Trail running might just be the purest form of running. With no mile markers and very few man-made distractions, it is just you and the great outdoors. Yet for many runners – especially those who are new to running, or who live in cities – the prospect of heading out on the trails can be a daunting one. Common questions include:
- Where should I run?
- How fast should I run?
- What should I wear?
- What happens if I break my ankle, get hypothermia, fall down a hole into a cave, get eaten by wolves and am never heard of again?
In this article, we aim to provide answers to everything you ever wanted to know about trail running, but were too afraid to ask.
What is trail running?
Just what exactly do we mean by ‘trail running’. Put simply, trail running is just another name for off-road running. That is, running on unpaved surfaces. Clearly, this encompasses a massive range of terrain and environments, so it may help to define this further.
Any run in which you step off the roads or pavements can be considered a trail run, to a certain degree. It’s just that some off-road runs are trickier than others.
Where can I trail run?
There are some runners who claim that the only true trail runs are those that take place in extreme environments, such as steep mountains, wild heathland, or dense forests. Yes, these would all count as trail runs, but to accept such narrow definitions would involve missing out on the many opportunities to experience trail running in the more modest environments that most of us live in.
In the UK, trail runs can take place on downland, cliff tops, beaches, mountains, fells, fens, forests, river paths, country estates, ancient trackways, footpaths, bridleways. They can even take place in the fields and narrow strips of greenbelt between towns. You could even include canal towpaths and the wilder sections of city parks within the trail running category. Essentially, trail running takes place anywhere where the terrain adds an extra element of difficulty.
Why should I trail run?
You should trail run because it is good for you! Like all running, trail running has the potential to give great positive physical and mental wellbeing benefits (provided you do so sensibly and safely). What trail running offers over road running, is the added wellbeing benefit of the great outdoors. It also works slightly different muscles to road running, helping with your overall conditioning.
There is a whole body of research into the benefits of interaction with the natural environment. This research has led to the outdoors being known as the ‘Green Gym’ due to all the health benefits. By getting out of our usual, urban environments we engage with nature. We breathe fresh air, become more aware of the seasons and the weather, notice animals, birds and wildlife, and improve our understanding of the natural world we are a part of.
An additional benefit is that compared to road running, it is very difficult to compare trail runs on a day to day basis. If we run the same, or similar road routes, all the time, it is very easy to fall into the trap of trying to beat our best times every time we go out for a run. We can get caught up in worrying about pace, heart rate, or how we’re feeling and start to lose our running mojo.
It is much harder to do this when trail running. The vast variety of terrain means that the same effort level can result in very different running speeds depending on what the ground is like under our feet, what the hills are like, or what the weather is like. Even the same route can be very different depending on the season. Therefore, hitting certain paces for particular distances becomes less important. Instead, the challenge becomes less about ‘measurable performance indicating statistics’, but about the essential act of running itself.
Because of this, trail running is a great way of getting to the heart of what it is you enjoy most about running. If you’re not enjoying your running, head for the trails and see if you come back feeling mentally refreshed and more enthusiastic about running.
And as mentioned above, trail running works different muscles to road running. It requires more balance, spatial awareness and the instinctive ability to respond quickly to differences in the ground under your feet – known as proprioception. Improving your balance, strength and proprioception will help in all areas of your running and active life. It’s no coincidence that most of the world’s top marathon runners do the majority of their training on unpaved surfaces.
How do I trail run?
You could just head out your door and run. However, for maximum enjoyment and safety, it pays to be prepared and to not jump beyond your comfort and skill level too soon.
Given the vast array of potential trail run routes – essentially, almost anywhere on the planet! – you have a lot of places to choose from. Please try and resist the temptation to head out into the Scottish Highlands in the middle of winter, or attempt to cross the Kalahari Desert for your first trail run. The potential to get into trouble is far too great if you’re not fit enough, aren’t familiar with the terrain, don’t know where you’re going, or have the wrong kit with you.
Instead, start off closer to home, running through places you know well, or can find your way out of easily. You can always aim for the more extreme runs as your eventual goal, if that’s what excites you, but build up to it and enjoy the journey of becoming a trail running expert first.
