A review, so Google says –
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.
What is trail running?
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.
- 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
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:
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, 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
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
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.