use a shorter stride. You want to keep your feet under you so you don’t lose your balance.
Scan the trail. Keep your eyes down and scan 10 to 15 feet ahead of you for anything that might trip you up, like tree roots or rocks. Always try to pick the most stable route.
Swing your arms. This provides more balance, especially when going downhill.
Don’t forget your phone! It's very useful for navigation purposes or in case you run into any problems.
The most important part of trail running is getting the right shoes. Road shoes are fine on a dry, hard, packed trail but if you hit a patch of mud and a wet rock, you might go flying. Trail shoes are specifically designed to help you grip on all types of terrain from mud, to wet rocks and grass. Compared to road shoes, they have a deeper tread and extra cushioning to help avoid injury, which will help you stay more sure-footed whatever the terrain.
There are a number of trail shoes to choose from. If you’re a beginner, with no idea what you are looking for in a shoe, REI has an excellent article on how to choose trail running shoes. Likewise, the team at The Running Concept Store in Decathlon has a wealth of knowledge about shoes and really know their stuff. They’re happy to conduct an in-store running assessment and recommend the best shoe for your foot.
Hydration and Fuel
It is essential to carry water with you unless you know your route is short (less than an hour) or you know where to stop along the way. Also keep in mind that trail running in extreme conditions like high heat/humidity will require extra attention to the amount of water you bring. When running in high heat and humidity, it is recommended to bring water along for even the shortest of runs.
The longer the run, the more water you’ll need. There are a lot of different options for carrying water – hydration vests, hand held collapsible water bottles and waist-packs with water bottles. For a shorter run, a handheld water bottle is enough, but for longer runs a hydration vest or pack that carries at least 1 litre of water is recommended. Plus, the extra space is useful to carry any extras like keys, wallet, food or spare clothes.
In terms of fuel, the same rule applies. For a shorter run, you won’t need much more than a
few energy gels (my favourite is Honey Stinger, but Clif Bar also makes a good one) or
electrolyte tabs (like Salt Stick). For longer runs, utilize that space in your pack and bring along a few energy bars as well. Don’t forget to bring some money in case you run out of water or food and need to stop off at the closest store.
Before you rush out to buy all new clothing, take a look at what you already have. Most workout clothing is fine, just keep in mind the following:
Materials are important. Clothing should be made of moisture wicking material or synthetics and that dry easily. Merino wool is a good bet, as it’s a natural material that helps to regulate body temperature and doesn’t get heavy when wet. Cotton is not ideal as it absorbs moisture and stays heavy and wet for a long time.
Layering is important. With trail running, you could be going up stairs one second and along flats the next so your body temperature fluctuates more quickly than on the roads. Layering with a few thin shirts and base layers or a windbreaker gives you the option to add or remove clothing as necessary.
Running belts are essential. You need somewhere to put your house keys, energy gels, phones, money, etc. There are a number of options available, but I would highly recommend the Naked Running Belt because I find it keeps everything secure and it’s easy to wear. Nathan is another popular brand that has running belts in different sizes, depending on your needs.
This is a giant topic in itself so I will only touch on it here. Trackers and GPS watches are great, but it is important to access your level of dedication before you spend too much. Some higher end watches already have tracking options to help you navigate and almost all of them have a heart rate monitor that helps you keep an eye on your exertion levels. If you are interested in learning more, REI’s Intro to Trail Running series of articles is a great place to start.
Where to run
The more I see of Switzerland, the more I realise why it’s a mecca for trail runners and
hikers. The trail network throughout the country is incredibly well connected. At the
same time it can also be intimidating if you don’t know where to start. This is a
simple 5k loop that is close to civilization and very enjoyable. It starts in Binningen and is within easy reach of Basel SBB via public transport.
Naturschutzgebiet Herzogenmatt in Binningen
Description: Gentle hills and flat trails through forests, within easy reach of Binningen,
Oberwil, Bottmingen and Allschwil
Terrain: A mix of trail and road that is well-used and maintained
How to get there: Number 2 tram from SBB to Binningen, Kroneplatz and then the 61 bus towards Oberwil. Disembark at Drisselweg, next to Fussballplatz Drisselweg on Hohestrasse. Walk down Drisselweg keeping the football field on your left. Turn right at the Spielplatz Drissel playground and continue downhill past Alabor Gartenbau. Take the first left and cross the bridge. Head uphill on the dirt path…you’ve arrived at the start of the loop.
There are a number of trails to choose from in this area. Once you become more familiar you can experiment with different routes. If you get lost you can always use your phone to bring you back to Drisselweg stop.
Head past the viewing tower on your left. When the path splits, take the left fork. Follow the trail past the three wooden beams and down the stairs.
Continue on the path until you reach the paved road – turn left. Follow the trail until you get to the edge of the forest, then turn left and follow it downhill. Head down a few more stairs, then head towards the fields by crossing over the river in front of you, then turn left.
Continue straight with the river on your left before going up a gentle hill. At the cross roads, continue straight, keeping the red and blue markings on the trees on your right. Make your way towards the allotments and through the field.
At the next crossroads, you’ll see a fence in front of you but don’t go through it. Instead, turn right and head up the hill. Follow the path past the carved wooden figures before heading downhill. Make the next right then follow the trail until it splits, then stay to the left.
You’ll come to the crossroads you were at a few turns ago, but this time, head straight towards the fence and follow it to the right. Go down the stairs and cross the small wooden bridge. Turn right at the paved road, cross the bridge and head up the hill to get back to viewing tower at the start of the loop.
So there you have it. A beginners guide to trail running and an enjoyable 5k loop to try out. I
can’t wait to hear what you think. I’m still discovering trails around Basel so would love to
hear any suggestions.
If you want to be inspired by the pros, check out the Golden Trail Series on YouTube and
Instagram. They make it look easy and are great to watch for tips on technique, form and
Jamie is an American by way of the UK and Hong Kong. She has lived in Basel Land with her husband, two children and two dogs since October 2021. She loves coffee, travelling, being outside and animals. Her hobbies include skiing, obstacle course racing and reading. She is very competitive and always up to try a new outdoor activity.