Trail-running newcomer Ruth Jones reveals nine common blunders you can easily avoid if you read on.
Welcome to the exhilarating, life-affirming joys of trail running. First, allow us to explain why you should get off the beaten track as you take those initial steps as a runner…
Trails are, by definition, softer terrain than roads, so are far easier on your joints. Off-road running involves traffic-free countryside, allowing you to escape the often stressful trappings of everyday life. Don’t fret if you live in a city, though, as if you already enjoy walking through your local park or woodlands, you’ll know there are plenty of off-road options wherever you are.
Invest in a local Ordnance Survey (OS) map to get familiar with nearby footpaths – they’ll soon become your regular running routes. Contain your enthusiasm to run too fast too soon – instead, just enjoy exploring, and focus solely on maintaining a relaxed form and strong posture to avoid injury.
Always tell someone where you’re heading on your run in case you lose your way, wear properly fitted trail shoes to suit the terrain, and layer up if the weather’s changeable to allow for all seasons in one day. Read on to find out how to avoid the most common mistakes newbie runners make…
1 running too fast
When you set out on your first run of what we hope is the beginning of a lifetime’s passion for the trails, hold back the pace and focus purely on keeping your muscles relaxed, maintaining an easy breathing pattern that allows you to hold a conversation if running with others and, most importantly of all, enjoying every step. It’s easy to get carried away with increasing your speed with every run, particularly as the trails dry out heading into the warmer months.
However, allow your body to adapt to simply moving more quickly than walking pace at first. Running, by nature, means both feet are off the ground simultaneously with every stride, which therefore involves your entire body weight landing on one foot at a time on the run. This puts a huge strain on your muscles and joints, which can lead to injuries. Allow your fitness to increase gradually by keeping the pace steady and comfortable.
2 Running too far
Little and often is the key to a happier, injury-free beginning to your trail-running journey. Spend the first few weeks alternating brisk walking and jogging for gradually increasing distances – and we mean gradual. Start off with walk/jog sessions – for example, walk five minutes jog one minute, walk four minutes jog two minutes, walk three minutes jog three minutes, walk two minutes jog four minutes, then finish off with a one-minute slow walk and a final five-minute jog.
Work to time not distance, and adapt this session to your current fitness capabilities. This ensures you don’t overload your aerobic system too quickly and at the same time builds up your ‘time on feet’ at a steady pace without exhausting yourself too early on, which can mean you quickly lose that initial glorious enthusiasm.
3 Running too frequently
While no one wishes to dampen your desire to hit the trails as often as you possibly can, it’s sensible to rein it in at this stage of your running adventure. It’s a well-known saying in the running world that the most important training session of the week is your rest day, however many you take. When you allow your body to take a break from running, that’s when the crucial adaptations and recovery processes take place. If you keep taking energy out to run too often, the body begins to break down.
The glass of water analogy is a good one in this instance, where the water level equates to stress levels. When the glass is completely full, any extra water will make it spill over, thus the stress is overflowing. Keep your body healthy and full of energy by allowing it to rest and recover in between runs.
4 Buying the wrong shoes
Imagine contemplating heading for a swim dressed in a heavy overcoat and a bowler hat – crazy, right? It sounds obvious, but far too many newbie runners aren’t aware of the need to wear the right shoes to suit the terrain. Trail running in particular involves traversing a wide – and exciting – range of surfaces, including mud, streams, stony or even rocky paths, slippery grass and sticky clay. And then there’s the often undulating, hilly or even mountainous elevation.
All of these conditions require a shoe that grips well, features lugs on the sole, holds your feet firmly in place while supporting the ankle joints and tendons, and, if you have a little more money to spare, offers water-resistance or even waterproofing, too. Ask around the running community to find a recommended local retailer who you can trust to find the right shoe for you.
5 Running up hills
Once you’ve tackled a few weeks of trail running, you’ll soon notice that, compared to roads, training on footpaths involves a fair few more hills. This is because roads are built for cars, which can’t deal with the steep climbs that you’ll be enjoying over the coming months on the trails. Embrace the ascents, as the more you conquer, the fitter you’ll become, and that’s not even taking into account the stunning views you’ll be rewarded with when you finally reach the summit, be it a short urban footpath or a rural hillside.
Be prepared to walk the steeper climbs, though, as the effort involved in trying to maintain a running stride when the gradient is near-vertical is less efficient than simply stopping to walk at a slower but consistently steady pace. Your legs will thank you for it when you reach the top and begin your descent.
6 Being a slave to your PB
In the early days of your running journey you’ll be more than happy – and have your hands full – with the simple process of building up your run-to-walk ratio, enjoying being outside in the great outdoors and reaping the benefits of being more active on the trails. You may find in time, however, that once you’re running more regularly without walk breaks you take more notice of how far you’ve travelled in a certain time period.
This can then lead to becoming competitive with yourself and trying to set personal best (PB) times for set distances, to test your progress and to make your training more goal-orientated. While there’s nothing wrong with this in theory, don’t become a PB slave. Remember why you run, and for most of you it will be for fun, fitness and health. Never run hard two days in a row – allow your body to recover and enjoy the easier days.
7 Not eating for recovery
Your body is an engine that needs fuel to be able to perform and recover efficiently. We know how busy modern life is, and once running becomes a natural part of your everyday existence – often squeezed in around work, childcare, social commitments and so on – it can become all too easy to forget to prioritise the essential requirements regular training demands. Alongside adequate rest in-between runs is high-quality fuelling and refuelling, to allow your body to recover from one session and prepare for the next.
Eat protein-rich food such as eggs, red meat, lentils, prawns, yoghurt, cheese and almonds for muscle recovery; carbohydrates such as rice, pasta, wholewheat bread and potatoes to be stored as glycogen for easily accessible energy stores while you train; and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to keep your immune system topped up with vital vitamins and minerals. Drink plenty of water, too, to stay hydrated.
8 Not stretching
Stretching is another area of a runner’s routine that can drop lower and lower down the list of priorities, sometimes due to time constraints but more often because the advice about when, how and why you should stretch is frequently conflicting. The golden rule all runners should adhere to is: never stretch a cold muscle. By this we mean always warm up with a short walk, a jog or even a few minutes running on the spot to allow muscles to lengthen before stretching, to avoid pulling or even tearing a hamstring, calf or other major muscle.
The best time to stretch is immediately after a run when your muscles are warm and loose. It can also provide a welcome period of relaxing contemplation before returning to busy work and social lives. Stretching ensures you remain supple and flexible, which will only benefit your running.
9 Ignoring injury
As you’re new to the wonderful world of trail running, you may not yet recognise the sheer terror all runners associate with the word ‘injury’. If you follow our newbie tips to avoid the common pitfalls, you may not have to. However, at some point you will succumb to a niggle that you absolutely mustn’t ignore. Be it a nagging ache in your hamstring, a sharp pull in your gluteus muscles, or an increasingly tight calf, these discomforts are your body’s warning signals to tell you to stop running – now!
Along with finding a reliable and trustworthy local running shop, find a recommended physiotherapist and massage therapist near you who you can visit for both ‘maintenance’ work – such as monthly massages to iron out muscle knots or bi-monthly physiotherapy sessions to work on improving weaknesses in your body – and treatment, should a niggle turn into an injury. A few weeks off running is better than being forced to yield to a full-on muscle tear or bone fracture from over-use. Listen to your body.