Co-founder of the Nomadic Running Company, Kerran Traynor, offers an introductory guide to trail running for anybody looking to take their running in a new direction or interested in learning more about the sport.
What is trail running?
Trail running is best described as off-road running along existing routes and paths that cross the natural environment. These can be anything from a gravel road in a forest to a barely noticeable route across a mountain ridgeline. Understandably this can be a bit daunting if heading out for your first time to discover what trail running is all about, but it is definitely worth it! Below Kerran Traynor, seasoned trail runner and founder of the Nomadic Running Company, sets out some key tips and recommendations for getting started with trail running, and puts your mind at ease with answers to some of those burning questions you may have.
Why choose trail running?
Running is such a natural way of moving - as simple as it gets in terms of an activity that is good for body and mind. Taking this only a little step further and throwing in a healthy mix of nature really gets those endorphins flowing.
What trail running has over traditional track or road running is that it’s more about the journey and the achievement than times and distances. The freedom to explore at your own pace in a natural environment is highly rewarding - a mini adventure that will have you smiling come rain or shine. It can be a one-off, a weekend escape or a daily run - it really doesn’t matter.
The community of trail running is also unique and welcoming. You could say there is a certain mentality attached to this type of running and the challenges that can come with it. In my experience I’ve only ever come across people looking to help and be your friend. My first ultra race set the tone for this. After running in the front pack for 30miles not really knowing my limits, I started to fade. With another 15 to go I ground to a walk for the next 7. Almost every single one of my competitors who came past asked me if I was okay, whether I needed anything or gave me words of support. One even stopped and walked with me for a bit before finding the strength to start again and encouraging me to do the same. The commoradary I felt during those last 15 miles was nothing short of amazing, and that is unique to trail running.
So why not give it a go? The information below will help you get started.
Where to trail run?
If you’re interested in trail running, most likely you are already a runner of some description looking to venture out into a more scenic location for your outdoor fix. There is no code for how extreme or not trail running has to be. Many people seek out tough routes with large amounts of ascent in exposed locations. However, you'll equally find people running through fields and on towpaths.
Like many things, easing yourself in is often the best way, and trail running is no different, although a steep learning curve may follow for those who get the bug. Flatter, familiar and more established trails lend themselves well for those just starting out. A rural footpath or an area through your local woods are often good places to start and provide you with new challenges and obstacles that you may not usually encounter on a road. This not only builds your own personal confidence within the sport, but also enables your body to adapt the rigours of trail running and gain an understanding of key elements like terrain and weather. Learning how to adapt and work with these rather than fighting them is an important trait for when you move on to longer and more remote trails.
Do I need specialist equipment?
Although not absolutely essential to begin with, a certain amount of specialist kit can be indispensable once you venture into unknown locations, conditions and terrain. It can make trail running a whole lot easier, and means you can focus more on running and less about just trying to stay upright.
If, however, you are selective with where, when and for how long you choose to run, there is no reason that a simple introduction can’t be enjoyed safely without specialist kit. You should look for a short distance route in a familiar and easily accessed location. Make sure it's not too challenging but offers you something different, a gravel track with a few obstacles would be ideal. Pick dry weather and make sure not to be out after dark.
Any progression beyond this and I would highly recommend some trail-running trainers. Under a firm and even trail on a dry day you may still choose a lighter road running shoe, but as things can quickly change in more remote areas the necessity for specific trail-running trainers increases.
Specifically designed, they provide a host of features that make them more suitable. A firmer sole, known as a rockplate, restricts any stone, sticks or debris from penetrating. Deeper tread, or lugs, give extra traction depending on the type of terrain. Trail shoes also have a greater range in heel-to-toe drop: the difference in height between your heel and toe if the shoe were placed flat. This is naturally 0mm when barefooted: zero drop. However, caution is needed if transitioning towards a minimalist, or zero-drop, trainer. This is in part because your achilles and lower leg may come under increased strain with a reduced heel-to-toe drop. When buying a trail shoe for the first time, look for something close to your current running trainer. Typically road shoes have around a 10mm drop, so an 8-10mm would be a good place to start.
Next up is navigation. If you know the route then great. But more often than not, the further you start to run navigation plays a more important role in making sure you don’t overextend yourself. For this the classic OS maps and compass work well, providing you know how to use them accurately. These are reliable and wont run out, but also don’t give you tremendous freedom as you will need to constantly be stopping to check the map. A GPS watch with an uploadable route feature enables you to plot a route from home and then follow once your out. This means you are able to enjoy the route without the need for so many stops. We will often carry both but only call upon the map when required. A smartphone can also act as a replacement for a map and combined with mapping apps can provide accurate location data as well as routes - the downside again being you don’t want to be running with your phone in your hand.
