For Steph Twell, Olympian, Commonwealth Games medallist and Scottish record-holder, running success has been about her performances on the track and road. But, when it comes to the training needed for such an impressive CV, local forest trails are what it’s all about.
They’re fabulous not just for building the strength needed to run a 2:26 marathon, but also vital for so many other things like socialising, your mental health and feeling connected to your local area. “I love them,” she says. “When you’re running a singletrack path, you’re not looking for that next lamppost or checking your watch. You’re exploring, discovering new routes, challenging yourself and generally having a great time. Really, forests are like a playground for runners.”
It's no surprise then that trail running in Forestry England locations has played such an important role in Steph’s running. “Yes, I do run on the road when I’m looking for speed, but just yesterday I ran 14 miles in the forest and for almost all my career most of my training has been off-road.
“It calms me down; clears my thoughts and I can hear myself think. And I love the fact you get a clear sense of the seasons. Running along heather trails, past coconut-scented gorse and being surrounded by the autumn leaves are some of my absolute favourite times when running in a forest,” she says. The trails are a little more forgiving on your body than the roads, too.
It’s the comfort that forest running provides that forms the core of Steph’s philosophy and she hopes to pass this on in her new role within Energise Me Hampshire, which is about getting more women involved in coaching or leading physical activity groups involved with fitness. Its mission is to change, recruit, employ and upskill more women role models through physical activity and sport, and to inspire people to adopt active lifestyles that might make our communities happier, healthier, and stronger.
“For me, that involves creating a network of female coaches to share their success stories, or reach out if they need help to develop further," she says. "We want to get in touch with physical activity leaders who may use the outdoors already for their groups, and explore how they might need more support. It could be anything from mental health training to first aid courses or developing a safety strategy for groups when on the trails, which in turn helps women feel more comfortable about running in the forest.”
And that, of course, is what Forestry England and its waymarked trails are all about; creating a safe environment where everybody can benefit from the feel-good atmosphere the forests can provide.
It’s for that reason Steph’s GP husband, Joe, has just registered his surgery as one that is keen to become a parkrun practice – signposting the benefits walking and running can provide for patients who may not have turned to the forest or realised parkruns often take place in woodland. Steph, previously a qualified teacher, also works at getting parents involved in reducing inactivity. She’d love to share programmes with you and extol the mental health benefits off-road running on the paths Forestry England has created up and down the country provides. Contact her on Instagram to learn more.
“I love running in the forest for all of those reasons and so much more,” adds Steph. “No two routes are the same and you can choose a route from anything you want – one with great views, hills, singletrack, pines, elms... anything. It’s perfect.”
Watch Steph at this year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham where she will target the 5000m or 10,000m. And remember, it’s the trails that took her there.
Pic: Steph Twell (credit: Mark Shearman)