The trouble is that, for a Tarmac-loving road runner, even a tame trail can seem fraught with risk. Road runner turned trail ultra specialist Holly Rush remembers avoiding off-roading at all costs. “Running on a canal towpath was off-road for me, so if I stepped on any grass I broke into a rash!” she says. But taking to the trails enabled her to break free from obsessing over times and rediscover her love of running. “When you’re road racing at a high level you can become quite anal. When I went to Nepal [for her first trail race], I fell in love with the fact that I got breakfast when I was given it, you run with a backpack, it was just so stripped down. When I came back I was like, ‘do you know what – I want to do something different’.” You don’t have to do anything as extreme as a six-day trail race in Nepal, but follow in Holly’s footsteps and you’ll soon be ready to start trail running without any worries.
Rough ground does present the risk of turning your ankle, there’s no doubt about it. But the uneven ground that challenges your body is also doing it good. “When I first started, I just fell over the whole time,” says Holly. “It was so frustrating because I couldn’t understand why – I was such a ‘daisy cutter’ as they call it, I haven’t got really high knee lift. The biggest problem was I didn’t look where I was going, so I wasn’t anticipating what was ahead.”
You can strengthen your ankles and improve proprioception at home before you start trail running, doing balance exercises like single-leg squats on a cushion, but Holly advises simply getting out there and giving it a go – and trying not to be nervous. “If you do trip and fall you get tense,” she says. “Just switch off and have a bit of courage and let yourself go – it’s a hard thing to teach someone, but it comes with experience.”
Without handy road signs and neatly gridded streets, even running in a big, wooded park can send you in maddening circles but as with road running the key is planning. Learn to read OS maps and look for natural landmarks to help you on your way. And if all else fails then revel in getting lost – just go out when you’ve got time to spare and explore new routes. “If I’ve got plenty of time and I see a footpath or something, then I just give it a go,” says Holly. “That’s what’s so great if you’ve got the time, maybe on weekends. If you’re running with a map it can be quite stop-start.”
Holly suggests finding a group of local off-road runners or, if you’re going away somewhere new, finding a trail race to do as a training run so your way is marked.
Trail terrain can be extra tricky to cover because the soft ground needs more effort to push off, and you’ll often find extra hills to work up too. Although that might seem daunting at first, leave your hang-ups about speed at home and you’ll find that you can use this extra level of difficulty to your advantage. “I do gym work,” says Holly, “but I have to say, running off road is the best form of strength and conditioning. You use so many different muscles and you’re much less likely to get injured – unless you do fall over! In terms of muscle balance it’s so much better and running uphill and downhill is better for your speed endurance and strength.”
Although Holly does a couple of weights sessions each week, the best way to build your off-road fitness is just like building your on-road fitness: just build up gradually, and keep at it.