Words by Eve Boggenpoel

Whenever I’m in the countryside, I seem to have a bit of a Pavlov’s dog reaction – no sooner do I see a winding footpath than I want to be running along it. It even happened while I was driving recently. I was in danger of missing my turn, because all I could think about was how good it would feel to be running through those distant trees.

Trail running gets you that way. Once you’ve had a taste of it, you’re quite likely to become addicted. And it’s no surprise – the fresh air and beautiful scenery work wonders for your soul, and it’s not bad for your body either. “I believe trail running is much better for you than running on roads,” says Sarah Connors, a chartered physiotherapist who has worked with the British Athletics squad at the Olympics and currently supports the ASICS PRO Team. “Because the surfaces are so varied, your foot strike is very different for each stride, which means you’re far less likely to get stress injuries. Running off-road is also much more demanding than training on pavements, so it’s good for building strength.”

It’s a wild life

Taking to the trails can help with motivation, too. Trail running tends to be a peaceful way to work out. For instance, if a trail goes through a forest, you might see lots of different wildlife, and the run doesn’t seem to take so long as you’re concentrating on the uneven ground, or obstacles such as rocks or tree roots that may get in your way. If you’ve been thinking of venturing off-road, but aren’t sure where to start, Connors advises keeping things simple to start with. “A great place to begin trail running is alongside canals, because the paths are relatively flat,” she says. “Once you get used to running off-road, you can start heading into the surrounding fields. And you needn’t worry about stiles interrupting your progress either – initially they’ll be a welcome opportunity to take a breather!”

Go your own way

You’re unlikely to know the surrounding countryside as well as your local streets, so to build up a selection of rural running routes. If you’re a city dweller, you might be thinking there’s not much chance of a rural adventure, but you can still get a taste of the off-road experience. Stick to the grass in your local park, or find out if there are any river footpaths in your area. Some local authority playing fields have grass or gravel tracks that can give you the feel of something softer than concrete under your feet. And if you decide it’s something you’d like to explore further, plan a simple route on the satellite view in Google Maps and take a day trip to the countryside with a friend.

Putting the trails on trial

An ideal way to sample trail running is to try an off-road running camp, where the expertise of experienced coaches can help you make a smooth transition from road to track. I caught the trail bug after spending a weekend at a Salomon Trail Camp on the edge of Derwentwater, in the Lake District. Short 30- to 45-minute runs in the hills were interspersed with training drills on techniques for up- and downhill running on tracks, theory sessions on assessing your running history and the setting of achievable goals for after you’ve left.

“My main objective with the Salomon Trail Camps is to motivate people and give them an inspirational running weekend, whatever their level of running,” says founder Tim Lloyd, a former international athlete and Olympic coach. “We want people to have a great time and leave the camp with clearer personal goals, not only in performance but also knowing what it is they love about running on trails and in the hills.” It certainly worked! Meeting other trail runners and learning from their experiences was great for my motivation and, as the groups were co-led by trail-running World Champion athletes, I got some first-rate personal training thrown in, too!

Easy does it

So, do you need to be super-fit to start trail running? Absolutely not. In fact, Connors took up cross-country running after knee surgery, specifically because she wanted to continue running and the softer surfaces are kinder to joints. And it’s just as easy to start a walk/run programme on a footpath as it is on the streets.

As for me, I haven’t been out for a run for a couple of days and I’m feeling a little jittery. Time to head down to the river and get my fix for the day!

Get the right gear…

When it comes to choosing the right kit, the most important thing to consider is footwear. The most common mistake people make is to use road shoes for running on trails. Without good grip, you’re much more likely to slip over or twist your ankle. Turn over the shoe and look at the studs – the deeper they are the better the grip and the rougher the terrain they’re suitable for. The second point to consider is a low profile. Imagine running barefoot, If you stood on a stone, your sole would mould around it, but with a stiff shoe, your foot would simply tip to the side and you’d turn your ankle. So opt for a shoe with as little cushioning as is comfortable to run in.

How does trail running compare to road running?

“Every stride you take will result in slightly different forces, so you’ll be activating different calf muscles with each step,” says Sarah Connors. “You’ll also be working your core muscles much harder, as you continually have to adjust your balance to adapt to the uneven surfaces.” If you want to improve your balance, Connors suggests practising standing on one leg. Alternatively, a one-legged knee bend is also a fantastic way to build strength. Finally, remember that when running off-road, you won’t be able to go as fast as when you’re on a treadmill or on the tarmac, so you need to adjust your training goals accordingly. And you’ll still need to do your speed work, such as interval training, on the road.