How runners can embrace the mud

It's that time of year when the trails can become a little slushier. How best can you deal with it?

mud running

by Alecsa Stewart |

Some love it, some hate it, some relish the challenge. Mud is in abundance on UK trails almost all year round, thanks to our generously rainy climate, but often at its "best" in the autumn.

For some of us, muddy trails present an intimidating challenge: the danger of falling and hurting yourself, the difficulty of balancing, the uncomfortable feeling of wet feet... there are lots of reasons why you might be staying away from muddy runs. But you may be missing out on lots of fun, too, especially in the glorious British hills.

Here’s a quick guide to the best way to prepare for those slimy outings and how to make the most of the conditions when you’re out there.

Preparing your run

From kit choice to route planning, a bit of preparation will stand you in good stead once you hit the trails. First off, take note of the weather conditions. On a cold winter’s morning, you may find your local muddy trail is frozen, so slipping on black ice could become an issue. Never underestimate the depth of frozen puddles, either, or you’ll end up with very cold feet!

When planning your run, peruse the map carefully and try to avoid open fields or trails that pass close to farms. Between tractors creating deep trenches in the fields and the livestock sinking into the soft ground, you’ll likely be struggling to make progress through the mud, no matter how much fun it feels once you’ve embraced the situation. Additionally, you should expect your shoes to become caked in mud, making them heavier and slowing you down.

Choice of kit is essential for muddy trails in order to try to avoid slipping and falling. You’ll need running shoes with deep lugs to give you added grip, and make sure you always do up your shoe laces really well to avoid losing a shoe in a muddy puddle (it does happen!). The best way to find your ideal mud running shoe is trial and error, so start out with your best-grip existing trail shoes and see how you go, before trying a few pairs in a specialist shoe shop (if you currently have access to one).

If the weather looks really wet, consider trying neoprene socks which will keep your feet dry and warm. In any case, don’t go for white cotton socks, as they’ll never be white again...

Training for muddy trails

There are two key aspects of training for muddy trails: firstly, your whole-body training which needs to include key core and stabilising exercises; and secondly, good old-fashioned practice. There a few things you can try to improve your mud technique.

Trail running coach Doug Stewart recommends shortening your stride and landing on your midfoot and/or forefoot to utilise more of your shoe’s grip. This is especially true when descending when often people heel strike to brake. If you slip you will end up on your bum, but with a mid/forefoot landing, if your foot slides your heel will come into contact with the ground. Additionally, your weight is further forward so you will be less likely to lose your footing.

Finding a muddy section of trail to practise on, re-running it multiple times, and trying different ‘lines’ through the mud will help you identify the best routes and approaches.

Having a friend film you can also be beneficial, as you can slow down the footage and review your technique before re-running that section, working on specific elements.

Once you’re out there wallowing in the mud, it’s true that practice makes perfect. The more you embrace your surroundings and apply techniques honed in training, the more you’ll enjoy yourself. Soon enough, you won’t even think about the conditions underfoot.

Coping with It

Speaking of enjoying yourself, there is something about mud that makes us revert to childhood, carelessly splashing around in the rain. If that’s not the case for you, taking mud ‘seriously’ doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your winter trails.

Don’t avoid all the puddles: Trail widening is a real issue highlighted by conservation bodies throughout the world. Being a considerate runner means avoiding running around obstacles as others will soon follow suit, gradually widening the trail and stealing ground from the surrounding ecosystem.

Be aware: Running through mud involves using all your senses to be aware of your surroundings and make sure you’re picking the best line to move efficiently across the terrain. Watch your ankles, as you’re more likely to sprain them on slippery terrain. Keep looking ahead and plotting your next move so you’re always anticipating what new obstacles you may encounter.

Loosen up: One of the best things you can do when running through tricky terrain is to relax your body, take it all in, and have a little fun. If you tense up, you’re more likely to fall and hurt yourself.

Keep track of your shoulders: are you slumping down, arching your back, putting unnecessary strain on your upper body? If so, give them a shake, lift your head and make sure you loosen your arms.

Doug recommends using your arms for balance. It works great on downhills: just stretch them out and let them help keep you balanced.

Don’t underestimate fatigue: If you’re trudging through deep mud, pulling your shoes up from trenches, and carrying mud around with you as it sticks to your shoes, then you’re definitely going to get tired quicker. Don’t underestimate this when planning your route, and allow for some contingency timing so you’re not caught out in the dark on a long day out.

Additionally, muddy runs will naturally be slower, as you take more care overall, so you might find yourself spending as much as 25% more time on your favourite trail than in the summer. Keep that in mind and don’t let it affect your mood.

After the run

Before treating yourself to a well-earned cake and cup of tea, make sure to store your muddy kit in a spare bin bag if you’re driving home. Change fully so you don’t get the shivers later on when you’re at the wheel.

But, in these times of enforced local runs, it’s more likely you’ll be running from your front door. If that’s the case, make sure you leave the muddy trainers at the door and go back to cleaning them once you’ve showered and recovered.

How to clean your shoes

If you can leave your shoes to dry first, this will make it easy to get rid of most of the caked mud. Alternatively, hose down your shoes in the garden to get most of the dirt off them, then leave them to dry out. Crucially, don’t neglect the soles.Cleaning out the lugs will ensure the grip is still there when you next head out.

The physio’s perspective

There are some key areas you can work on to be a better mud runner, says sports physio and endurance coach Tim Pigott. “I see a lot of runners in clinic who have picked up overload injuries when suddenly transitioning to running in muddy conditions,” he says. “The classic example is the first few cross country races of the season (remember those?!). If all your training has been on firm, stable, surfaces and then you go slipping and sliding around a muddy field, those smaller stabilising muscles are going to be working overtime.

“Particular areas in which to build strength are your peronei (outside of shin), tibialis posterior (inside of shin), and the hips (TFL, glutes). Get in the habit of brushing your teeth on one leg (add a balance pad for bonus points!). As part of your strength and conditioning, include sliders using a towel on the floor. You’ll get bonus points for cleaning the floor at the same time, especially if you’ve brought mud into the house!”

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