Ever run on a path instead of pavement? That’s trail running, and it has exploded in the U.S., from 4.5 million trail runners in 2006, to an estimated 9.5 million in 2016. We take a look at how it’s different, why it’s good– and misunderstood– and why it just might change your life.

Karli Meinerz of Breckenridge finds inspiration and gratitude on the trails of the San Juan Mountains outside Silverton, Colorado.Brandon Mathis

In its most fundamental form, trail running – running on dirt paths through meadows, forests, canyons, creeks and the rest of the natural world has immeasurable benefits, and not just for your physical health. Studies have shown that spending time in nature releases stress more effectively. According to Harvard Medical School research, nature can create feelings of happiness and connection, expedite healing and improve concentration.

Running in general is known to improve your immune system, build muscle, relieve stress and increase endorphin levels. Your cardiovascular system will thank you, because running lowers the risk of heart disease.

Trail running is also believed to burn ten percent more calories than other forms of running because the constant variation of the terrain makes the body work harder.


Getting hooked? Remember to take it easy.

Going out too fast can lead to overuse injuries. Take it from seven-time Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run finisher Drew Gunn of Durango, Colorado. Coming from a cycling background, Gunn hit the trails to build fitness for climbing and mountaineering. Then he caught the running bug.


“Go slower,” Gunn said. “People that come from track and road very much base things off of mileage and minutes per mile. A lot of that should go out the window when you’re talking trails.”

It is best to increase mileage slowly. Some trainers preach a ten percent rule, meaning they increase mileage no more than ten percent each week. Others rely less on a number, but more on how they feel. Take things slow and ease into it.

Brandon Mathis


Trail runners might not keep a record pace, but they tend to quicken their cadence, ready to react to variable conditions.

“You need to think about foot placement,” Gunn said. “Some people need to slow down and focus and be able to constantly adapt to terrain. You work in more of a lateral plane when trail running. You have to move side to side a little bit more.”

Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run
Drew Gunn moments after his seventh Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run finish in 2018.Brandon Mathis


“There are some people that think you should run every step, and that is just not going to happen,” Gunn said. “Especially at altitude. Altitude puts a damper on everyone. Anybody who really wants to trail run, they’re going to have
to accept there is going to be some hiking involved. That’s something you can practice: Just learning to walk faster uphill.”

Megan Longinotti Trail Running
RRCA coach Megan Longinotti says she likes to blend fashion and function on the trail, finding styles and performance she likes and sticking with the the two. Here, she gets out near Clear Lake in Silverton, Colorado. Terrance Siemon


“The most important thing is to just be consistent,” Gunn said. “Just getting out a lot- even if it’s just shorter distances. You’re better off to run five miles five times a week than 25 miles one time a week.”


Committing to running 30, 50 or a 100 miles means you love being out, but starting from the ground up can seem overwhelming. Gunn said don’t sweat the small stuff.

“Don’t get too hung up on the numbers,” he said. “The consistency of getting your body used to running a lot creates a lot of physiological changes and also a lot of psychological changes. Go out and enjoy it, like it’s a natural thing to do. It should be something that feels good.”


“I’d run, but it’s too hard on my knees.”

That might be on the contrary. Modern research supports that running may actually be good for joints like your knees. According to David Felson, an epidemiologist at Boston University School of Medicine, runners show fewer cases of osteoarthritis than non-runners.

Hardrock Hundred
An ultra-marathon mountain runner charging uphill during the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado.Brandon Mathis


Trail running genres

Ultrarunning – technically anything over 26.2 miles can be considered an ultra run. In trail running, this typically starts with the 50K, or about 33 miles. Next stop might be the 50-milers, and of course, the 100-mile distance is gaining popularity.

Sky running – somewhere over 6,600 feet above sea level you start running up hill, usually with an elevation gain of 4,500 feet or more. Turn around and run down. Sky running is huge in Europe although there are competitions stateside.

Mountain running – It is just what it sounds like: Running in the mountains. Of course, many people walk or power hike the inclines. High elevations are the norm. This incredibly blissful category is no less inspiring than it is scenic.

Adventure running – Adventure running typically takes participants on a variety of surfaces, on and off-road and through remote and challenging terrain that may rely on some navigation and orienteering to find your way. Things like food and water and other provisions should be preplanned, and carried.

Fastpacking – Combine trail running, ultra running, adventure running and backpacking together and you have fastpacking. Fastpackers stay out for longer lengths of time, whether that’s a 50-mile overnight excursion through a desert canyon system or a 500-mile journey across the Rocky Mountains. Considering the terrain they cover, fastpackers need to travel light, so they borrow much of their strategy from ultralight thruhikers, weighing everything meticulously. Some fastpackers may travel for days on end with packs weighing less than ten pounds. While they may not run every step of the way, the run about 60 to 80 percent of the terrain they cover.

Karli Meinerz starting off another day on the trails. “Trail running is my favorite way to play,” she said. “It’s amazing to romp around and see how far my legs will take me.”Brandon Mathis