Pick a spot you’re familiar with, but maybe haven’t run on before. Perhaps your favourite five mile road loop passes close to a meadow or some woodland with a public footpath or bridleway running through it? Next time you do that route, take a detour and head off-road. If you’re not sure where you’re going, do an ‘out-and-back’ route, where you run a certain distance in one direction, then turn around and retrace your steps to get back out.
Adding in small sections of trail running in this way will help get your body used to running on uneven ground. You’ll learn how to negotiate puddles, tree roots, slippery rocks and loose gravel without falling over or twisting an ankle.
Don’t worry about walking though tricky bits. It is much more sensible to slow down and watch your step for a few moments, than risk injuring yourself.
Once you’re more comfortable with running off road, think about longer routes you could do. A great place to start is by finding an Ordnance Survey map of where you live, or somewhere you know, and looking for footpaths and bridleways marked on it. Some of them, usually those with a name written alongside them on the map – such as ‘South Downs Way’ or ‘Pilgrims’ Path’ – will be well marked on the ground with signposts or small discs on gate posts displaying the name of the route and the direction. Following paths like this is a great way of getting into trail running without worrying too much about getting lost – unless you’re enjoying the view too much and miss a sign!
If the route you’re running gets steep, don’t be afraid of walking up the hills. Sometimes it can be quicker than running, especially if you lean into the hill and push down on your knees as you step forward to provide extra power. Even the pros will do this occasionally, walking uphill quickly when running would be slower.
If you do choose to run up, keep your head high, try to keep your breathing steady, take small steps, and pump your elbows back for momentum.
Going downhill can be exhilarating, but it can also be dangerous if you fall. There’s two ways of approaching downhills. Either run cautiously, landing with nice, steady steps, picking your way down the slope. Or, lean forward, open up your stride, hold your arms wide for balance, throw caution to the wind, and go for it (If you think you’re going to fall, jump so that you have more time in the air to spot your landing). You’ll soon learn which you prefer!
As your trail running fitness, skills, and familiarity with the environment improve, you can start to think more ambitiously, should you want to do so. Your routes may involve some technical climbing skills (such as scrambling over mountain ridges), or the ability to navigate with a map and compass (perhaps when crossing open moorland in poor visibility). Consider doing a course to cover these skills, or run with a more experienced friend you can learn from.
How far should I go?
The distance is entirely up to you. Some people like a short blast up a steep hill, or just an occasional off road section to keep their training interesting. Others will head off and spend all day on the trails, slowing the pace down and treating their run as more of a fast hike.
As for you? Do whatever makes you happy. Bear in mind that the trickier terrain can slow you down, so be prepared to adjust your distance expectations accordingly. This is especially true in the height of summer or the depths of winter when the weather can make things tougher.
Just make sure you carry ID, and let someone know where you’re planning on going and when you expect to be home.
What should I wear?
You don’t necessarily need any different kit to what you would use for road running, especially if you opt for shorter trail runs on firm ground. However, once you start going further afield, you should be prepared to carry more kit.
If you get into trouble in an urban environment you can dive into a shop, taxi or house to get warm and dry and wait for a lift home. It is a lot harder to do this out in the middle of nowhere. You may be miles from the nearest house or road and have no phone signal. Once you stop running, you can get cold quickly. The trickier the trail, the greater the risk that you could injure yourself or get lost and be stuck out on a hill for a long time.
Assume the worst could happen and prepare accordingly. With this in mind, if your runs are getting more adventurous, some of the kit you may want to carry in case of bad weather or getting into a spot of bother includes (but is not limited to):
- Hat and gloves,
- First aid kit,
- Something to drink,
- Something to eat,
- Map and compass,
- Some money and a phone,
- A bag to put all this in.
Hydration packs, with a compartment for putting your other items in, are a great option for trail runners. Just make sure that whatever you take on the trails with you, goes home with you. There is no excuse for littering on the trails.
