How to Get Started with Trail Running in Alabama

Throughout Alabama you’ll find beginner and advanced trails.
Throughout Alabama you’ll find beginner and advanced trails. Rock/Creek
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With 21 state parks that occupy a wide variety of terrain, Alabama is the perfect place to take up trail running. Whether you’re looking for a gentle jog through serene woods or a challenging trek up a rocky mountainside, you’ll find nearby trails to suit your desires.

Throughout the state you’ll find beginner and advanced trails, giving you the freedom to test your level of skill and endurance as you gain experience and progress. However, trail running is not without its own intricacies, so we’ve shared expert advice to ensure that your first foray into the sport is successful.

Join A Group

When you’re taking up a new sport or activity, it’s smart to learn from experienced veterans who know the ins and outs. If you run with a group, it will not only help ease your doubts, but you’ll avoid rookie mistakes and progress faster. Groups like the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS), We Run Huntsville, or the Auburn-Opelika Running & Track Association will help make trail runs more enjoyable and keep you motivated to stay with the sport.

Gear Up

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Make sure you're properly equipped to handle the rigors of the trail. Rock/Creek

Like all sports, trail running has gear specially designed to meet its demands. While you don’t have to go crazy with new gear, it is important to invest in good trail-running shoes that will provide adequate support, traction and protection on rugged terrain. You’ll thank yourself for investing in a nice, comfortable pair of trail runners as you confidently grip red clay, leap over protruding roots, and gallop surefooted downhill on the tail end of a run.

For the most part, running short distances on trails is a minimalist sport. However, like all runs of significant length, you need to ensure you are properly equipped to handle the rigors of the trail. To stay as dry and comfortable as possible, you should wear technical clothing that helps you manage moisture, wind and your body temperature. Also, you should carry water to stay hydrated and pack gels or other foods to maintain your energy. If there’s any possibility that you might get lost, you should also take navigation tools.

When you’re ready to shop, you can buy shoes, clothing, accessories and other gear at a specialty running store, like Fleet Feet Sports, or an outdoor specialty store, such as Alabama Outdoors or Mountain High Outfitters.

Jumping from the Road to the Trail

Time to talk technique. As you transition to the trail, you’ll have to slightly modify how you run. Strides need to be shorter, especially on an incline. This will allow you to react quickly to obstacles that will pop up on your run. Make sure you pick your feet up, maintain good balance, and keep your eyes down while scanning the terrain 15 feet or so in front of you. If it looks like two steps are needed, go ahead and take three. Being alert and aware is key.

Be Safe, Not Sorry

Part of participating in any sport is being safe and avoiding injury. With trail running, you must take a few extra steps on top of the standard rules for running.

Wear brightly colored clothes. If something does happen, you want a park ranger or someone else to locate you easily. This also helps identify you as something other than food for the freezer during hunting season. Second, get a map of the trail system and have a navigation aid. Make note of the phone number for the park ranger, and save it in your phone. It’s easy to get turned the wrong way while on the trail, even a well-marked one. Next, know what the hazards are. Alabama is home to more than 50 species of snakes, six of which are venomous, some of which you will see on the trail.

Also, if you couldn’t meet up with your group or a friend to run, make sure you tell someone where you are running and when you should be back.

Know the Rules of the Trail

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You’ll find great running trails at award-winning Oak Mountain State Park outside Birmingham. Rain0975

Every sport has its own etiquette, designed so everyone has opportunity to enjoy it equally. Trail running is no exception, and its rules aren’t much different from those you follow when hiking or camping. Take out what you brought in, stay on the trail, and be kind.

However, it’s important to know who yields to whom when a trail runner encounters a hiker or mountain biker. If you didn’t know, yield to those on the uphill—they have a limited field of vision. Everyone yields to horses, and mountain bikers yield to everyone else. However, don’t assume anything, just be alert and use good judgement. Don’t sneak up on a hiker or fellow runner. If you offer a simple, "On your left," you’ll keep them from jumping out of their shoes. Also, if a mountain bike is coming at you on a narrow trail, be kind and step off for a second to let the rider pass. They’ll appreciate it.

Where to Trail Run in Alabama

Now you need to know where to go. In Alabama there’s no shortage of trails, and the Alabama State Park system features some of the most diverse trail systems in the country. You’ll find great running trails at award-winning Oak Mountain State Park outside Birmingham; Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville; and Cheaha State Park east of Birmingham. You can start checking out the list of trails for the Southeastern Trail Run races or the XTERRA Trail Run Series in Alabama. This will give you a good start toward finding a nearby trail or ideas for exploring a different part of the state.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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