I have run on trail as long as I’ve been running I think. Growing up on Dartmoor, I was spoilt for choice. With great routes and wild vistas, the empty tracks were so much more appealing than the busy country lanes. There is something incredibly special about running on trail, there’s a sense of freedom you don’t get when you’re in a city. You no longer require the beat of music, because you have the birds, the view and the ever-changing terrain to distract you. I run easier on trail, it’s more dynamic and there’s more of a sense of rhythm and purpose.
A few weeks ago Margaux and I, along with two other friends completed a triathlon. But a triathlon with a twist — stand up paddle boarding, mountain biking and trail running (#supbikerun). In my last blog I wrote about our first foray into the world of SUPing, this week I’m going to get into a topic I’m slightly more familiar with — the muddy world of trail running.
The run on our #supbikerun was only 5km, but like me, Margaux hadn’t had much time to train off-road. So I offered to take her for a jog and give her some tips. I sacked off the last hour of work and we headed to Fforest Fawr (a location just outside Cardiff).
There are loads of different routes to choose from and most are quite well marked if you’re a little wary of getting lost in the woods. I chose a route just shy of 5km with a variety of terrain — steep uphills, knee-buckling downhills and some easier flat sections.
Warming up on the flatter part of the route, we were able to admire the beautiful glades of bluebells. The warmer weather had lifted the flowers’ heads and the aroma of wild garlic was amazing. It was just so beautiful and I couldn’t help but skip along, my arms outstretched as I shook off the office haze and opened my senses to the sounds and sites of the forest.
It wasn’t long before we reached our first downhill, where I had a few tips for Margaux…
- Lean forward: you want to lean forward away from the hill and try to land as much as you can on the middle of your foot. This helps to ease the pressure on your knees. It’s tempting to lean back, but this will cause you to land on your heel — a natural brake!
- Use your arms: leaning away from the hill will propel you forwards, so you want to use your arms for balance. Keep them loose and high. Sometimes windmilling can help!
- Shorten your step: it often helps to shorten your step and quicken your pace. This will help you to react quicker to rocks or roots that appear in your path.
- Don’t look down: you want to look half a metre ahead so you spot tree roots before it’s too late.
- Enjoy it: you’ll be begging for downhill soon enough, so enjoy the feeling. Maybe let out a few woop woop’s!
- Shorten your step: take smaller but more regular steps. If you try to reach too far with each step, you’ll quickly use up energy. By taking smaller steps more often you save energy while getting up the hill more quickly.
- Keep your back straight: try to keep your torso upright and your shoulders relaxed. This will broaden your chest, meaning you can take in more oxygen.
- It’s OK to walk: even the best runners walk uphill. On longer hills especially, or if you know you have a lot more running to do after an uphill section, it can actually serve you better in the long run to walk up the hills. But don’t just dawdle — power walk it. Take wider steps and use your hands to push up on your thighs.
- Breathe: don’t forget to breathe when going uphill. I sometimes count my breaths as a way of distracting myself. I tell myself if I can keep going till 100 breaths I can take a break and usually by the time I reach 100 I have climbed the hill.
Our uphill efforts were rewarded by a gorgeous section of undulating trail. The setting sun was casting a dappled light over the forest floor and the canopy was alive with birdsong as they came in to roost for the evening. Eventually we saw the colours of the car park through the trees and we made the final push for home. It wasn’t a long run, but it got the heart pumping, the legs working and most importantly it did wonders for the soul.
Some top tips for anyone keen to try trail for the first time
- Relax: it can feel strange not running on tarmac and the first mistake most new trail runners make is to tense up. They’re often afraid of tripping or twisting an ankle — but you need to stay loose and relaxed. This will make it easier to react to obstacles on the ground and will make for a more enjoyable run.
- Shorten your step: running on tarmac is very predictable (except when you have to avoid the odd dog poop maybe!) You can stride out and get a good pace going without having to think about it much. On trail it’s better to shorten your stride and take more steps. This will give you better reactions and means you can skip over the rocks and jump over the roots.
- Don’t be afraid to get muddy: if you run on trail you will get dirty — embrace it! I take great pleasure in coming back from a run covered in mud and scratches — it feels great!
- Get some good shoes: once you’ve run on trail a few times and are keen to do more, get some decent shoes. Trail shoes often have less cushioning so you can feel the ground more and your feet can bend over the changing terrain. They also have better grip to deal with mud and water, so there’s less risk of falling over in the bog!
Words by: Kate Owen (The Last Wilderness)