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What Is a Good Trail Running Pace?

It can be hard to find the right pace when you first start trail running. Your average pace will quickly drop as you adjust to the different trail conditions, but it will get better over time. What is a good trail running pace once you get past the beginner phase?

As a beginner a good trail running pace will be 20 percent slower than your average road pace. Once you get used to trail running aim for a 10 percent pace reduction or less. This is a general guideline, not a set rule. Your actual pace will depend on the difficulty of the trail.

It will be hard to get over the mental hurdle as your average pace drops. Just remember that you can’t compare trail running to your regular track or pavement pace. You will never be able to make up for constantly changing terrain.

Trail running offers a whole new set of challenges. You’re working around obstacles, shuffling through mud, and regularly changing your ascent. Don’t try to compare apples and oranges. In the rest of this article I’ll walk you through choosing and setting your trail running pace.

What Is a Good Trail Running Pace?

Did you hop off the couch one day and decide to run a marathon? No, it takes months/years of training before you start to feel comfortable running long distances.

You have both physically and mentally learn how to run and pace yourself. Every week you slowly get used to running. This is the same type of approach you need to take with trail running.

There will obviously be some carryover between running on pavement and hitting the trail, but it’s a completely different hobby. You need train your mind/body and get used to the trail.

Transitioning to trail running is more of a mental challenge than physical. It’s all about adjusting your pace on the fly and learning to work through difficult terrain.

The following chart should give you a rough estimate to aim for. You should fall somewhere between the 10-20 percent range as you get used to trail running.

Average Mile Time20% Reduction10% Reduction
5 Minutes6:00 Avg5:30 Avg
6 Minutes7:12 Avg6:36 Avg
7 Minutes8:24 Avg7:42 Avg
8 Minutes9:36 Avg8:48 Avg
9 Minutes10:48 Avg9:54 Avg
10 Minutes12:00 Avg11:00 Avg
Trail Running Pace Table

Fast Runners Will See a Bigger Percentage Change in Pace

Notice how faster runners on pavement have less wiggle room in the 10-20 percent range. Don’t worry if you can’t meet the 20% change in the first couple of times out. Your times will quickly improve as you get used to trail running.

When you first start running aim for less than a 1-2 minute change over your regular mile time. After the first 1-2 months your average pace should start falling somewhere along the above table.

Start Off With a 20% Drop in Running Pace

If you already have a running background you’ll be surprised how fast you can transition to trail running. It took about 2 weeks for me to start feeling comfortable on the trail.

At that point I was regularly running about 20%-30% slower than my usual track time. It’s hard to describe, but it didn’t feel like I was running slower. You just end up losing your pace randomly throughout the run.

Every single obstacle causes you to lose a few seconds as you navigate around it. Jump over a fallen branch (minus 2 seconds), navigate through/around mud (minus 15 seconds), slight change in elevation (minus 20 seconds).

Small hurdles really add up over the course of a long run. As you slowly get used to trail running navigating the trail becomes second nature. Your pace will quickly increase is you start to form muscle memory.

Work Up To a 10% Average Pace Change

Your trail running pace will naturally improve as you get comfortable running and navigating through various obstacles. Within 2-3 months your pace should significantly improve.

I like to aim for a 10% drop in pace across the board. Sometimes my pace is better than on pavement and other times it’s way worse. Your actual rate will vary depending on the difficulty of the trail. Running through difficult terrain will kill your average mile time.

Focus on improving your average mile time on that specific trail. I like to keep a training log in my car that keeps track of my best trail times. Some days I improve, other days I stink. It all depends on my mood and the trail conditions.

What If I Can’t Increase My Trail Running Pace?

Don’t Worry! Some people have a hard time adjusting to running on the trail. It’s much harder than running on the pavement. You have to get used to both the mental and physical aspects of trail running.

So why is trail running so much harder than running on pavement? You have to get used to different obstacles along the trail. Don’t ignore the following reasons why your pace will naturally slow.

  • Less Surface Consistency: The change in surface consistency plays the biggest part when switching over to trail running. You never know what you’ll run into out on the trail. In one run you might have to navigate through/around mud, grass, roots, rocks, branches, etc. Those little curve balls can really slow down your pace.
  • Elevation Changes: Running on an incline will obviously slow down your pace. Go on your phones app store and download a few hiking apps that map out the surrounding trails. Try to find trails that have consistent elevations if you’re trying to improve your pace.
  • Chance of Injury: There’s always a risk of injury when navigating through difficult terrain. You have to slow down and think about foot placement and avoid slipping in the mud.
  • Random Obstacles: Random obstacles really hurt my average pace. I’m not just talking about the common obstacles like roots, branches and mud. Dogs will be the death of my average mile time. I can’t resist a friendly wiggle butt as you try to navigate around friendly dogs.

How Can I Improve My Trail Running Pace?

Improving your pace is all about getting used to the trail. Start off slow and your pace will naturally increase over time. Once you build up muscle memory and figure out how to navigate around obstacles your pace will increase.

Don’t jump straight into hard technical trails. Take things slow and look for well manicured trails with regular foot traffic. Lots of hikers means it’s probably an easy trail to learn on.

Once you start to build up your mind muscle connection you can move onto harder trails. Your average pace will drop and it will slowly work back up. Work on finding a natural balance between speed and safety. Don’t increase pace at the expense of safety.

How does the run feel? Don’t focus so much on average mile time. That doesn’t matter as long as you felt challenged. Adjust your intensity/pace based on how you feel. Your time will improve the next time you go back out.

Don’t Neglect Regular Timed Running

Trail running might be less convenient than running on pavement, but it’s much more fun. I completely stopped my regularly scheduled runs after transitioning to the trail.

Unsurprisingly, my average mile time dropped by about 40 seconds. I had a hard time transitioning back to running on a track. It wasn’t because I was out of shape. My pace got slower!

You start to get used to short controlled foot patterns and forget how to run on a track. It’s almost like your foot speed slows and stride tightens. Your body learned how to adapt to an uneven surface now it doesn’t know what to do on pavement.

I like to run a few miles 1-2 times per week before work and hit the trails on the weekend. It breaks up the monotony and usually improves your pace on the trail.