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The Beginner’s Guide To Trail Running

It might not be the biggest barrier in the world, but one thing that stops some people running is the boredom factor. Running past the same roads, same cars and same mundane environment can be enough to drive anyone who has even the remotest doubt about exercise insane, and that’s where trail running comes in.

As the name suggests, this is a form of running that occurs on dirt trails and roads although in some areas it is also known as fell running. Unsurprisingly, it can prompt a lot more challenges than your standard roadside run; with the terrain being significantly more difficult and often being hilly, uneven but ultimately, exciting. Running through the country certainly has its perks and with tens of millions of people taking part in this in the world, it would be fair to say that interest is growing. Additionally, the fact that it can be short and flat across a farm road, or as elaborate as a 50k race over the mountains, means that it offers runners the ultimate flexibility.

What are the benefits of trail running?

The most obvious benefit to the sport is that it allows us to get into the countryside and experience the wonders of nature. However, a lot of people don’t realise some of the other advantages that are associated with this form of running:

Fewer injuries – As strange as it may sound, trail running is a sport that prompts far fewer injuries than your standard run. The surfaces that you run across are generally much softer, especially when they are compared to the alternatives such as concrete. It means that you’ll have fewer impact injuries, while you will also build more muscle in your lower legs as they have to work harder to stabilize your body on the indifferent ground.

Better running technique – Again, it’s hardly a benefit that we’d immediately think of. However, the tricky terrain of a trail run means that our bodies run from the core and ultimately improve our balance. It’s also understood that the uneven surface prompts our technique into using shorter, but quicker strides, with each one landing more on the forefoot. Such technique means that we use less energy and have the ability to run for slightly longer periods than we are used to.

The fresh air factor – This is one of the more obvious advantages, with trail running bringing you into contact with fresh air, and ridding the environment of all of those pollutants that urban runs prompt. From a health perspective, it’s understood that the above pollutants can cause lung problems in later life, so it’s a hugely beneficial factor.

No run is ever the same – You might hit the same trail for years on end, but rarely is it going to prompt the same challenges. The weather and other conditions all have an effect on the route, which is in stark contrast to the standard road trail which will remain the same day in, day out. Anything from the ground condition, to the width of the paths can alter exceptionally quickly – meaning that trail running is seldom boring.

What should you wear and take on your run?

The beauty about trail running is that technically, you don’t have to carry any extra accessories. The emphasis is based on taking advantage of your natural surroundings and as such, it can be the ideal sport if you are working to a budget.

Of course, very few people do take the “minimalistic" approach. It definitely helps to carry a few speciality items, with specialist trail running shoes being one solution. These have slightly more grip than your standard running trainers, as well as boasting more toe coverage and support for uneven surfaces. In other words, they make it much easier to run on the difficult terrain that a trail run usually prompts. For beginners, it is recommended to stick to the most comfortable footwear, rather than opt for something specific like a feel-the-trail minimalist or fluffy-step-anywhere maximalist shoe. It is also advisable to match your shoes with a specialist trail running sock and due to the dirty nature of this sport, the darker colours are most certainly recommended.

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In terms of other clothing accessories, most revolve around protection against the elements. A visor, hat, sunscreen and sunglasses are always advisable in the warmer months, while when the temperature drops (or if you happen to be in the mountains), a lightweight jacket can be a good idea. As trail runs can take you far and wide, it is usually advisable to take one of these along rather than being stuck in the rain at the furthest place away from your finishing point.

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It goes without saying that for the long runs, or even the shorter ones in summer, a water bottle is absolutely essential. Luckily, it’s now possible to purchase ones with crafty holders that attach to our bodies, which can make the runs much easier to negotiate. Of course if you are going all-out and opting for a longer run, a hydration pack might be advisable and can accommodate necessary snacks as well.

Some trail runners even go the full mile and take along insect repellent, headlamps as well as a whole host of other accessories. Of course, this will largely depend on the route you are going to take and most runners will simply prefer to take the bare essentials and enjoy their surroundings without any excess baggage.

Choosing a trail

The choice of a trail can either make or break your trail running passion. Nevertheless, rather than choosing it based upon the “best looking" route, it’s best to take other factors into account.

