Trail Running Basics

Trail Running Basics

I tell a tale to many fellow runners on our long Sunday runs. The tale is one of myself running down a dry waterfall during the Goat Adventure Race in New Zealand in December 2007, at about the 19km point of a 21km trail race. Somewhere on my traverse down I clipped a rock and went into a full freefall downwards. I cannot fully recall how it happened, but during this fall I must have done a complete somersault and incredibly landed perfectly on my feet and continued running as if nothing had happened! I looked behind me and the next runner who was about 50 metres behind me shouted, “I saw that – I’ll vouch for you.” And indeed he did after the race, as the story was repeatedly narrated!

What had I done wrong? Absolutely nothing, but that is the risk that exists with trail and off-road running where there are hidden pitfalls, especially when we begin to get tired, or when we are pushing hard in the race and therefore take risks on the terrain. Falls and scrapes can happen to anyone during a trail run, and like any sport, when you ‘go off the beaten track’ it is generally riskier. However, you can minimize these risks by remembering and adhering to a few golden rules of trail running.

  • Don’t run alone on a new route

It may seem adventurous, but it is also dangerous. It is much better to say to your friends ‘hey I know a great route, would you like to join me on Sunday to run it?’ Even then, you have to be careful, as a trail run once is not a known trial yet! It takes many runs on a trail to fully get to know it.

  • Carry a whistle

Injuries can happen to anyone on a trail run and if you are running alone, a whistle could be something that saves your life if you have a bad fall and are immobilized, or if you get completely lost. The sound of a whistle on a calm day can be heard up to 500-600 metres away.

  • Carry enough fluids

In 2004, Margaret Bradley, 24, died from dehydration due to environmental heat exposure in the Grand Canyon on a trail run. It is a painful reminder that on a trail, you are not going to come across a 7-11, or a 99 Speed Mart! Any water source that you do come across may be undrinkable. There are some tricks that you can learn such as driving a hollow section of bamboo into the trunk of a banana tree and then collecting the liquid in a container. It’s not tasty water but it will keep you alive. However, simply making sure that you are carrying at least 1.5 litres of water when you start running should suffice.

  • Check the weather

In Malaysia this is relatively easy! I am a Geography teacher and I have never been in a place where it is so easy to predict what is going to happen in the next few hours in terms of the weather. Generally in Malaysia, if it looks like it is going to rain in the next hour then it probably will, so do NOT go on a trail run, so do NOT go on a trail run! Exposure to sun is less of an issue in the trails, as mostly you will be under the cover of the trees, but of course use common sense with regards to running during cooler parts of the day if possible, and be careful if running in the late afternoon that it does not get dark whilst you are still running.  It is a good idea to carry a head torch if you can, especially if you are running late in the day.

  • Don’t leave litter

This rule goes without saying. Why is trail running so amazing? How less amazing would it be if the trail is full of litter? Even seeing one piece of litter on a trail makes me shake my head. Why would you drop litter on a pristine trail? Trail groups that use paper trails need to be sure to collect every scrap of paper, but sadly this is often not the case.

  • Learn trail etiquette

If you are running along a trail and come across other runners running or walking in the same direction, it is up to YOU to tell them that you are coming and which side you are going to pass on. If they are wearing headphones then it is their lack of etiquette and their issue if you accidentally bump into them. If you are running on a trail and come across someone coming in the opposite direction, if the trail is wide enough stick to the side of the road that you drive on, which in Malaysia means that you pass each other on the left. Generally, on an incline, the person going up a hill gives way to the person coming down a hill.

  • Buy the right footwear

Trail running shoes differ from most road-running shoes in that they’re lower profile (lower to the ground), which reduces the chance of ankle rolls against shoes with a high heel. And the rugged tread of a trail shoe offers better traction on muddy, wet trails. You can get away with a firm running shoe for your first few runs, but if you are going to regularly run on the trails, then you should invest in a proper trail shoe without doubt.

  • Learn basic trail running technique

This is a topic in itself, but some basic rules to remember are:

  • Look 2-3 metres in front of you (forget the scenery) when running. If you want to look at something, then stop!
  • Run on the centre part of the trail path, not the sides of the path
  • Take great care with uneven surfaces and practice shorter steps rather than long strides for better balance and agility


by Mark Williams

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