Runner: know thy race. Research the event, to find out how technical (or indeed brutal) the terrain is, check the inevitable photos of past competitors up to their chops in mud, water, or tumbling down scree-strewn descents. Once you’ve familiarised yourself with your race’s credentials you can address the A to G of trail racing essentials, below, with your specific event in mind.
Seasoned trailblazers often advise leaving the watch at home. Remote trail races are less likely to have exact distance markers and your GPS may lose signal, so those frenzied time checks will be pointless. You may be a speed demon on smooth asphalt, but rugged terrain will render your calculated miles-to-minutes splits pointless. In trail races, it’s all about assessing your effort levels: how you feel, not what your watch says.
Or proprioception – it’s as hard to master as it is to say, but for trail races, particularly those that include technical descents, the muscles that govern your balance must be strong. Dr Andrew Murray, ultrarunner and master of all terrains (docandrewmurray.com), advocates strengthening the hip and thighs, particularly the VMO (Vastus Medialis Obliquus) muscle of the quadriceps with one-legged squats, leg extensions and lunges. Balance is also improved if you have a strong core, so don’t forget the Pilates in your preparations.
For trail races, being aware of potential weather-related hazards is essential. The area may be subject to a different weather system than your home turf – there’s the potential for floods, extra mud, poor visibility or high winds on exposed ridges. In cases of extreme weather events, some organisers reluctantly agree to postpone or shorten the event. Forward plan for everything the climate may throw at you.
It’s wise to start conservatively. If you’re new to off-road running, marathon distance on mud and scree may prove punishing. Look for some rugged 5K races to cut your teeth on. Ideally, if you run with a club that participates in the winter cross-country season, the free 5K mudfests will set you up beautifully.
Hills are every trail runner’s friend, provided you’ve practised hill technique. It’s worth finding a diagram of the course elevation for your race. If you live in a flat area you may have to prepare by sprinting the stairs or using the steepest incline mode on the treadmill. With long, steep ascents you may find that tackling them at a walk, with hands on thighs, is more effective than trying to keep running. With descents, trust your trail shoes, keep your centre of gravity forward and go with the flow.
Keep your strength up. Your fuelling needs are dependent on the length of the race, but demanding terrain depletes your glycogen reserves more quickly than the same distance on the road. This means you may have to carry more gels, jellybeans or energy bars. Longer races may increase the need for a hydration pack with a bladder,
or a waist pack with water bottle.
‘All the gear no idea’ is a favourite put down in fell running circles, where mountain goats in human form wear vests and pants all year round. However, most of us lack cloven hooves and require excellent trail shoes, with reliable traction on the sole. Hard-wearing, waterproof running socks will make all the difference. For remote or long runs, a decent running backpack, warm or wicking layers and a Buff (for hair, ears, or neck) are all worth investing in.