If you haven’t heard of trail running by now, then you’ve probably thrown your smartphone out of the window. We don’t know why you did that.
This type of exercise, though certainly not new, had blown up all over social media in the last few years, making the phenomenon of leaping Capetonian men in expensive backpacks and moisture-wicking shirts unmissable whenever you log in to Instagram.
Though the most visible, that’s not trail running’s only demographic – this sport can be novel outdoor fun for everyone. In fact, there are about 1.77 million trail runners around the world, with more than 25,000 trail races taking worldwide annually. Trail running is growing at a rate of 15% per year and the percentage of women trail runners has increased from 18% in 2013 to 28% in 2022. At this point, it’s kind of a wonder you’re not trail running right now!
Before you strap on those shoes and barrel down the side of your closest mountain with only gravity and enthusiasm on your side, though, we figured we should let you know a little more about what trail running is, and some important info that might stop you from tripping up at the beginning – literally and figuratively.
What is trail running?
Trail running combines road running with hiking, with races taking place specifically on unpaved paths in nature and being totally outdoors from start to finish. Trail runs are usually markedly more technical than road runs, as they often include steep gradients and challenging-to-navigate rocky paths that put the athlete’s endurance and creativity to the test on the go.
If you’re giving trail running a go as a road runner, don’t expect to be able to reach your regular road mileage or pace, as the technical challenges will definitely slow you down and be much more tiring than flat, tarred roads. Basically, trail running is like road running but more challenging and, ultimately, more rewarding given the surroundings you conquer.
For your first run, choose an easy trail
If you’re not sure if you like the sport yet, don’t run out and buy all the most expensive gear you can. First, get a taste of the experience by using the gear you already own for road running on a not-too-technical trail and gauge if this sport is worth investing in for you. As you gain momentum, you don’t need a “trail running outfit,” though it may be worth keeping an eye on your footwear, because your road running shoes will start to feel less stable as you increase your speed and trail distance.
Another nice-to-have after you’ve conquered a few easy trails is a hydration vest, so you don’t have to be carrying water bottles with you up mountains where it might be nice to have the use of both of your hands.
There’s no rule that says you have to run the whole time
We know it’s right there in the name, but most trail runners don’t actually run the full trail – even those hardcore leaping guys we mentioned earlier. In fact, hiking at speed is a big part of trail running, especially when gradients get incredibly steep and trails get hard to navigate. It’s imperative to prioritise safety over speed, and that sometimes means slowing down and approaching a trail problem with care.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you find yourself walking technical parts of the route. Walking is much faster than sitting at the side of the path with an ankle injury because you decided to Usain Bolt your way through a section you were not technically equipped to.
Don’t forget to factor in navigation into your preparation
With road running, navigation is never really an issue. If you get lost, you can just pop into a nearby store or speak to a passer-by to figure out where you are. Then regain your bearings and head home, even if it’s more than a little embarrassing. However, if you’re on a trail, especially one with limited cell reception and you lose your way, it can be much more daunting. Needless to say, there’s probably not going to be an Engen you can pop into to find your way home on top of a mountain range.
When you’re planning trail runs, start off in areas you’re familiar with or on trails that have a reputation for being incredibly well-marked. You’ll be able to gauge trail conditions beforehand using AllTrails. Like with most things, your trail-savvy will come with practice and patience. So start safe and make sure you know where you’re headed.
Skip the solo missions, at least at the beginning
A lot of runners do the majority of their training solo, partly due to convenience and partly because it’s a fantastic meditative activity by oneself. However, if you’re just starting out on trails, we highly recommend taking a running buddy with you until you’re a little more confident and surefooted.
Not only does a running buddy make for an excellent road-trip companion on the drive out to the trail (someone needs to be on DJ duty, obviously) they could be invaluable in the event of an emergency. Trail running is riskier than road running or hiking, because of the difficulty of the terrain and isolation of the location combined with the increased speed with which you’re tackling the gradients. Running as a team means you’ll always have help if mistakes happen, plus you’ll have someone to take in the magnificent views with.
Your training routine and running style will need to be adjusted.
Trail running is a different type of movement from road running, and you’ll need to train for that sort of movement. Two major components you should be bearing in mind are “quick feet” and “high knees,” giving you the clearance to pass through uneven terrain and the agility to react quickly to new obstacles as you encounter them.
We recommend cross-training with agility drills and plyometric exercises to enhance your trail capability and doubling up on core-strengthening exercises to aid in uphill and downhill balance. Ankle strength is something you need to watch out for, as your feet won’t be coming down on flat or even surfaces, and you’ll need to compensate for that with increased ankle mobility. A great way to train your ankles is using a Trojan resistance band.
Trail running has taken the world (and your algorithm) by storm for a reason. It’s a dynamic blend of cardio and resistance training, a social activity that takes you to new and exciting places, and an excuse to escape the urban hustle and bustle.
Though there are a few considerations you should keep in mind before you take your first trail head-on, the most important factor in approaching a new type of exercise is to have fun! Nobody is great at something the first time they try it and this is a set of skills that can be honed and improved over time.
To get a head start, take a look at our range of Trojan treadmills to build up your running and cardio strength without ever having to leave your lounge.