There’s something so idyllic about the thought of exploring the countryside’s beautifully vast and remote-feeling spaces in your trainers – particularly here in the UK, which has such spectacular scenery. And doing so is as life-affirming and mentally relaxing as you might imagine. Not to mention the fact it will make you a stronger runner and reduce your long-term risk of injury…
You may have flirted with the idea of taking your running off-road before but concluded it’s for a certain ‘type’ of runner – the gritty type that “know what they’re doing”. And you wouldn’t be the only one. A survey by Salomon found that 60 per cent of runners would like to run more on trails if they knew where and how to do it.
But, actually, finding a trail and planning an off-road run in this country isn’t all that difficult. In fact, any level of runner can do it – you just need to know how to spot a few things. “No matter what part of the country you are in, there is always a trail pretty close, it just needs seeking out,” says Matt Ward, Salomon Trail Team community manager. “Many runners are daunted by making that move from running in their familiar urban surroundings onto something less familiar. However, heading onto the trails is easier than you think.”
The first thing to get to grips with is the different types of trails on offer to you. “There are many footpaths established where one can go about ‘on foot’ (but not on bikes) and this legal right of way has been established,” explains Paul Magner, owner of off-road event specialists, TrailPlus and HellRunner.
In addition to those footpaths, Britain’s walking charity The Ramblers (ramblers.org.uk) also identifies the following footpath types in England and Wales:
National Trails are a good place to start, when finding these footpaths. There are 15 National Trails in England and Wales, collectively 2,500 miles in length. “National Trails make excellent runs or even running holidays (Contours Trail Running Holidays can do all the admin for you),” says outdoor journalist and GB trail-ultramarathon runner Damian Hall, who holds the fastest known time for running the South West Coast Path. “They tend to be the best funded, maintained and signposted.”
One of the best ways to identify a local trail is via an Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 scale map of your area, says Magner. Finding different footpaths on an OS map is easy – simply use the map key. It’s worth visiting the Ordnance Survey website to get familiar with these. It offers map legends / keys, explaining the meaning of each map symbol and abbreviation (ordnancesurvey.co.uk). National Trails are also marked. While most footpaths are signposted, it’s worth consulting a map to identify public rights of way before heading out of for a run. “A National Trail is waymarked with acorns, but other trails may not be marked,” warns Hall. You can find out more about your nearest National Trail at nationaltrail.co.uk.
So, you’ve got your OS map and you know how to identify an appropriate footpath for running, but what’s next? If you’re new to map reading, the most important thing to get to grips with is the scale, so you can mark out the distance of your run. The next thing to consider is the terrain. “Contours on a map will tell you how steep paths are,” says fell, mountain and trail runner Annie Conway, who is part of the Salomon GB Trail Running Team. “Map features will inform you if the ground is rocky, grassy [or] boggy, or ask locals who run in the area.” Conway also recommends identifying more general tourist information before heading out. “Are there places to refuel, such as villages with facilities, or buildings where you may ask for help if needed?” Again, these can be identified via an OS map key.
Once you’ve brushed up on your basic map-reading skills, planning a route is easy. “If I’m somewhere unfamiliar I’ll look at an OS map to find a trail, then probably just follow it,” says Hall. “Strava is another good option – look at the routes people are running nearby.”
Conway also cites pre-planned routes as good options for novice trail runners. She also suggests doing a recce of a route first, if you’re new to map reading. She says: “Sometimes a certain distance can take longer than planned if there are lots of climbs and rough ground, so a recce is a good idea.”
Hall points out that there’s also no harm in recceing a route as you run, to get a better feel for a trail. “There’s no rule that says you must run every step when you’ve gone out for a run,” he says. “Hike for a bit if that feels safer or more comfortable.”
Aside from learning to navigate, trail running also poses additional physical challenges. Given the terrain is much trickier and more unpredictable than on road, you’ll also need to get used to a new way of movement. Contending with uneven paths, hills, bogs and tree roots puts new demands on muscles in a different combination and will need adapting to. “Start off with some short runs on trail to allow that transition on your body to take effect too,” advises Ward.
Conway recommends starting out with a 5K route at first, even if you’re comfortable running 10K on road. “Trail running can take longer at first due to [lack of] confidence running on uneven ground,” she says. “Steeper paths both up and down may slow you down, also mud and exposure to the weather may mean running a certain distance can take longer on trail vs road.”
She also suggests following an out-and-back route if you’re unfamiliar with your surroundings, but warns that “landscapes and paths can look different coming from the other direction, so try to remember key waymarkers like trees, fields, rivers.”
The vital kit you’re going to need is some trail-specific shoes. “A good pair of trail specific shoes is essential as you’ll need decent grip,” says Conway. Try Salomon for some good beginner-friendly options (salonmon.co.uk). Just as important is some help with navigation. Hall recommends a map, compass, GPS watch or unit, or phone, but warns that you may not always get signal. And if you do get lost, don’t panic, just embrace it! “I usually get lost, but that’s part of the fun,” says Hall.