A Quick start guide to (trail) running

So what is this trail running?! Isn’t that freakishly skinny people with lives that aren’t even remotely bearable that don’t run anything shorter than a full marathon? Horrible! They even run uphill! There’s no way this is ever going to be anything I’ll enjoy, let alone do… wrong!

Trail running is a sport where you “run” at a speed of your own choice through a natural environment. Instead of paved roads, running club tracks, or – I can barely stand the thought – treadmills, you go out into the world, looking for tracks that are as diverse and stimulating as possible. Forest trails, fields, hills, sand dunes… and let’s add a little altitude difference to the mix!


It’s true that the average trail run isn’t a 5km jog, but that’s because you shouldn’t look at a trail run as something you do between finishing work and cooking dinner somewhere whithin the next hour. it’s an experience and you’re looking for variation. You’re about to open up your mind and body to a variety of stimuli you’ve been craving all day. Trail runners are first and foremost competing with themselves while taking in the environment. Nobody is forcing you to run all the time. Most trail runners walk – they like to call it “power hiking” *cough* – uphill. It’s all about being economical with the power and energy you have. It doesn’t matter if you end up walking 80% of your trail. You choose the way you move.

Trail running is perfect for people that enjoy hiking and mountaineering. Why would you want to haul a heavy pack and wear stiff shoes while you can float on running shoes and minimal weight? Our body is designed to take and distribute impacts and loads without help from gear. No healthy person can feel right about wearing heavy shoes with stiff soles.


It’s a cliché, but we were born to run. Let me rephrase that. We were born to roam. Few animals are as well adapted as we are to roam over large areas and long distances. Our bodies are hardwired for stamina and our brain is ready to take on the challenge. This annoying thing called sweating is a superb temperature regulation system many other animals lack. It’s what allowed our long forgotten fathers and mothers to survive long before there was anything such as writing to record their stories and memories. You are their grand grand grand grandchild and your design is identical to theirs. To roam is our instinct and it has been since the dawn of ages. Big chance that’s why you are reading these words. You want to get out there!

Yes, yes… But where do I start?

What should I have?

schoenenA good pair of running shoes, preferrably without a Gore-Tex membrane and with a grippy agressive sole. Why no waterproof membrane? Well if you have a low cut shoe, once water comes in, it’s not going to get out! Wet feet are part of the game, but I won’t get into detail in this post. The best advice I can give you is to go to a specialized store and to choose deliberatly. A good pair of shoes makes the difference between blister ridden horror and enjoyable strolls.

horlogeA heart rate monitor. Any major sports store will be able to sell you a cheap heart rate monitor. Is this absolutely necessary? Well, no. You can just run and go by feeling, but, in my experience, most beginners start out way to hard. A heart rate monitor will enable you to take control of your training and to make the best possible progress. Cheap models sell from around €20 and GPS watches can cost as much as a good bike. These days, most smart phones are compatible with heart rate monitors and apps like Runkeeper and Strava are great to keep track and socialize.

What should I know and what should I do?

Forget about counting kilometers! The only things that matter are duration and intensity. Those are the factors you’ll play with. They determine everything. Sportsphysiology and training methods have proven their worth time and again. There’s a very big difference between “excercise” and “training”.

Excercise is using your body, but it’s unstructured and unplanned. It’s overcoming the resistance of the physical world we live in. Just look at the body of an astronaut returning from space. The absence of gravity has weakened his body because there was little to no resistance to work against. Now think about the effect of living an inactive life on your body! Sitting all day, driving everywhere… Your body becomes weak, because it believes it’s allowed to be weak.

People that are trying to get you to do physical excercise are not sadistic monsters, singleminded freaks or madmen. Excercise is vital and in the absence of it there will always be physical and mental health problems!

Training – on the other hand – is systematic and methodic. We’ll set a goal for ourselves and use science to make us stronger, fitter and healthier.

Let’s take another look at what “duration” and “intensity” mean.

Duration is how long you’re running, speedhiking or even walking for that matter.

Intensity is how much effort you’ll ask from your body during that amount of time. This is where the heart rate monitor comes into the picture. Since this is a quick start guide, I’ll save you the science, but it’s absolutely crucial that you build basic stamina first. The best way to do this is to stay in the correct heart rate zone.

Just think about it this way. We’re tweaking our engine, and before we can tune it into a high end sports car, we need to get the basic engine efficiency right. The first thing a new runner needs to do is get the basic fuel economy right. We want to be able to go long and slow, using our fuel as efficiënt as possible, before trying to go hard and fast.

Yeah, yeah… I get it. So what heart rate should I be running at?!


To improve your base stamina, it’s best to run between 70% – 85% of your max heart rate. Training at this intensity improves your cardiovascular health. In other words, how well your heart, veins and lungs will function in order to make the best of the situation. By training at this intensity you should feel light to moderate exertion. Your breathing will be slightly elevated and you’ll be sweating a bit. But, you should still be able to have a conversation.

The easiest way to determine your max heart rate is by doing 220 – your age. You’ll find countless free websites offering tools to calculate your heart rate zones, but this formula should get you started.

For example: I’m 30 years old. So: 220 – 30 = 190. Where’s my optimal zone? Well, 70% of 190 is 133 and 85% of 190 is 161. As I’m running, I should make sure my heart rate stays somewhere between those two numbers. In reality that will mean I’ll try to keep it between 150 and 160bpm.

Don’t worry too much about those numbers! As you get more and more into this I’m sure you’ll read up on it more, but just at this moment, it’s enough for you to keep your heart rate more or less in that zone. If it’s over your highest number, you’re pushing too hard and you’ll just destroy yourself in no time and not get a good training effect. If it’s below 140… You’re either already very fit or walking.

Believe me. It will feel extremely slow at first. But, believe me some more and maintain your self discipline and trust the science. You’ll see your speed improve soon enough. Within a couple of weeks you’ll be running a lot faster while still staying within the same heart rate zone. If you push it too hard anyway, you’ll most likely end up burnt up or even injured.

How often should I train?

In order to progress it’s best to train 3 to 5 times per week, preferrably with a day of recovery in between. It’s important to listen to your body. If you feel pain or excessive fatigue, just sleep it off another night.

Choose a duration which allows you to recover in two nights sleep and try not to add more than 10% of duration each week. Of course it’s common sense that you can add more in the first couple of weeks and less later. Imagine you start out with 20 – 30 minutes. Just adding 3 is silly. Add like 10 minutes or so per week until you feel yourself hit a ceiling and then use the 10% (or even less). Again, it’s important to listen to your body. You will only gain from a new training session if you’ve (almost) completely recovered from your previous one. This principle is called supercompensation if you’d like to read up on it.

So that’s it?!

No! This is sound, but very basic advice. Every person is different and training programs are something very personal, but these rules of thumb should get you started for a month or two without blowing your mind with too much information too soon.

If you listen to your body and use the scientific method, I guarantee you good long term results! As your body gets stronger, you’ll start to enjoy it more and more.

Cardiovascular fitness is the key to enjoying a healthy and active life full of big and small adventures!

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions at all, or if you simply want a kick in the butt! Now get dressed and get out there!


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