What is Trail Running?

Trail running is running off road and generally in the countryside or along a coastline path.  Trail running environments are really beneficial to your overall running fitness as well as your mental health and well-being.  The main difference between road running and trail running is that you have to really look where you are going as you are having to deal with the constant change under foot; no two steps are the same as you are running on a natural obstacle course.  Why is this beneficial? Trail running takes the pressure off running, it’s an opportunity to build strength and endurance and forces you to slow your pace down.  Running on uneven surface and varied terrain really challenges the muscles of the lower body more than a flat firm run – so your muscles need to work harder to maintain your balance and keep you upright.  This in turn helps keep your core strong, helps keep you agile and coordinated.  Running on hard road surfaces doesn’t have the same effect on the lower body muscles as the smooth surface helps you keep your balance.

The distraction of looking where your feet are going can take your mind away from what you are doing and it can create a meditative peacefulness that is sometimes difficult to achieve in a paved and populated environment as you are dodging dogs, roads and pedestrians and sometimes abusive comments.  I’ve never heard a sheep call me a “moose”!

I’m not going to lie, you have to be careful when running on a trial route, even if you do the same route week after week you can see a difference as the weather changes the terrain.  One day the trail may be dry and hard, the next it may be wet and sloppy.  Popular routes like the South Downs way are prone to not only seasonal changes but changes due to the temperature, erosion of bike traffic as well as foot traffic.  One week you may have to negotiate your way around a very large puddle, the next it may have vanished or indeed got even bigger.

Trail running tends to focus on time on feet rather than pace and miles, it’s an opportunity to unwind and take a look around (when you reach the top of a hill), you can walk the hills and take the pressure off yourself to beat your pace, time, distance.  It's a time to re-charge the batteries and allow yourself to just breathe and enjoy the run. Running off road teaches you to be three or four steps ahead of turns, roots, rocks and puddles, these skills are transferable as when running in a road race having the ability to maneuver quickly enables you to get out of the way quickly if someone just stops in front of you or if someone throws an empty water bottle into you running path. 

Sunday’s trial run along the well-worn route of the South Downs way is a great introduction to trail running, there are uneven paths, chalk paths, puddles, uphill’s and downhills as well as roads, yes you do have to be careful under foot and look where you are going, you do have to watch out for the odd walker and mountain biker (saying hello is compulsory), the views are stunning though and worth the uneven terrain.  Trail running will make you a stronger runner. it will add spice into your training plan but it is also important to remember that it is different to road running so there are some precautions to take.

  • Always run with your mobile phone, a sports drink and at least one gel/some jelly babies/flapjack
  • Check the weather forecast and if there is a slight chance of rain take a waterproof
  • Layers are best in the winter as the weather can change quite quickly and once you are on a trail no-one can come and pick you up; you have to turn around and head back in the direction you came and this isn’t fun if you are cold.
  • Take a hat/buff and gloves in winter (see above)
  • If you go on your own always tell someone where you are going and what time you hope to return and don’t go off the beaten track, stick to well know routes

I love trial running, I ran the Endurance Life Coastal series in 2012/13, the series consisted of extreme coastal paths around the British Isles and I ran the half marathon distances.  I was on my own for the majority of the races, I just took myself off and completed them, some weren’t 13 miles, they were 15 plus, these races made me strong mentally and physically; they were hard but I loved them.