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Exercise 101: trail running

trail running for diabetesTrail running for diabetes

Tired of pounding the pavement or looking for a fun way to get active? Trail running may be the sport for you. More and more people are heading to the mountains, the veld and the forests to get away from the city, spend time in nature and run free. Here’s all you need to know about trail running for diabetes.

More than just a work-out

Trail running is good for the body, mind and soul. It’s also good for the wallet – except for the price of running shoes, it doesn’t cost a thing. Trail running is different to road running because the ground you’re running on changes all the time and isn’t flat and hard like a road. It helps “proprioception”, our sense of balance and body awareness. It also develops strength in muscles and joints, and gives you stronger ankles and hip joints. Softer surfaces like grass, sand, and gravel are easier on the joints than tar.

Trail running will help you burn more calories and shed fat faster as your body uses a greater amount of energy to use more muscles to move on the uneven surface. Paying attention to each step you take will also distract your mind from your everyday To Do list (always a good thing!) Don’t forget to stop for a moment, breathe in the fresh air, and give thanks for where you are.

Heading off-road

Although there is less risk of injury with trail running than road running, it’s a good idea in the beginning to include some exercises in your routine to strengthen your core, pelvic muscles, legs, knees and ankles to cope with the impact to these parts of the body. Follow a careful training programme where you can gradually build up your distance and speed. It’s important to be aware of your diabetic needs while you’re trail running, too. Don’t push yourself too hard in the beginning, and make sure you snack before you start running so that your blood sugar doesn’t go low while you’re on the trail.

When you’re trail running, it’s important to look where you’re going – vehicle tracks, puddles, logs and rocks are all obstacles that can trip you up, and low-hanging tree branches need to be ducked in time.

Tips for different trail running for diabetes:

Sand is difficult to run on, especially when it’s loose. Don’t run in a straight line, rather search for the firmest footing. The harder sand can usually be found on the very edge of the trail.

Muddy surfaces can be slippery, be careful!

Rocky trails mean you need to lift your legs higher to avoid tripping. Try to step lightly with a flat foot, so that if it’s not stable or you slip, you can quickly move your foot.

Forest paths can hide rocks and roots. Be on the lookout and avoid stepping on them if you you can.

Looking for runs in you area? Take a look at

Expert tips from Nelfrie Kemp, Podiatry Association of South Africa

  • Foot care is vital if you have diabetes. The most important tip when taking up any running is to buy the right shoes and make sure they fit properly.
  • When fitting a running shoe, choose a pair one size larger than your normal shoe size as your feet swell when you exercise.
  • It’s a good idea to use sport socks that are thick from toe to heel and fit you perfectly. This will help prevent pins and needles or a burning sensation in the feet. Preferably wear ankle-height socks as secret socks can move and curl up under your foot, which can cause blisters.
  • Always tie your laces, but make sure that it they are not tied too loosely or tightly.

Get more diabetic foot tips at

Expert tips from biokineticist Sarah Hall

  • As well as the trail running, do some balance training either at home or in the gym by doing single leg exercises or balancing on wobble boards.
  • Use your whole body while you are trail running: your arms for balance and support, your core to help draw your legs up for climbing the rocky parts, and a mid-foot to front-of-foot strike with shorter, quicker strides for more control and adjustment.
  • Pay close attention to what you eat and drink before and during the run, especially on longer runs. Always have something sweet on you in case your blood sugar goes low, and never run alone.
  • Know the route you are running by mapping the route on GPS. It will give you a good idea of the height you may be climbing and the exact distance you will be covering. Remember to start with shorter routes and slowly build up distance.

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  1. Robert SugarMan Barnsley Robert SugarMan Barnsley

    Thanks so much for this article. Great level of detail. This has to have been written by an avid trail runner. Love the “Don’t run in a straight line”! So true. You almost never are running in a straight line. For T1D, trail running is so beneficial. My encouragement to all diabetics is this; go and get out there. start with your park run in your local area, and you can start stepping it up from there. I am going for a 62km Ultra in the berg next year, and I am so excited, I cannot wait. Targeting under 10 hours. It’s fun, it’s possible and it only requires a good pair of trail shoes.

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Sweet Life is a registered NPO/PBO (220-984) with a single goal: to improve diabetes in South Africa. We are funded by sponsorships and donations from aligned companies and organisations who believe in our work. We only share information that we believe benefits our community. While some of this information is linked to specific brands, it is not an official endorsement of that brand. We believe in empowering people with diabetes to make the best decisions they can, to live a healthy, happy life with diabetes.