I have been doing running on and off for the past four years, but recently I have been getting into some off-road trail running. In fact, last Saturday I ran a 21 km trail (or was it 23?) in a forest in Rotorua. You can read about that here, if you haven’t done so already.
What is trail running exactly? Trail running is a sport that involves running on off-road hiking trails. The type of trails one could run on are broad, ranging from flat gravel tracks to hilly forest, or even mountainous terrain. This contrasts with your typical road runs around a city block, which are mostly flat with the occasional small hills. Now with that out of the way, what have I learnt from my experiences?
1. Trail running is an intense challenge.
When running on a trail, the terrain is constantly changing, and it can often include really steep hills which you wouldn’t encounter normally. Add mud, tree roots and the occasional ice in the mix, and you have a real challenge. What this means is that you must have this constant awareness of your surroundings, lest you trip and risk hurting yourself. Secondly, trail running often requires a lot more fitness than your typical road runs. When I was training for my half marathon, I spent a lot of time running around my neighborhood, but by itself, that wasn’t enough to prepare me for this.
If you want to run a particular trail, my advice would be to just walk it first, that way you have a good idea of what you’re in for.
2. You need to adjust your pace to the situation.
In your typical endurance race, you may have been told to ‘pace yourself’. In other words, you run at a near constant speed (bar some hills) which allows you to successfully get you over the finish line. But on a trail run, this doesn’t work so well. Trying to run uphill isn’t always possible, unless you want to burn all your energy quickly. Sometimes you will be speed walking or slowly jogging just to get up those hills; it is more efficient to do it that way. This allows you to spare more energy once you reach the top of the hill. If you try and speedily ascend the hill, you won’t gain much speed, but at the expense of much more energy. For my 21 km run, I guess you could say I had three different paces. One for uphill, another for downhill and a pace for running on mostly flat terrain, and that’s not accounting for obstacles I encountered.
In saying all this, speed isn’t the primary aim for trail running. The aim is to finish the course in one piece and enjoy the journey in nature. You will find that your average times are probably much slower off road anyway.
3. The people there are awesome.
As I was running, I noticed that the people entering this event were a bit different to those I encountered on my road runs. There were less contestants, but they were much more competitive. In my previous road runs, you have your elite athletes, sure, but you will also have several contestants who will participate in the run, as a means to an end. By that, I mean that they may run to get fitter, or they are wanting to achieve some goal etc. But in this event, people run because they enjoy running. For many of them, this is just another enjoyable challenging run to tick off, and you know what? I think that’s how it should be.
I also noticed that people were very friendly, and I even had a couple of other runners encourage me while I was running. During my run I also struck up a conversation with a couple of people, this never happened during any of my other previous races.
4. There is no experience like it.
As already alluded to, trail running is much more than just trying to run a set distance and beat a certain time. It’s about completing the journey and taking in the journey itself. Now of course you can apply this mindset to your normal road running in the city… but it’s just not the same to me. When running on the road, you can have all sorts of distractions, not limited to noisy cars and other people around you. But in the wilderness, it is just you and nature. You have it all to yourself, to appreciate it and explore it, should you choose to. There’s the journey to appreciate, but there’s also an immense sense of accomplishment you get from doing it; this is because the runs are often difficult, and you must be tactical and give it everything you have.
So, there you have it. Here are four things I learnt from doing a trail run. If you enjoy running, you should try doing a trail run at least once in your lifetime – I know I will certainly do more in the future.