International triathlete Helen Jenkins on her favourite trail around the Merthyr Mawr beach (pic: Ryan Sosna-Bowd)
I’d say it was cross-country at school that got me interested in running. I much preferred, in those early years, taking to the fields and off-road paths, rather than an athletics track.
Over the years, coaches I’ve worked with have always been impressed with my ‘engine’ when it comes to endurance running. I can attribute a large part of that to hard sessions at my local running club. At the start of each session we’d do an off-road loop for a warm-up and then short, hard track sessions before doing a warm-down, once again off-road.
As a triathlete, we race mainly on the roads, yet I find I’m always drawn to trail running as a preference. Largely, I feel this is down to my love of the outdoors and nature. Give me the peace and quiet of a wilderness trail over a road any time.
Trail running also gives me the space to switch off from life, to take a step back and appreciate the positives, and to give me the headspace to deal with the challenges in life and sport that inevitably crop up. With plenty of energy and noise that comes with a young family at home, the opportunity to hit the trails and take some peace and quiet makes it even more valuable!
For me, running hasn’t been without its challenges, as I suffered a lot from injury early on. I had come from a swimming background, so a lack of core and stability took its toll. I had to really work on my weaknesses to be able to run, especially as I wanted to improve. Running on trails is even tougher on your body as you constantly correct and adjust for the terrain. It took years of strength and conditioning to help resume running, gain confidence off-road and not pick up injuries.
Due to a condition in my lower back called spondolythesis, which causes a slippage of the spine, resulting in nerve compression (trust me it’s not pleasant). I’ve had times when I couldn’t run for long periods or running was strictly limited to the treadmill. I once did a 90-minute run around two football pitches, just to get the training done and limit the risk. That’s tough when you yearn for the wilderness – 50 times around a football pitch just doesn’t stimulate the mind in the same way!
There was a period of time when running in any form lost some of its enjoyment. It became a ‘means to an end’. But, now trail running is firmly back in my life and a regular part of my training, my passion for running in general has returned.
I think that is why trail running is so special for me. Not only does it give me the peace and space away from a busy modern life, but it takes me out into nature, the mountains, along rivers, and around lakes where I feel most at home. If I’m on the trails in Wales, I have the freedom to run wherever I want.
For me there is one last huge benefit to trail running that can even support me when I’m managing or returning from injury. It can help develop mental resilience and hugely relieve stress.
In the build-up to the Olympics in 2012 I had some big injury months out. I could barely run. I was one of the favorites and the pressure was overwhelming, especially as I couldn’t run much and any running I could do was usually painful. At this time, being away from roads was so important. I’d run on a grass path up and down a river and it really helped to be outdoors, in nature, next to the water and under the trees. The sense of wellbeing really helped to balance the outside stress.
I have used trail running to help me quieten the thoughts and pressure that could cause my performance to dip. In a way, you could even say trail running is a form of meditation which has helped me to relax and be race-ready on the startline.
Trail running is both an escape and nirvana, a special feeling, and I am continually looking forward to my next outing. Maybe, once the world gets a little better, I might see you out in Wales on my favourite trails in Merthyr Mawr.