For excitement and a break from the ordinary, there is no more liberating activity than trail running. Forget the excruciating cross country runs you were sent on at school, this is the chance to leave the city and the tarmac behind and indulge in fresh air and new scenery.
Trail running used to be the preserve of hardy, mountain goat-style runners but a concern with rising obesity levels and people’s increasingly sedentary lives has persuaded the authorities to set up and run trails through urban parks as well as forests on the outskirts of towns and cities. A short drive and you can find yourself set loose in miles of peace and calm.
One of the beauties of trail running is that it is easier on the body. The grass, sand, woodchip or gravel paths will jar less on your joints, while the need to change direction regularly will use different muscles and strengthen your ankles and hip joints, helping you to avoid overuse injuries associated with running on treadmills and straight roads.
There are hidden dangers lurking on these trails however. The path is never smooth, and if you are used to treadmill and road running, be prepared for sudden changes in the terrain. Vehicle tracks, molehills, puddles, loose logs or branches can all conspire to trip you up, while low-hanging foliage can cause you to duck suddenly as you are running. A loose rock can result in a rolled or broken ankle and there is a greater chance of a loose dog tripping you up, as owners tend to let their dogs off the leash in park areas. It is wise to slow your pace if you are finding you are facing some of these natural hazards.
As with any other running program, how hard you push yourself is down to you, but if it is a varied workout you are after, then trail running provides a great gym. Depending upon the terrain, you can practice your hill running – developing a good downhill and uphill technique – or you can use trees and logs to do other exercises on – pull ups on branches or ski-jumping over fallen logs. Some trail runs have wooden gyms set up by the local leisure provider. Not only do these break up your run and give you variety but they are also a good way of developing all over conditioning.
You will need to consider the kit you wear to do trail running. Normal running shoes do not really cut it on some of the more arduous trails, so a pair of trail shoes is a good idea. These will give you stability and grip on slippery or undulating surfaces.
Depending upon how wild you are going, you might want to take a well-fitting rucksack with spare clothing, food and drink, plus a mobile phone and a GPS/map. For an urban trail through a city that measure of safety will not be necessary but if you are planning a trip to the wilderness then go prepared for every eventuality.
Top tips for a good trail run
- Pick a trail that meets your needs –think about what you want from your trail. If it is simply a flat run over your usual distance then choose a trail through a park in the city. If you want to incorporate some hills or get muddy, then head out to the countryside.
- Dress down – apart from your trail shoes, which should be good quality, wear old clothes that you don’t mind getting wet, dirty or ripped.
- Slow down and smell the roses – apart from the dangers of going too fast on uneven surfaces, this is a chance to slow things down and take in your environment. Enjoy the experience… and watch out for that branch!
- Run with a buddy – aside from the companionship, it is good to have a friend with you in case either of you get injured.
If you enjoyed your first trail run and want to do more, then consider building a weekly or fortnightly trail run into your training schedule. There are also trail running races, which could prove to be a good target event for you to train for. No matter what your level, 5K runner; 10K runner or competitive runner, there are trail events available.
Regular trail running will help you develop stronger ankles and joints and you will find, as you leap logs and jump from one rock cluster to another, that your balance has also improved. And trail running is guaranteed to release the natural runner within you.