Think of a famous road race… It’s not hard, is it? Perhaps the London marathon springs to mind, or maybe The Great North Run. There are plenty to choose from. If I asked you to name a famous trail running race though, could you do it? I’m willing to bet that most couldn’t. But times are a changin’. Trail is on the rise.
There’s a fair amount of debate in the trail running road about what actually constitutes a trail. Purists argue that a trail must be remote. That it needs to undulate; it should gain and lose elevation along the way. Yes, of course it’s unpaved, but how much of it? All of it or just part? I’m going to keep things simple and say that a trail is basically a footpath that’s mostly unpaved. So that means you don’t need to head out into the sticks to find one; there’s a trail waiting to be run in your local park.
Trail running is a different beast to road running; all bets are off, the boundaries are gone and you’re free to explore a lot more of the world as a result. But this freedom to roam comes at a price. Gone are the beautifully manicured roads, the handy road signs, the street lights - all the things we take for granted. You’re on your own out there, and you need to think carefully about your gear to make sure you aren’t caught out off the beaten track. Those tired old road running shoes may not be enough. Depending on the conditions under foot, and also the weather, you’ll probably need a pair of trail shoes. Trail shoes provide better heel support than conventional road running shoes and have robust soles to prevent stones breaking through, as well as large lugs to provide friction in even the slipperiest mud. If you are unfamiliar with the area you’re running in, it’s worth investing in a map and a compass (and learning how to use them!) or a GPS watch. And always carry a head torch, just in case - street lights don’t come as standard with footpaths!
Now you need to think about the weather. Packing a lightweight, waterproof jacket, gloves and a hat into a nice comfy running backpack will ensure you’re prepared for whatever the weather throws at you.
I often get asked on our introductory trail running course in the Alps what the most important bit of kit is, and I’d have to say the trail shoes. Get the wrong pair and you’re in for a lot of pain and discomfort. Get the right pair and they’ll look after you, especially on more technical trails where good grip really can be the difference between life and death.
Trails, by their very nature, are more remote than roads or pavements, so getting help if you get lost or injured is more of a challenge. It’s also likely that there will be fewer people using them (a good thing!), so some pre-trail run planning is always necessary, be it looking at the weather forecast or plotting your intended route. When out on the trail, be prepared. It’s important to take some extra kit – extra layers, a head torch, a map and compass. You probably won’t have to use, but it’s there if you do. Manage your own expectations of your ability and sign-up to an outdoor skills course.
Getting into trail running is easy, but there’s a lot more technique involved than you might realise. A relatively straightforward countryside path is a good place to start, especially if you want to head into the mountains, or more remote areas, as building up your strength and technique on easier terrain will help you stay injury free for longer.
A trail is three dimensional; unlike a road it comes right at you! Dodging loose or slippery ground, jumping trip hazards such as tree roots and steep up and downs all add up to an experience that is both mentally and physically challenging. But if you get it right the health benefits are significant: not only will you be building strength and endurance in your legs, you’ll be working out your core too, as the varied terrain engages muscles you never knew existed. A word of caution though: trail running comes with its own difficulties. I have definitely taken a few tumbles in my time and misjudging the viscosity of the mud, or even just some good old fashioned trail furniture, can wipe you out in seconds. So start off easy, don’t push too hard too soon or you could end up hurting yourself.
Running on trails is more difficult than on a road, so throw away those PBs and minute mile expectations! The trail will dictate the pace, so go with the flow. And bare in mind that some areas of trails are completely un-runnable, especially in bad weather, so set your objectives based on what you see ahead of you; leave your pacing expectations at home.
The rewards of trail running more than make up for all the pain and hard work. What could have been a dull training run becomes something that engages all your senses, and is a healthy distraction from the usual weekend plod. Some of my best memories are running along mountain paths, feeling a total sense of freedom. Not only do you get to break away from the confines of the road, you can leave the stop watch at home without any sense of guilt. It’s not always about pace. And trail running is a great way to give yourself the edge come the road and track season.
Even if you live in a city you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to find a trail, be it in your local park or alongside a canal. And even in the sprawling mass of London you can get out into the countryside in less than 20 minutes. So what are you waiting for? Take a run on the wild side.
Simon James is the founder of Run the Wild - the UK’s first premier, dedicated trail running holiday adventure company. Operating in the UK and the Alps, they deliver holidays that combine the sense of 'team' from mountaineering, with the thrill of trail running in wild places. Simon is a keen trail runner and marathon runner with a PB of 2hrs 37mins. He is a qualified Leader in Running Fitness as well as International Mountain Leader and offers treks in the Alps.