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Trail running 101

People ask me a question which goes along the lines of ‘I love your photos; I’d love to run places like this! But don’t I need fancy shoes/lots of equipment/navigational ability/special knowledge/insert other item or attribute here?’

The answer might be yes, but it’s often no, so I thought I’d write about what you really do and really don’t need to get started in off-road running, and answer some of the common questions.

How do you know where you’re going, and find all these amazing views?

I think most people’s barrier to getting into off-road running is simply not knowing how to find the kinds of routes that make for an enjoyable run. You don’t need expert-level navigational ability, but getting a little bit familiar with map-reading skills is going to be useful. My number one tool when it comes to planning an off-road route is the Ordnance Survey map. You might be familiar with these as the pink or orange covered huge sheets of paper used in GCSE Geography classes. It now comes in a much handier online/app format – you can have access to every single map in the country for £23.99 a year (that’s £2 per month!) and the level of detail is astonishing. The map allows you to plot routes; it will measure the distance and the elevation (the amount of uphill) in the route for you, and also give you an estimate (which adapts itself to your pace once you start completing runs) of how long it will take you.

Initially, a great way to get going would be to look at your home. Chances are, even if you live in a city, there will be some footpaths and trails near you – when you zoom in to the smallest scale of the map, you’re looking for a green line with either short or long dashes (you can also find the map key within the app). As a rule of thumb, the longer dashes (which indicate bridleways, routes on which pedestrians, bicycles and horses are allowed to travel) are more runnable than the short dashes (footpaths – pedestrians only) which tend to be narrower, and are sometimes overgrown. There are also the amusingly named ‘BOAT’s – Byways Open to All Traffic – which appear on the map as a series of green crosses and are more like gravelly or rocky country roads. This article from the Ordnance Survey covers planning a walk, but it hits all the bases of planning a good run route too.

If you really don’t want to go down the map route – or maybe you’re nervous about getting out alone on your self-planned route, consider asking friends or clubmates if they know any good routes they could show you, or if they’d like to come along on your adventure. There are also lots of Facebook groups dedicated to trail running, which can be good places to make friends and find running partners.

Ok, I’ve planned a route. How am I going to stay on it when I’m running? I don’t want to get lost!

There are different schools of thought on this! A purist might say that you simply need to learn to read your map and navigate, using the features you pass along the way, understanding contour lines, and by taking bearings using a compass. If you are heading away from popular routes, taking a paper copy of your map and a compass (which you know how to use) is a good idea. But technology has made things much easier for us – if you use the OS app, you can simply follow the route like you’d do with a Google map. Many running watches also now have a feature allowing you to upload your route to your watch. This article runs through the process of adding a GPX file (basically a set of route instructions) to your Garmin. If you’re doing this from the OS map app, when you’ve plotted your route you just need to click ‘export’ and select Garmin Connect. You can also ‘share’ your route with your running buddy by email or messenger. Although following the route on your watch doesn’t give you any new navigational skills at all, it does allow you to run quickly and without the faff of constant map checking – and even if we’re learning to navigate 'properly', sometimes that’s what we want from a run.

If you find yourself really enjoying your running, and want to get further afield, you could consider a navigation course. These used to be primarily aimed at walkers, but there are now options specific to trail runners, to help you move at speed while navigating confidently.

I’ve planned a route! Do I need any special equipment?

Running is like everything else in modern life – there’s a marketing industry whose purpose is to convince us that we need six different pairs of shoes, top of the range underpants and a magic hat. I think trail running suffers from this more than road running because there is a bigger range of equipment available that you might conceivably use, but try not to be swayed by the brand-sponsored athletes you see on Instagram, who have been gifted every item in the range. You don’t need anything special or massively expensive to get started.

Yes, but I do need special shoes, don’t I?

Probably, yes. But maybe not straight away. For your first few forays into trail running, particularly in summer when the ground is dry and hard, your road shoes will be perfectly fine.

If you find that you enjoy a few runs, then you could invest in a pair of trail shoes. These can be initially confusing because there is more variation than you’ll find in a road shoe. As well as different options for things like cushioning and stability, trail shoes have different types of sole depending on what surface they are primarily designed for. You might hear people talk about ‘lugginess’ – this refers to the size and spacing of the ‘lugs’ (rubber treads) on the bottom of the shoe. As a general principle, shoes designed for running in slippy, sticky mud will have larger, deeper lugs, more widely spaced. Shoes that are designed primarily for hard-packed or rocky trails will tend to have smaller lugs closer together. They may also be made from slightly different materials, depending on how sticky they are designed to be – some shoes cope better than others with wet rock, for example. You can also buy ‘hybrid’ shoes if lots of your runs are going to be on a mixture of road and trail. I have found that there is a lot of variation in shoe fit and width in trail shoes – so if you can it’s really worth going to a specialist shop to get fitted. As well as being able to try the shoes on for fit (for example, I run in a size 5 Brooks road shoe, but a size 6 La Sportiva trail shoe, which I’d never have worked out if I hadn’t tried them on in a shop), you’ll be able to chat to the salesperson about the places you want to run, and get their advice on the type of shoe best suited to it.

