I love trail running. I started before it was invented – it’s basically cross-country but with a name that avoids connotations of schooldays torture on a cold, wet afternoon – and I hit the trails around my home in the south of France every other morning. It beats legging it round the roads and pavements hands down for variety, challenge and views; it also gives you a better work-out both physically and mentally.
The need to leap streams and ditches, climb steep rocky paths, brake downhill on gravel and jump over fallen trees introduces a whole plethora of athletic dimensions that you just don’t get on concrete and which you need to be prepared for. The risk of falling is far greater and you’re potentially falling onto rocks or into a hole; if you twist your ankle you can’t just get picked up in a car and your body has to be able to react quickly and strongly to maintain balance when loose ground gives way or you catch your foot on something. If you’re thinking of giving it a go, or want to get up those hills you think you can’t, here’s a few tips:
Get 4 x 4 footwear. You wouldn’t expect to put slicks on a Land Rover, so don’t expect ordinary running shoes to give you sufficient traction – you’ll be slipping all over the place, wasting a lot of energy with a very good chance of falling. And to me, ground covered in sharp rocks and potholes is no place to be in a pair of so called ‘barefoot’ running shoes; it makes for nice advertising photos, but off-roading demands better protection.
Learn to keep your focus. Be conscious of where you’re putting your feet and plan your route several steps ahead of where you are at that moment. Keep your sights on the horizon, but use your peripheral vision to constantly assess the terrain, because you can be sure that the times your concentration slips will be the ones when you do. This is especially true when running downhill, because it’s easier to let your mind wander in moments of less intense effort.
Improve your balance and proprioception. This will help you stay on your feet on uneven surfaces and improve your reactions when you skid or trip. Try practicing some yoga balance poses and exercising with a wobble board or inflatable disc.
Follow a strength & conditioning programme – just running isn’t enough. Running on uneven ground makes your peroneal muscles (on the side of your lower leg) work extra hard to stabilise your ankles. Your gluteal muscles (in your backside) play an essential role in supporting your hip and preventing your knees from collapsing inwards or outwards as each leg takes the weight of your body. It’s easy to develop an imbalance here if your quadriceps are overactive and tight, which could set you up for injury. And don’t neglect your upper body – your arms and shoulders will help you get up those hills.
Get a Swiss ball and learn to use it properly. Swiss balls are great for building core strength – essential for enabling you to fix your spine against the multidirectional forces you’ll be generating by jumping obstacles and counteracting cambers. Exercises such as abdominal curls performed correctly on a Swiss ball recruit more muscle fibres than the same exercise performed on the floor.
Believe you can run up the hill. Personally, I prefer to run slowly and increase my cadence (stride frequency) rather than walk; it keeps you in the right rhythm. Your body takes 2-3 minutes to adjust to changes in intensity, so slow down to help your oxygen intake keep pace with demand as the slope begins to increase and KEEP GOING; you’ll soon start to feel like you can sustain it. Whether you make it without stopping or walking has more to do with mental attitude than anything else.
Remember to enjoy the view: “It’s easier to go down a hill than up it, but the view is much better at the top.” – Arnold Bennet