Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running in Knoxville

Whether you’ve just purchased your first pair of running shoes or are training to qualify for the Olympic trials, I think we can all agree that incorporating more fun and variety into our runs would help us get out the door more willingly — and maybe even with smiles on our faces. Spicing up our running routines is important, otherwise we’ll grow bored, unmotivated, and find that an activity that was once a lot of fun is now totally unenjoyable.

I noticed myself feeling this way after training for months on roads and in the same neighborhoods for a marathon that got cancelled due to COVID-19. The scenery was predictable, I knew exactly when I was about to approach a hill or a long straight stretch, and since I was running on the same smooth surface, I wasn’t utilizing many muscles in my legs.

After taking a few weeks off during the time my marathon was originally planned for, I slowly inched back into running. I ran a little here and there, and after a few weeks I began to opt for some local trails instead of my usual road routes. At first, trail running was difficult. Many times I felt out of breath and stopped to walk. Trails are more rugged and technical than running on a flat road. Every step is different. You’re either hopping over tree roots, scrambling over rocks, huffing up steep ascents or flying (tripping, falling) down the descents. I grew to enjoy this new challenge, plus the pace slowed drastically, which I was totally OK with. The scenery is ever-changing, the wildlife is abundant, and from my experience, you emerge from the treeline feeling more like you went on a wilderness adventure and less like you were just getting in your workout for the day.

So, did my description of trail running tantalize you? Are you ready to trade in your sleek, cushy road runners for a pair of hard-toed, grippy trail shoes? First things first, let’s talk a little bit about gear.

GEAR

Shoes

If you want to test out trail running first to see if it’s really for you, your road runners will get you through an easy to moderate trail no prob (unless it’s extremely muddy, rocky or steep). If you decide to stick with it and think it’ll become a part of your weekly routine, maybe it’s time to look into some trail shoes.

Trail shoes have stiffer, grippier soles and a harder exterior that make it hurt a little less when you inevitably trip and stub your toes on rocks and roots. I don’t have a ton of experience with trail shoes, so I would hit up your local running store or REI for expert recommendations. I can say I’ve loved this pair from Salomon, if any of you ladies are looking for a pair.

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Hydration Vest

If you’re going to be spending more than an hour on the trails I recommend looking into a hydration vest or pack. Handheld bottles work fine until you realize you sometimes need your hands to swat bugs away, hoist yourself over fallen trees or catch yourself when you trip and fall. Trust me, running hands-free is the bomb. I did some research beforehand and purchased this vest from REI that I’m so over-the-moon happy with. Just so I don’t have to repeat my thoughts on the vest, here’s my review I left on the product page:

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Seriously, I can’t say enough good things about this vest. It also has a built in whistle you can blow in case of an emergency, which makes me feel just a little bit safer as a woman who frequently runs alone.

First Aid Kit

I’m sure there are some fancy first aid kits you can buy for trail running, but I just made my own with items specific to me, such as:

  • Band-Aids – Maybe it’s because I have big feet, but I trip and fall a lot, so Band-Aids are a must. You’ll trip and fall at some point too, so pack a bunch!
  • A heavy duty bandage, gauze and tape – In case those Band-Aids just aren’t getting the job done.
  • Ibuprofen or Tylenol
  • Toilet paper 😉
  • Hand sanitizer or wipes
  • Feminine products – Just in case, ladies.
  • Trail map – I snagged a physical copy from my local running store to carry with me in a one of the vest pockets, but there are tons of apps you can download to your phone that work just as well. AllTrails and Gaia GPS are two of them.

WHERE TO TRAIL RUN

Knoxville offers so many great locations for trail running, but I’m partial to the Urban Wilderness in South Knoxville, which is largely comprised of Ijams and Forks of the River. The Urban Wilderness offers 50 miles of trails, so you get a lot of bang for your buck in a compact area.

Ijams and Forks of the River

Plenty of trail surface variety here. I ran a solo trail marathon (see the map for my marathon course below) and enjoyed alternating between the trail surfaces of these two locations. I’ve found that the trails at Ijams, especially around Mead’s and Ross Marble quarries, tend to be pretty rocky and there’s more up and down. Side note: There are some delightful surprises to be found at Ijams, including a beautiful secluded picnic area and a gnome home perched on a hill off to the side of one trail (see pictures below).

The Forks of the River perimeter trail is a relatively flatter, smoother single-track trail with one side running parallel to the Tennessee River. It tends to be less crowded here compared to Ijams, which I prefer.

The trails at both of these locations are well-kept and well-marked, so don’t be afraid to explore on your own. I would, however, carve out extra time for your run in case you get a little lost your first time through.

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Haw Ridge

Haw Ridge is located in Oak Ridge, about a 20-minute drive from Knoxville. I’ve only run here once, but the trails were so nice and the perimeter trail borders a beautiful lake offering a great view your entire run. Full disclosure, I leapt over a snake on my run here, but don’t let that deter you from visiting! It was crossing a trail that looked like it didn’t get used often and was close to the water, and I probably scared him more than he scared me. Chances are you won’t have to deal with snakes here, but I just want to be honest in case you’re afraid of snakes. Maybe it’s time to overcome your fear?? 😉

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Other Locations

Some other spots in Knoxville I’ve got on my radar for trail running that you may also want to check out are I.C. King Park, Sharp’s Ridge, House Mountain, Big Ridge State Park, Frozen Head State Park, Seven Islands State Birding Park and Maryville College Woods, but I’ve yet to run these.

MAPS AND OTHER RESOURCES

Employees at your local running store are probably going to be the most valuable running resource you can find. These folks get out and experience it for themselves and can recommend great trails/routes, gear, and can give you tons of other tips and advice.

Aside from them, I’d snag extra copies of trail maps and familiarize yourself with them before hitting the trails. Sometimes the trails look different in person than how you envision them on a map, so it’s important to have a general idea of where you’re going and recognize when you’ve made a wrong turn. You can pick up copies of the Knoxville Urban Wilderness trail map at multiple locations around Knoxville, including Runner’s Market (my favorite running shop!) in West Knoxville, or print off your own copy.

I’d also pick up a copy of Legacy Parks Foundation and Visit Knoxville’s Get Out and Play Guide that features every park, trail and greenway you can think of in the Knoxville area for running and other outdoor activities.

SAFETY

Before heading out for a run, always let someone know where, when and what route you plan to run. If you can, take your phone with you. This is another reason to purchase a hydration vest or pack so you can store your phone in an easy to access pocket in case of an emergency. Be aware of your surroundings, stay vigilant, and every now and then, turn around to see if anyone’s running behind you and take a mental note of that.

If you’re in the market for a new running watch, I recommend a Garmin watch that has an incident detection function that will alert your emergency contacts if an incident occurs during your run.

Don’t run with headphones on the trail. You won’t be able to hear if someone’s trying to pass you or what’s going on around you.

And this may be a no-brainer, but make sure you’re stocked with enough water and nutrition to keep the fire stoked. You exert more energy, burn more calories and lose more fluids running on trails, especially in the heat and humidity of a Tennessee summer. Don’t get caught running on empty!

Now you’re well-equipped to tackle some trails! Have fun frolicking through the forest!

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You might also like:

Dealing With the Disappointment of a Cancelled Race

What I’ve Learned From Running Without Headphones

Don’t Underestimate the Power of the 30-Minute Lunch Break Workout

One thought on “Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running in Knoxville

  1. I’ve never tried trail running, but this article was motivating…..snakes and all! You could use the whistle on the hydration vest on Mr. Snake, or on the garden gnomes–they are cuter! This is a good read that made your experience come to life.

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