Hit the trails

“Get off the road!” Some idiot has probably yelled that at you while you’re either driving your car or on your bike. But if you’ve run on the road a lot, it might be a good idea to heed this advice.

trail runner in desert


From a health perspective, The University of Essex’s Green Exercise Research Centre has found that exercising in green spaces (which can still be urban pockets of parkland or bush) is beneficial for self-esteem, mood, reduced feelings of anger, confusion, depression and tension. These benefits have little to do with the length of time spent exercising and more to do with frequency. For the athlete after some general conditioning, the obstacles and variations in the terrain make trail running both an agility exercise and a reactive drill because you have to be alert to react to whatever the trail throws up. For the runner, the trails require an attention to and exaggeration of good running technique – in other words, as far as technique goes, trail running can help your road running more than vice-versa. For both runners and other athletes, hitting the trails has the advantage that the variation in the terrain means that there is less repetitive stress – the strain is spread out in different ways and across more muscles than in road running, where the same muscles and contact points get hammered in the same way and at the same angle step after step.


Safety first

Take a phone, but even this won’t help if you knock yourself out running into a low branch or fall off a rock ledge. Much better to let someone know where you will be and when.

Use the right shoes

Trail running shoes are a little different to road running shoes. They are more rigid to provide stability on uneven or loose surfaces, so they will feel stiffer. Look for shoes with a good toe cap for when you stub your toes on rocks and tree roots. The tread on the soles should be more pronounced – a bit more like studs – and flay out around the edges of the sole for stabilisation when you go into a skid or slide. Gore-Tex® uppers are an option – they will keep water, snow or mud out of your shoe, but if you’re used to hot dry conditions you might want a more breathable weave. Most importantly, the shoe should be very snug around the mid-foot to prevent the foot moving around inside the shoe, which might cause blisters or rolled ankles.

Sock it up 

Compression Socks can be used for more than just recovery in trail running. Add stability to the muscle vibrations that occur through the lower leg upon impact with ground and you have muscles going one way while the body moves another direction. The muscles can end up shifting quite a distance away from their initial position. The further they move, the bigger the tear in the muscle and these tears add to fatigue in the muscle. Using a compression sock while you run the trails can minimise both those vibrations and the tears to reduce fatigue. This can optimise the way your muscles work because they’re in a better position to provide more force.

Get your head right

Road runners tend to find a rhythm and “get into the zone”. This doesn’t happen on the trail, otherwise you trip over a log or fall into a hole. Position your head angled down so it is not too far up to see the running surface and not too low so that you can’t see what’s coming up 6-10m ahead. Ditch the music – it’s a distraction when you need full awareness of what is around you, and that includes being able to hear people or animals coming up behind you or obscured by the undergrowth up ahead of you

Feet first

You might get away with heel striking and overstriding (foot lands well in front of your knee and hip) on the road or track, but if you go into a slide or roll on a rock in this position you can easily face-plant or blow a hamstring or hip. When you land on your mid-foot instead of the heel, if you have any loss of balance you will instinctively fall back on your heel. Take a slightly shorter stride – it will help you maintain your centre of gravity. Be careful to maintain a gap between your feet and ankles – if you start knocking you ankle against the inside of the other leg, you’re compromising your balance.

Stiff ankles and feet, soft knees

Say there’s some loose rocks in the middle of a creek – the combo of stiff ankles and feet means that you could run very lightly and quickly on the balls of the feet to exert less time and pressure on the loose rocks. Soft knees allows you to rapidly change direction or shift your weight easily rather than fighting against the momentum of your body. Stiff feet and ankles also protect the ankles and knees against uncontrolled twisting or rolling.

Solid core and low arms 

Trail runners face-plant, tip over like sleepy cows, slide like drunk drag racers – it happens, it’s just part of the fun. Your first line of defence against this is to hold the core strong – this is where you will first react when you sense a loss of balance. Low hands will allow you to create more leverage with your arms to use them like ‘wings’ to balance yourself. Also, if you do lose it completely, your hands will be closer to an outstretched position to break your fall.

Walking is OK

Road runners often act like slowing to a walk will bring shame upon them and all their ancestors, but almost all trail runners, even pro racers, walk steep grades and many rocky climbs. Often it will take a lot more energy to try and run for a negligible difference in speed.

Downhill isn’t all downhill

On the descents, assess the grade in relation to the stability of the surface (is it slippery gravel? is it mud I will sink into?). The steeper it is and the less faith you have in the surface, the more you will have to shorten your stride, get high on the balls of your feet and pitter-patter across the ground with very light and fast foot contact. When there’s a combination of steep descent and loose surface, lean back slightly and keep your hands low.