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Step up your pace with trail running: Five North Carolina trails for beginners

By Joe Miller | October 19, 2021 | Healthy Lifestyle, Explore NC, Fitness

Man and woman jogging on a muddy park trail.

I hear it every time from my hikers when a runner goes by: “That looks so dangerous!” They’ll go on to mention the rocks, the tree roots, the zigs, the zags. “I don’t under stand why people do it.”

“Well,” I’ll say, crafting my defense, “in fact, trail running is probably safer — and easier on your body — than running on pavement.”

Once the aghast look subsides, I begin ticking off the the benefits of trail running:

  • Your legs and feet take less of a pounding. On pavement, your feet strike, hard, the same way every time. On a softer, uneven path, your feet strike with differing impact, better distributing that impact over the course of the run.
  • Because no two strides and strikes are alike, you work more muscles, both in your legs and in your core.
  • It uses mindfulness skills. You do have to pay attention to those rocks, tree roots and other obstacles, and that intense focus leads to something of a zen state.
  • You burn more calories thanks to the uneven terrain. According to the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Journal, trail running burns anywhere from 60 to 90 more calories per hour than on pavement.
  • Being in nature — on a natural surface trail as opposed to a sidewalk along a road — lowers stress and anxiety levels.

Intrigued? A few thoughts on getting started:

  • Start with a trail you’ve hiked, one that’s not too challenging and with good surface.
  • Try to run at a time when you know others are on the trail. A little company is a good thing should you twist an ankle.
  • Alternate hiking and running at first. Then gradually increase the amount that you run.
  • Go slow. Your running speed, at first, shouldn’t be much faster than your hiking speed.
  • Get trail shoes. Running in shoes ill-suited for speed on the trail can quickly quash your interest — and lead to injury. And if you decide you don’t like trail running, trail shoes make great hikers.
  • Find someone to run with. Trail running Meetup groups abound, and most sponsor runs friendly to newbies. You’ll also learn a lot from more experienced trail runners, you’ll make running friendships and you’ll cultivate a group to run with.

Pretty soon you’ll be in the market for good trails to run. Here are five that are especially friendly to trail runners:

1. Brumley Forest North, Hillsborough, NC

Distance: 3.2 miles

Trail: Multiple trails

The trail is generally flat and was professionally built, which makes it great for first-time trail runners. You’ll find few rocks and roots, and the connected loops allow for different-length runs.

More info here.

2. Pilot Mountain State Park, Pinnacle, NC

Distance: 6 miles

Trail: Mountain Trail/Grindstone Loop

These trails eschew the crowds that frequent the top of Pilot Mountain, where you can wait 30 minutes for a parking spot. While they have their challenging moments — that is, climbs — none are severe.

More info here.

3. Hagen Stone Park, Pleasant Garden, NC (Triad area)

Distance: 3.5 miles

Trail: Chatfield Trail

This is one of the most popular cross-country courses in the region, known for its width, its mellow climbs, and its overall flow.

More info here.

Trail at Hagen Stone Park
Trail at Hagen Stone Park

4. National Whitewater Center, Charlotte, NC

Distance: 30 miles (with smaller runs easily doable)

Trail: Multiple trails

This multi-use network is plenty wide, and the rating system for mountain biking makes it easier to see whether a trail is easy, intermediate, or hard. There is a fee.

More info here.

5. Harris Lake County Park, Holly Springs, NC

Distance: 5 miles

Trail: Peninsula Trail

The trail is smooth. There’s little elevation change, and the scenery is ever-changing, including a swamp, longleaf pines, a lake, and a nuclear reactor.

More info here.