Trail Running for Beginners

Trail & Fell Training Advice
Trail Running for Beginners

Get some mud on those shoes!

If you are new to running, or are a runner who habitually sticks to the pavements and fancies a change, then I would thoroughly recommend venturing into trail running. Running off-road can be an immensely rewarding and enriching experience. As a species we originally ran on softer, natural trails... before we started making roads and building cities.

It is hard to define exactly what ‘trail running’ is and isn’t, and it seems people continue to argue over a strict definition. Runner’s World state that a trail must have three of the following: an unpaved surface, natural obstacles, significant ascending or descending elevation, scenic aspects.

Running off-road is fun and energising. There are some truly beautiful routes to be explored out there, even in or close to the city, which means you don’t necessarily need to have access to a car to get at them. Trail running is perfect for runners of every level and ability – you can tailor your run to be as tough or easy as you like. Even top road runners recognise the benefits of trail running on the body, and vary their training to include some miles off road.

Still not convinced to give it a go? Read on....

Benefits of Trail Running

There are inspirational reasons and practical reasons why trail running is good for you.

  • A softer and undulating terrain puts less pressure on the bones and joints than pounding harder surfaces such as road or pavement. When building up your mileage – or maybe you are doing too much mileage on a weekly basis – you may find your legs are really fatigued and you cannot run as fast as you'd like. If you do one of your runs on softer ground, it will have less impact on your legs and you'll recover faster. So from an injury-prevention point of view that’s a good idea.
  • The uneven terrain forces you to vary your stride length and direction, which increases your range of lateral movement. Irregular ground will encourage a different landing pattern, making your footstrike slightly different each time. The repetitive strain that can come from road running is much less likely on trails. 
  • Uneven terrain is helpful for strengthening your ankles, your feet, you calf muscles, your core stability, balance and coordination, because your whole body is constantly adjusting.
  • Trail running usually increases your hill fitness, as you are generally more likely to encounter more hills when running on off-road tracks. If you combine uneven terrain with inclines you can increase your general stamina and speed. Once you hit the road again it’s quite likely you'll find yourself running faster.
  • Running on unstable surfaces enhances proprioception (the awareness of the position of the body) and balance, increasing physical confidence, especially when running in different areas and trying different trail routes.
  • Taking on obstacles that cross your path fosters a sense of adventure!
  • Being away from the traffic there is less pollution, and the air you breathe is fresher and cleaner.

Benefits for the Mind

  • Off road is a far more peaceful environment. There is less traffic and people noise. This is your perfect chance to escape from your everyday surroundings. Modern lives can be busy and stressful, why not escape from all that for a bit and step into another world.
  • Off road routes are scenic. Immerse yourself in the beauty of your surroundings, enjoy it, refresh your thoughts and refocus your mind (just remember to keep half an eye on the track ahead!)
  • Explore and marvel at nature, get off the beaten track and into the countryside.
  • Have fun with the terrain, whether springy, rocky or boggy. Running off road is immensely energising and freeing! Forget feeling self conscious about ‘looking like a runner’. Feel free to stop and jump in a muddy puddle or two or to walk up some hills and pause to admire views. You don’t have to take your run seriously and you can always be proud to arrive home caked in mud!

Staying Safe

  • Be mindful of the terrain underfoot, it often helps to focus your eyes about six strides ahead of you.
  • If you have not run a particular route before or have a poor sense of direction, it might be worth taking a friend with you – preferably one who knows the route.
  • If you are running alone, plan your route in advance.
  • Whatever distance you are running, tell someone where you are going and roughly when you expect to return.
  • If you are running a longer distance... take an emergency kit – phone, water, energy gels and a small amount of cash. All of these can be carried in a belt or running backpack designed for comfort while running.
  • If you are running in the evening or at night... wear a high-vis item – although there are usually no cars off road, cyclists tend to use the footpaths / trails and may not see you in the dark.
  • Using a head torch is essential for running at night on the trails – they aren’t lit and the torch will shed light on the terrain ahead to help you keep your footing.
  • Never run in the dark on trails alone. Take a friend. Stay safe. Ideally walk / run your route in daylight first.

Trail Running Shoes

  • For the vast majority of smooth gravel trails, footpaths and grass, road running shoes would be perfectly adequate, provided the grip isn’t too worn down.
  • For more extreme muddy, boggy ground, slippery slopes and uneven, hilly terrain you will require trail running shoes. They have firmer, more pronounced treads and hence a more aggressive grip. They can also be more flexible, allowing your foot to adapt to the inconsistencies and unevenness of the terrain. They can also have less cushioning than road shoes, as your feet need to absorb less shock on a softer surface.

So get off the road and hit the trail just once this week... go to your local park, step off the concrete path and go exploring!

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