What about other equipment? Everyone looks like they’re wearing race vests and carrying the kitchen sink…

Running vests and bumbags are popular in the trail running world, and it’s probably the first piece of specialist equipment I’d recommend buying after shoes. They usually come with bladders or bottles which allow you to carry more water (and food) than you can hold in your hands or in a waist belt, which means you can travel further afield from the inhabited areas where you’d normally find things like taps, coffee and cake. Having said that, you don’t absolutely need one. If you’re on a short run in a well-walked or busy area, just take what you’d normally take on a run.

The other things which will probably eventually end up in your running vest mostly relate to safety. This brilliant video from Scottish Athletics sums it up perfectly – if you for some reason have to stop running, and wait for help to reach you, what will you need to be safe? If I’m running on well-marked trails at low altitude, not too far from a town or city, I will typically take a small emergency kit containing my mobile phone (and a battery pack, if it’s a long run), a foil blanket, a small first aid kit (things like blister plasters and basic dressings), a whistle, and a couple of hundred calories of emergency food (I use Kendal Mint Cake because in my opinion it tastes disgusting, therefore there is no chance I’ll be tempted to eat it outside of an emergency!). I also take my debit card, ID and a little bit of cash. This stuff all goes in a dry bag, which is a kind of waterproof sack with a roll-top which clips closed and keeps the contents safe from rain (and sweat!) inside my running vest. Depending on the weather conditions and forecast, I might also take a waterproof jacket (and trousers).

If I’m running at higher altitude, on unmarked trails or in an area where the weather will be unpredictable, I carry a full safety kit. This means all the items above, as well as a physical map of the area and a compass, waterproofs, a headtorch, hat and gloves, and spare warm base layers. I might also consider a full ‘bivvi bag’ (like a sort of heavy duty full-body bin bag) instead of the foil blanket. If you’re wondering why you need so many clothes on a run, bear in mind that if you’re going to gain altitude, it can get cold quite quickly. If you’re running in the mountains, make sure you check the mountain weather forecast first.

If this all sounds a bit alarming, remember that for easy/short trail runs in inhabited areas, you just need whatever you’d normally take on a run. If you enjoy it, you’ll probably find the items above making their way into your kit cupboard before too long. If you enjoy it a lot then you’ll probably incrementally find yourself becoming expert on more niche items like poles, gaiters, spikes, water filtration systems…you’re welcome, and enjoy the journey!

Doesn’t all that kit cost a lot of money?

Yes, it can do. As I’ve said, you really don’t need all/most of it, but for some of us, the cost of even basic equipment might be prohibitive. It’s certainly true that the ‘top end’ kit from big-name manufacturers can be expensive. I have a couple of suggestions if this is true for you – number one is Decathlon. There are some runners out there who sneer at Decathlon equipment and insist that due to its low price it will be cheaply made, unreliable and malfunctioning. I can only assume they haven’t tried any – every single piece of Decathlon kit I own is fantastic, and usually at around a third to a half of the price of one of the big-name brands. As examples, my waterproof phone holder was bought for a few pounds at least five years ago and is still going strong. At the other end of the scale, my waterproof trousers and jacket are also Decathlon, and they have never let me down, even in some quite extreme Lakes weather. The only criticism I can level at them is that they are a fraction heavier and bulkier than some of their more expensive cousins, but not by enough to make a difference to anyone except the most hardcore of ultra-light enthusiasts (these folk cut their toothbrushes in half when hiking).

There are also a number of Facebook groups for buying and selling second hand kit – UK Outdoor Gear Exchange is a big one with tens of thousands of members, and a steady stream of posts with kit for sale.

I’m finding trail running hard work, and I’m worried about injury. What can I do?

Running off-road definitely does place different demands on your body. You’ve probably already noticed that it’s difficult to maintain your normal road paces on the trail. This is completely normal, and you don’t need to worry about it. You’re still getting great training benefit, just reduce the pace so that your effort, rather than your pace, is comparable with the same session on road. You’re also getting a lot of agility, balance and coordination benefit from the unevenness of the surface. This means that your body has to do a lot more stabilisation when your foot hits the ground – so muscles all the way from your feet and ankles to your bum and back are working harder. You will probably also find yourself negotiating obstacles in the form of rocks, tree roots, streams, stiles, and stubborn sheep, as well as running more uphill and downhill than you would normally. All this can certainly mean that you feel new aches and pains, and it is sensible to slowly phase in the frequency, intensity and length of your off-road sessions to avoid injury. You could also add some specific strength and conditioning to help you build the kind of strength you need to be resilient and have endurance on the trail. I really like this article – I think it hits the nail on the head with the types of strength training most useful to trail runners.

I’m a bit discouraged. I had a great plan, but I got stuck in a bog and had an argument with a cow.

Sometimes it’s just luck! Chances are, if you get into trail running you’ll find yourself following a bunch of super-cool looking, super-keen trail runners and outdoorsy folk on social media. (I have a terrible new habit where I wear my baseball caps back to front because I thought it looked cool on Instagram). Just remember – for every incredible shot of an epic sunrise over an inversion, there have been days of terrible weather, getting lost in clouds, covered in mud and generally cold, wet, grumpy and hangry. And sometimes, those are the most rewarding bits of all. Good luck, enjoy yourself – and drop me a line if I can answer any questions or help at all.

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