Trail Running Review – why you should try it!

A review, so Google says – 

noun
1.
a formal assessment of something with the intention of instituting change if necessary.

I’m not sure how formal, or how intent I am of changing anything I am, but I’m still going to call it a review. I guess it’s also a description or a beginners “how-to” for trail running.

Trail running is becoming more fashionable, fitness magazines are covering it more and there are definitely more videos being made about it as a pastime.

It is running (and quick walking) off an athletics track or road/pavement. It is different to cross country running in that it tends to be longer distances so slower paced.

Trail running, at the moment isn’t recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)

Why go trail running?

There are lots of good reasons to go running on trails.

Views out and about trail running
Views out and about trail running
  • You get to see things you can’t on a bike or in a car, it really does get you closer to nature
  • Because fast walking is a part of trail running it is a great way to build fitness
  • No hard surfaces jarring joints means less chance of repetitive strain injuries
  • Uneven surfaces and hills use more core muscles and so build strength and stamina
  • If being watched running around the village/town you live in isn’t your thing trails get you away from curtain twitchers
  • It’s social if you want it to be
  • Above all it’s fun

Where to go trail running?

Trail running can happen anywhere there isn’t a hard surface, and the opportunities are massive. Footpaths, bridleways, canal towpaths, forest centres, mountain tracks in fact anywhere. A sense of adventure and exploration will get you uncovering places near to home.

I’m lucky to live right next to Coed y Brenin near Dolgellau. Here there are easy to follow way-marked trails of all sorts of different lengths. There are also a wide range of routes on National Trust estates too.

How to go trail running for the first time

I’d suggest picking a walk you know, nothing too long, something that you can walk comfortably and know pretty well. Personally I’d choose something that isn’t flat because I’d want places I can walk. A walk that takes about an hour (3 miles or 5km) would be a good place for someone not running regularly.

Then, go round that walk, perhaps running the gentle downhills and some of the flat. Listen to your breathing, don’t exert yourself too hard and don’t be afraid to walk.

How to improve your trail running

Local running clubs are a great source of knowledge, they’ll introduce you to like minded people and probably have sessions where you can join runs. This works for a lot of people and is the most common way to improve.

That didn’t work for me though. I started exploring my local footpaths and forests. Over a period of 18 months I went from 5-10 miles a week to being able to run 90-100. Be careful not to increase your mileage to fast, or start running more hills than you are used to. Muscles can tighten and it really is a good idea to do some simple stretches and strength exercise (I often work my calves whilst on the phone).

What do I need to go trail running?

In short, nothing is needed to go trail running. But there are a few things that will make your run a bit more enjoyable.

Trail running shoes 

From L-R Inov8 Mudclaw 300, Salomon Crossmax neutral, Inov8 Roclite 315, Ascis 2100GT
From L-R Inov8 Mudclaw 300, Salomon Crossmax neutral, Inov8 Roclite 315, Ascis 2100GT

The first upgrade is your feet, where you touch the ground. It can seem an impossible choice and be quite overwhelming. Don’t be put off. Find a local running specialist and ask for advice. Most trail runners are only to happy to give an opinion.

Any well fitting running shoes will work for trail running. However, trail running shoes have grippier soles and generally slightly stronger materials. Bear in mind they will get wet and have to deal with stones, mud , tree roots as well as grass and harder surfaces. There are some major brands out there Salomon, Inov-8, Asics, Saucony and Brooks are some of the more popular brands.

They all do slightly different things; hard stony trails, soft muddy trails or mixtures. Get something comfortable and go wear them out!

As a note, waterproof trainers are only waterproof until the water goes over the top of the shoes, then the water can’t get out. For this reason I like well draining, quick drying shoes and just get on with splashing in muddy puddles.

Clothing for trail running

This is really personal preference. Baggy or tight makes no difference. On longer days out baggy things can chafe a little, but in my experience makes no difference at all for runs of up to about 20km (half marathon). I would prioritise buying running clothing in this order:

  1. Socks
  2. Shorts/legs
  3. T-shirt/top
  4. Waterproof/windproof

Of course, like all hobbies you can go eyewear, headwear, gloves and on and on. Like shoes all clothing, except a waterproof should be light and quick drying. Building layers of clothing is by far the best way to be comfortable and have the right kit for any occasion.

The shell layer (outer waterproof) -very often if it is drizzly and not too cold I prefer to run with a windproof layer (Pertex or similar). The reason is that when I’m running I make heat and sweat. Whilst I have a good waterproof, if I push hard then I can make myself wetter inside a waterproof than on the outside, so I prefer to let my body heat push the sweat out of the jacket or gilet.

Food and water for trail running

This is a subject in itself and I’m not even going to touch the surface here. In general, up to an hour your body can cope easily on its own. Beyond that it is worth thinking about fluids and food. If I am heading somewhere really remote I like to take some emergency snacks, really just for reassurance

Carrying things for trail running

Bumbag and emergency kit for trail running
Bumbag and emergency kit for trail running

Bumbag, rucksack, waistbelt, ultra vests, hydration packs, bottles – all these are just a short list of what some people choose to use. I don’t use a hydration pack for trail running as it encourages me to carry too much weight. I prefer a sports bottle, this lets me see how much I have drunk to, and also on much longer runs, in two bottles plain water and one with a flavour and/or electrolytes.