A head torch is also vital. Needless to say most of the time you don’t plan to use these, but they become critical if you get lost in the dark or a run has been unexpectedly difficult. Make sure it's charged or has spare batteries. You may already have one of these, but a decent waterproof is also a game-changer should the weather be bad.
With all of this kit, the final essential is a running backpack. Comfort is key here, and many brands offer a selection of sizes. Something around the 10-12l capacity should be big enough for longer days yet small enough for short trips with less equipment. They all come with a selection of compartments and pockets for ease of access to clothing, food and water.
How do I prepare and stay safe?
Remote trails come with a different set of risks to inner-city paths. Doing some preparation is a good way to mitigate the key external factors. Check the weather forecast, make sure you carry enough water and familiarise yourself with your chosen route (consult a map). Always carry extra layers, enough food and drink, a mobile phone, a map and an emergency blanket in case the weather turns or something unexpected happens. There is only a small likelihood that you’ll ever need to use these, but for very little extra weight why would you not?
This preparation phase does not have to be arduous or a chore. It can help you find some exceptional routes and give you the confidence to go out and explore. Be mindful of your and others’ ability in the group and don’t overdo it. Allow for elevation gain and awkward underfoot terrain, as these quickly slow your pace and add up the total time. It really is a different set of rules to road running, even if the mechanics are similar.
What is good trail-running technique?
Unlike road running, the terrain on trails varies from one to the next, and you could feasibly encounter many in the space of an hour. With that it’s important to address your technique. You’ll naturally find a cadence and way of moving amongst the obstacle ahead of you, but a few points to consider:
- Go slow and steady. With many trails being slightly further afield, along with an increase in pace due to terrain, it's important not to blow up too soon. Fuelling and preparation can aid this but remember not to max out.
- Run-hike technique. This is used by all but the elite. It involves a mixture of hiking the harder sections and increasing to a run where you feel comfortable (the flatter sections).
- Stay light-footed, keeping you centre of gravity fluid and adjusting to the terrain beneath. This applies to uphill and downhill sections too. Keeping a high cadence enables you to maintain closer contact with the ground and therefore greater ability to check speed and adjust where necessary.
- Providing it’s not really tricky terrain, try and scan the terrain ahead of you for obstacles and foot placement.
With the best will in the world, this does not always help, and you may expect a fall every now and again. The biggest culprit for me is kicking a static object unknowingly and not having time to adjust. A tree stump or rock will do it, but usually there is no lasting damage.
What about nutrition?
Trail runs are often on the longer side of things, and as the distances creep up nutrition and hydration play a key role in ensuring you’re correctly fuelled. There are a selection of purpose-made carbohydrate-based products such as gels and tablets that provide easily assimilated glucose, with an equal amount of people preferring to eat ‘real’ food, particularly for a sustained and long effort. Finding the right balance is a personal endeavour and you should practice eating a variety of foods on your longer runs to see what works best. Do your research on the specific sports-based products, as often they are not as healthy or beneficial as they proclaim.
It’s important to understand that no matter how hard you try you are most likely going to run into an energy deficit as you're unable to consume the amount of calories you are expending whilst running. Eating allows for your body to more easily manage this deficit without energy levels plummeting or hitting the so-called ‘wall’. Eating early and often seems to work best for most, but will take some training, as it’s surprisingly hard to consume whilst running, particularly at higher speeds or increased effort.
Hydration follows a similar principle in that you want to take fluid on regularly to replace the liquid and sodium you lose through sweating. The amount varies from person to person, and can be directly affected by environmental factors. It’s key to replace these to maintain a balanced and hydrated state for the duration of your run. It is equally important, and often overlooked, to remain hydrated pre- and post-exercise to aid your body in recovery.
Where can I learn more?
Caught the bug or want to find out more? The best and probably most enjoyable way to learn more about the sport is to get yourself signed up to a local trail-running club or reach out to the local community. Here you can ask as many questions as you like and can draw upon the more experienced members' knowledge. Learning in this manner means that you will make friends that you can continue your journey with. It also has the added benefit of providing you the freedom to explore and experiment in the relative safety of others, whether this is new kit, terrain, distance or food.
Better still, why not run away with us? Nomadic Running Company offers spectacular trail-running retreats and adventures in the UK and worldwide. Expect a well-balanced, active holiday that is expertly guided and specifically aimed to show you some of the lesser trodden paths of this world. Designed by trail runner for trail runner, leave the planning to us and join like-minded folk on your next adventure.