As we’ve already discussed, trail running uses a whole host of different muscles and it’s therefore advisable to choose the route based on your own capabilities. Try a 1-3 mile loop in a nearby park that gives you a little bit of climbing and change of terrain, and take it easy. It's totally okay to walk – even the pro's do it regularly – so don't worry too much about your time, take a few breaks to look around, and enjoy the time away from your day-to-day life. Stomp in the rain puddle, get in the mud, brush the plants and branches as you go by - you are there to have fun! By the end of that first run, you'll see how your strides get shorter, your body is more upright to be able to jump around rocks and over sticks, but you can manage a nice consistent effort. By the time you get 8–10 trail runs under your belt, you won't spend nearly as much time watching your feet as you magically start placing your foot instinctively. It's a great feeling and ultimately allows you to get a sense for the types of runs you can manage as you make your choices in the future.

It might also be worth investing a bit of time into basic map reading principles. Particularly in your early trail running career, just seeing how hilly a route is can be very useful to determine just whether or not it is within your capabilities.

Tips for beginners

It has probably become clear through the course of this guide that trail running differs greatly to anything else out there. The tips for your typical roadside jog are quite generic, but when it comes to the countryside it’s worth tapping into a whole different set:

Most beginners are afraid of two things. First, is it going to hurt my calves, shins, and feet to be running on uneven surfaces? The truth is these support muscles do get worked in a new way, so they might get a bit sore the first few runs. Still, you are building strength, and you'll soon find it is a non-issue, and if anything it makes you a better all-around runner.

Second, beginners worry that they are going to trip and fall. Well, yes, tripping does happen sometimes, but not nearly as much as one would think. If you're running in proper form (nice and upright), you'll catch yourself before you fall 90% of the time. It's always good to take it easy the first few times, though.

It’s also suggested to leave your mileage splits and training objectives behind. Just get out there and have some fun! And of course, always carry a map… and toilet paper!

Don’t expect to achieve the same as if you were running your normal, familiar route. As soon as you take to the trails you’ll notice an immediate difference; and it won’t be easy. Therefore, keep your ego at home and just calculate an appropriate rhythm for the trails.

When you're done, make sure you wipe yourself down right away with soap and water. There are tons of flora and fauna that can cause irritation or reactions, as well as bugs, ticks, and mosquitos that are good at hiding in hair and other places. Just make it part of your routine.

Staying safe on the trail

A run into the country might have its benefits, but the fact that you are effectively out in the middle of nowhere prompts several safety concerns. While you now don’t have to dodge car after car, there are other issues to consider. Therefore, to stay safe on your trail run, try and stick to the following tips.

Run with a friend – It might not always be possible, but whenever you can try and run with a friend. If you fall, get lost or find someone else who requires assistance, someone else has your back. If you don’t have anyone to go with, at least tell someone where you are going and approximately how long for.

Your essentials – You don’t want to be weighed down by all of your essentials, but some should be an absolute priority. A map and a mobile phone are the obvious accessories to pull you out of trouble, particularly if you are running alone.

Predatory animals – While you should always be wary of the likes of bears or mountain lions (or anything else, depending on your location), don’t let this hinder your route. Admittedly, you shouldn’t run through an area renowned for its predators, but on the whole most like to stay away from humans especially when they are running at speed.

The unwritten rules of trail running

It might sound bizarre, but this is a sport which has its own set of rules that should be followed by anyone that takes part. Failing to abide to the following will not only tick fellow trail runners off, but it will minimise your enjoyment as well.

Be prepared to get dirty. Run through the mud, wade through the creeks, stomp in the puddles, cut through the grassy field…do it all. It's the best part!

Get off the grid once in a while. No music, no headphones…just fill your sense with Mother Nature and let it calm your soul.

In the UK we’ve just been introduced to tailgating and while there is no such official law in relation to trail running, the general rule is to keep a distance of ten feet between runners. Not only is it bad etiquette to rear-end someone, but it means that you can’t keep eyes on the ground in front of you.

Roll with the falls. It might be tempting to stay on your feet after you hit a rock and start stumbling, but resist the urge. Instead, just go with the fall, if you tense up and try and prevent the inevitable you will land a lot harder.

A special thanks to Scot Dunlap from A Trail Runner's Blog, and David Taylor from Fell Running Guide, for their help in producing this guide.