My 15 year old bumbag is still in service and in this I can carry waterproofs, basic emergency kit, food and water. If I need more (going further, or worse conditions) then I’ll take a small rucksack. On the occasions I go multiday running I’ve never needed anything bigger than 35 litres.

Gadgets for trail running

I’m using the term gadget here, some are occasionally essential, some are luxury, I’m mentioning them here just to think about. But, don’t ever carry anything you don’t know how to use, otherwise you’re carrying weight for the sake of it.

Map and compass. If you have any doubt about where you’re going, these are an essential.

Headtorch. If you are either going out in the dark, or might be at risk of getting stuck out in the dark, this is an essential. (Chris Baynham-Hughes did an extensive independent buyers guide to head torches)

Watch. Time, pace, place, heart rate, altitude, tide. Watches can measure all sorts of things. Sometimes this can be a motivator, sometimes it can be a de-motivator.

Emergency kit. First-aid and survival blanket can be useful, both for yourself and others you may need to help. I always carry these on the trails out of personal preference.

I’m going to repeat myself, especially about the Map, Compass and Emergency kit – KNOW HOW TO USE THEM!!

Competitive trail running

Shattered, but massive sense of achievement at the end of Marathon des Sables 2014
Shattered, but massive sense of achievement at the end of Marathon des Sables 2014

Trail running is more loosely organised than other running disciplines. Events are a great way to go to places you wouldn’t go to normally, meet new people and test yourself (if that’s your thing).

Trail races can range from 5km upwards. Beware though a 5km trail race will be much tougher than a 5km road running race.

My experience is that trail races are really friendly and run by people who are passionate about running off road. Ask questions will get you lots of answers!

Training for trail running racing will follow the same type of sessions as road running. Build a stamina base, then building pace and power with shorter speed sessions or on hills or (yuk!!) both. Flexibility (stretching or yoga) will help you enormously with recovery and speed.

Finding more information

There are some good Facebook pages with heaps of information about trail running. The two most popular UK best pages are Trail Running Magazine and The Trail Running Association.

As a resource for competitive world wide running, Mud, Sweat & Tears is hard to beat as a website.

Runners World is still the most readily available running magazine in the UK, but is more focussed on running generally rather than trail running.

Finally…have fun trail running

I trail run because it’s fun. Normally not to be the fastest, not to beat people, nor to be fitter. I love the journey and trail running lets me make more of my free time, exploring the places I want to go. Every now and then I like to race, just to test myself, and by every now and then I mean less than 5 times a year normally. 

Trail running shouldn’t ever be a punishment (it was for me at school). 

If you remember running around outdoors as a child, running with your legs out of control down a hill or through high grass and those memories make you smile then have a go.

Let trail running take you new places, let it make your body feel alive and your mind clear. Sometimes you’ll exert yourself and it’ll be hard work. Sometimes it’ll be cold, windy or dark. Sometimes you’ll see a deer, a sunrise, sunset or a view all of your own.

Learn to enjoy the ups and downs, make it fun and enjoyable.

So, my formal review, not very formal, and the need to change anything, not really for me. I always need to remember that I really really enjoy trail running.

Here’s a video I made a couple of years ago to explain trail running in Coed y Brenin, a forest near home that is better known for mountain biking at the moment. Hope you enjoy it.

Where next?

So what do I do after Marathon des Sables? It all feels a little black and white at the moment.

Stone gateway about Sligo, Eire
Stone gateway about Sligo, Eire

As I try and claw my way through the post event blues, which is a common occurrence, I know I need to focus on something big in the future. It’s like trying to step over a massive gateway! I’ve run a good bit since getting back, but I have to admit to running being a massive struggle to stay consistent with at the moment.

As much as I am really enjoying not having the early morning running sessions, and getting on top of a few jobs here and there, as well as starting a new business I am feeling hungry to compete. Though I’m not ready to go all out again at the moment.

I’m fortunate that I have Trail Marathon Wales on 21st of June, I’m looking forward to this, but I do feel a complete sense of fatigue at the moment. It’ll be a trial to get round, but I want to get out there and race. It’ll be brilliant to see my tent mates Andrew and Phil again who will also be at TMW. We’ve all had post MdS niggles, so I’m sure the social catch up will be not so subdued!

Depending on how TMW goes I’ll look to run Race the Train in Tywyn in August as it is part of the Welsh Trail Running Championships, but it really does depend on how TMW goes! After that it is the Wye One Way Ultra Race in Septemnber and then the OMM in October. That’ll be my big event year done.

It's all about balance. Strandhill Beach, Co Sligo. Eire
It’s all about balance. Strandhill Beach, Co Sligo. Eire

I’ll probably do the Meirionnydd Winter Fell Series for the first year ever too. Just to keep the legs turning over.

Other than that this year will be about exploring and enjoying the hills around home; and preparing for a personal challenge I’ve set for 2015. As far as I know, this challenge has never been attempted before, so I’m going to keep a little quiet about it!

One thing though, MdS has made me appreciate the smaller things, a whole lot more. Like the can of coke on the long day it’s amazing what little things can arrive in technicolour when we appreciate them!