As for other, optional extras: Some trail runners wear gloves to protect their hands in case they fall. Something with a padded palm, such as cycling gloves, is a good option if you choose to do this. Some apps will track your run and help you get home (but it’s best to have a back up option so you don’t have to rely on technology). If your glasses are loose, tie them to your head so they don’t fly off when you’re bouncing around over bumps. And if you think they would be useful, walking poles can offer extra ‘oomph’ when you’re hiking up steep hills.
Make sure you have dry clothes waiting for you when you finish your run so you can get warm and dry as quickly as possible.
One other thing to consider, is the risk of ticks and catching Lyme disease. If you’re running through long grass, consider covering your legs with socks or leggings to reduce the risk of getting bitten by a tick. If you find one on you, or you develop a rash after running outdoors, check out the NHS’ advice on what to do next.
What about shoes?
For occasional trail stints on firm ground your normal running shoes will be just fine. However, you will soon learn that they don’t offer much grip in wet conditions or on loose ground. This is where a pair of trail shoes will come in handy. They are characterised by chunky lugged soles for grip, with heavy duty uppers to withstand rough treatment.
They also typically have lower soles than a lot of road shoes. This is to keep your feet closer to the ground to reduce the chance of you rolling your ankle. The softer ground means you don’t need quite as much cushioning. Plus, because your feet are going to be rolling all over the place anyway, there’s no point building in ‘motion control’ features that you would find on ‘stability’ shoes for the road.
If you’re not sure which trail shoes to buy, pop into your local running shop to try some on and ask the staff which they recommend for the places you are likely to be running in them. What works well in the Peak District might not be the best choice on the South Downs, for example, so local knowledge is useful. Or, ask the Herd. Popular brands include Walsh, Salomon and Inov-8, though most of the big brands will have a trail shoe or two in their line-up.
What about trail running events?
For the vast majority of trail runners, entering trail events is more about the opportunity to run somewhere new and exciting, than trying to run fast and beat other runners. In this respect, it can be quite different to road racing.
But just like road racing, there is a massive choice of events to choose from.
A good introduction would be to find a muddy or hilly parkrun to see how you get on over rough ground. If you want to go a little further, the National Trust’s Trust 10 events are a great way to start trail running. You can read more about Trust 10s here.
Beyond that, the options are limitless.
For event recommendations, ask the Herd for suggestions. With new races starting up every year, all over the country, there is bound to be one that is the right fit for you. With less of an emphasis on times, the events can be a bit more fun than a serious road race, with more of a focus on ‘completing, rather than competing’.
Try and familiarise yourself with the course as much as you can beforehand, by looking at route maps, or recce-ing the route if you get the chance. Even well-marked courses can be tricky to follow in bad weather or when you’re tired.
Check where the food and drink stations are (if there are any!), so you don’t get caught out by getting dehydrated or low on energy. Some races will specify what runners must take with them for safety reasons, so double-check the minimum kit requirements as you don’t want to get disqualified before you’ve even started.
What is fell racing?
Even though there aren’t many Goats who participate in fell racing – its a niche branch of the sport – it’s worth mentioning as the events can be great fun.
Fell racing is a subset of trail running that has a small, but loyal following, almost entirely in the North of the UK, where suitably tough hills can be found. Usually the events involve a start in a small village, running up a big hill, then heading back as fast as you can. They’re grass-roots events, with low entry fees, so don’t expect fancy bling.
Obviously, the length of the race and the steepness of the hills can make a big difference. Fortunately, there is a category system for fell races to help prevent you from accidentally entering something too hard for your ability.
Races are categorised as either A (the hardest), B or C (the easiest), depending on the amount of climbing, with the distance categorised as S, M or L (for short, medium or long). If you’re interested in fell racing, find some ‘CS’ races to start off with until you get more confident. You can find fixtures at the Fell Runners’ Association website.
Get out there!
Much of this article talks about the hazards of trail running and urges caution. Please don’t let that put you off, because trail running is great fun. Doing what you can to stay safe means you get to maximise that enjoyment.
Trail running really is one of the most wonderful ways of exploring your environment. So get out there, explore your surroundings, push your limits and have a great time.