To put it simply, trail running is little more than off road running. For some, that means hours of gruelling uphills over challenging and sometimes perilous terrain. For others, it’s simply getting off tarmac and onto something that resembles raw earth beneath their feet. But whatever trail running means to the individual, it will take you places that roads and pavements can’t access, and you will almost always be rewarded with a huge sense of accomplishment – and probably some great views too.
Many road runners move to trail running in a bid to reduce the impact that repeated pounding on hard ground has on the body. And in fact, getting off road can also be a great way to stabilise joints, improve reactions and work the core; the constantly changing terrain pushes the body to adapt and react quickly, dealing with whatever challenges come along.
Who is trail running for?
You don’t need to be a marathon runner to get out on the trails. A basic level of fitness definitely helps, but as with anything physical that is new to your body, if you start small and easy and work up from there, you’ll soon be taking more technical routes in your stride.
Trail running is also particularly well suited to those who love to explore the outdoors and spend time in nature. 15 minutes of gentle jogging can take you pretty far away from it all, so if you value time on your own to think, and space to breath and appreciate your surroundings, then trail running will suit you nicely.
Where can you go trail running?
As the interest in getting off road in your running shoes grows, so does the awareness of amazing routes that are really well suited to trail running. There are loads of online resources and trail running magazines that provide in depth information on the length, difficulty level, gradient and route of trail runs all over the world. A couple of good ones:
But another great way to get yourself onto wilderness routes is to check out walking and hiking trails. A good old fashioned ordnance survey map will provide plenty of information to get you exploring footpaths and tracks that will often be well sign posted.
What to expect on your first trail run
Assuming that you are able to comfortably run 5km on flat, even ground, then you can expect a step up in the effort that you will need to exert. You will rarely find a trail run that is totally flat, so assume that your route will feature a hill or two. Take the ascents slowly and steadily, resting as much as you need to. They will never be as hard as the first time you do them, so make sure you pace yourself and don’t worry if you need to walk.
And of course, with the tough ups, comes the cruisy downs. However, don’t be fooled by what should be an easier ride; the descents can be equally as challenging as the ups, just in a different way. Your leg muscles will be working hard to stabilise each downward step, with gravity hard at work trying to speed things up against your will. This repeated exertion on already tired leg muscles might leave them feeling somewhat jelly-like, and you can easily lose control. So again, take things slow to start with and rest or walk when you need to.
How to get started
If you are totally new to running, then try a few short runs in your local park to start with, running on grass as much as possible to get used to the unpredictable and uneven ground. Once you’re happy you can tackle a 5km road run, choose a short off road route with a hill or two. If you live in a city then you might need to drive out of town to get to the trailhead, and a circular route is a good place to start to keep the terrain and scenery as varied as possible.
Avoid a route that is all uphill for half of the run and then all downhill for the rest of it. You will become fatigued very quickly, whereas switching from ups to downs frequently, won’t overwork specific muscle groups all in one go.
And don’t forget, the nature of trail running makes it tougher going than what you might be used to, so stop when you need to and enjoy the peace and calm whilst you’re resting!
What to wear trail running
Most trail runners head out in a similar get-up to road runners: a technical top, shorts or leggings and a very good sports bra for the ladies. If your route takes you onto exposed ridges or mountain climbs, then you may want a thin windbreaker jacket and a good old Buff to stop the wind chill.
The main difference will be your footwear, and although your road runners will be just fine for your first few runs, upgrading to trail shoes will change everything. Look for something that’s lightweight with deep and grippy tread, flexible and super comfortable.
If you find yourself getting hooked by the off road bug of self-sufficient and speedy exploration, then you may want to consider kitting yourself up with a few other trail running accessories:
How to train for trail running in the city
If getting out on the trail mid-week is hindering your progress towards tackling your next, or even first, challenge, then there are a few tricks you can pull out of the bag on your city runs, that will help you out in the field:
- Hill runs – a hill is a hill, and no matter how short it is, and you can use it to your advantage by doing laps up and down with as little rest as possible. If you do need to rest between each lap, then time yourself. Next training session make the rest time shorter.
- Obstacles – set up some challenges for your city run, like jumping up onto each bench you pass, or leaping over each drain cover you come across. Do lateral jumps whilst waiting to cross the street or quick tiny steps to avoid the cracks in the pavement.
- Stair runs – seek out some steps to attack on your run. Like hills, it doesn’t matter how few there are. 4 or 5 steps will be enough to set yourself lap challenges for fast feet, or ascending two at a time for leg strength.
- Intervals – use lamp posts or trees as markers to sprint to. Rest by walking or jogging to the next marker, then sprint again.
As well as getting you trail ready, this type of running is way more fun than just plodding along the same old street. Put on some pumping tunes and imagine you are the next Hunger Games hero expertly negotiating whatever obstacle is in your way!
Where to learn more about trail running
You can find a good deal of information on running websites such as runnersworld.com, but there are also some really good trail running magazines out there that have loads of information on the best gear, cutting edge training advice and personal stories to get you inspired for your own wilderness challenges.
There are seemingly no boundaries to where trail running can take you; perhaps running the fells of Northern England or tackling the 170km gruelling route of the UTMB. Or maybe just enjoying casual jaunts in your local forests and hills. But wherever the trails take you, may you enjoy the freedom and good health that will undoubtedly accompany you along the way.