Jo Pavey on turning trails into road success

Trail Running visited Jo Pavey on her home ground to discuss her love for the trails

Five-time Olympian Jo Pavey on Woodbury Common, one of her favourite trail routes

Five-time Olympian Jo Pavey on Woodbury Common, one of her favourite trail routes

The scene is Woodbury Common – a wide, rolling landscape of East Devon heathland offering a maze of easily runnable trails. Perhaps best known for its ancient castle hill fort, the Common boasts amazing views. Off to the south, the waters of the Channel shimmer in the distance. It was here that the Battle of Woodbury Common was fought in 1549. The Royal Marines now use it for drills, but Jo Pavey comes here for training of a different kind.

Jo is one of the few household names in running. The five-time Olympian is best known
for circling a 400m track 25 times to win European gold at the age of 40 in 2014. Yet trail running has been the lynchpin of her running career, which now spans more than three decades.

At 14 she won the English Schools 1500m in a British age group record-breaking time. During those early years of training she took whatever opportunities she could to run the trails of her home county. After university she quit competitive running and went backpacking with new husband Gavin, discovering trails in New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Hawaii. It was running these routes that launched her back into elite running.

Since then, whether living in London, or on training camps in South Africa or the US, or back in her childhood stamping ground of Devon, she has done most of her running on the trails. It has been excellent preparation for a glittering career over a variety of terrains. She has won European cross-country bronze and is the second quickest female Brit ever at 10,000m. On the road she has run the London Marathon in 2hr 28min 24sec, and was only 18sec slower on the tougher New York course. So she’s a great choice to tell us how trail running is key to long-distance track success.

She begins by introducing us to one of her favourite areas for trail running. “Woodbury Common is extremely good for conditioning, it really toughens you up,” she says. “I run here for one or two hours.” However, it’s not always appropriate for all of her runs and Jo points out the importance of being selective when it comes to trails. “You need to look at what you want out of that particular session then choose a trail that’s appropriate for that,” she says. “You’ve got to look at the surface. It’s no good going to a rocky trail if you want a really hard tempo effort because you could easily sprain your ankle. You will also be inhibited and unable to run at your full pace.” 

To build up distance and tempo Jo leaves the hills and heads 20 miles north to the Grand Western Canal. “It’s a trail but much easier under foot so I can really keep the pace going.” In her 2017 autobiography, This Mum Runs, she attributes the 14-mile route as key to the reason she returned to Devon from the capital. “There’s no tarmac at all, it’s all trail, dead flat, a perfect surface. I really love it,” she says.

Haldon Forest is also a Pavey favourite. “It’s really good underfoot, but it’s also hilly. I like the way that I can practise running different terrains here at a faster speed,” she says. “Hill training is useful for all events, particularly longer events like marathons. It increases aerobic capacity, running economy and boosts your running stride. It gives you all that active strength and conditioning, so I do a lot of hill sessions that are on trails.”

The only downside of Devon versus London is that she has to drive to get to her preferred training spots. Rural roads to the trails have no pavements so aren’t safe for running on. Not that this is too much of an issue for Jo. While road running is an important part of her track preparation, she does most of her miles on trails. “If you’re going to do high mileage you don’t want to do all your training on the road as it’s tiring on your joints and muscles. You need the same amount of recovery as you would need from a race.”

However, for Jo, trail running is not just about the physical conditioning, there is
a mental aspect, too. Enjoyment is the key to successful training. “It’s about wanting to train. Marathon training is really hard graft,” she says. “It’s not motivating to do all your mileage on the road because you’re not really embracing what running is about – getting out there, enjoying the countryside and running in beautiful locations.

Jo also finds it difficult to get in the zone on roads. “You’ve always got to be aware of traffic. I have to be really attentive, swapping sides of the road. You never completely switched off, whereas when you go out on a trail you really can just run.”

Another reason trail running is so important to Jo is that it means training can be a family affair, with husband and coach Gavin, and children, Jacob, 8, and Emily, 5, all getting involved. “My little boy goes on the bike, or runs with me, and Emily goes on the back of Gav’s bike or in the running buggy,” she says. “Trail running allows us to enjoy quality family time. After training we have a picnic or play in the woods or on the hill fort.”

Jo and Gavin’s love of trail running has led them to train while exploring some incredible landscapes on their travels backpacking. “We’d travel, and when we saw a good spot we’d put our bags down and run. In Abel Tasman in New Zealand we just ran the whole day. In the end I was bleeding from having a bag on my back. 

“We’d run and suddenly end up in a field with kangaroos or certain wildlife. We ran up a volcano and then had fun running down as all the ash slid beneath our feet. We wouldn’t have had time to see so much if we were just walking. That was so inspiring and really made me feel so alive. We ran around Ayers Rock in Australia before everyone got up in the morning.”

While not an orthodox training regime, it kept her fit enough that when she returned home she was competing at her first World Championships within six months.

However, no matter where you are in the world, Jo implores you to find the trails near you. “If you haven’t got trails right on your doorstep it’s so worthwhile getting in your car to get to them,” she insists. “Even if it means you can only do it at the weekend. It’s really worth it once you get there. It really gives you a real boost.”

Jo Pavey’s autobiography, This Mum Runs, is published by Yellow Jersey Press, and is
available from all good bookshops.

The above feature appeared in the February-March 2018 edition of Trail Running