Trail running, or running on foot, is an outdoor activity that is very fashionable among good level runners because it is less boring and associates the desire to run with the need to immerse yourself in nature. Unlike road running, in trail running, the terrain changes constantly: the slope is very variable, you run on the paths, between the stones, on the grass but also in the mud or, in the case of the white trail, on the snow ..
Trail running is a very complete sport that solicits the legs but also the upper body. In addition, it requires concentration and prudence.
There is also a need for the spirit of the trail runner, who must open his senses, listen to his body and sensations, feel good about himself and the place where he runs. There are many feelings that allow you to be in harmony with the environment.
Contrary to what is thought, it is not a discipline aimed only at expert runners . You don’t necessarily have to participate in trails, you can very well train for the pleasure of doing it and to improve your fitness.
However, if you plan to participate in a trail , know that there are many runs that are very accessible even for beginners, with reduced mileage and altitude difference. The important thing is preparation, because running on variable slopes is very difficult for joints and muscles.
Fitness expert tells you how best to prepare yourself with training and muscle strengthening, what to eat, what shoes to wear for trail running and offers you a training plan to get fit in the race and enjoy your run and your sensations.
Trail running: what it is
The trail running takes its name from the English word “trail”, which means path.
It is a specialty of running, with the difference that it runs on rough slopes. With the trail, you learn to climb, climb but also to walk and save uphill . Attention also to the descents, which are often more dangerous than the climbs from a muscular point of view.
Instead, uphill, walking and running alternate and you can use sticks (trekking type).
During the descent, you must take care of the support on the forefoot to cushion shocks. The work of the arms is essential to maintain balance.
Since 2012 there is a definition of trail running coined by the International Trail running Association ( ITRA ) which has become the contact person for all the organizers of the world.
Trail running is a competition open to all in a natural environment (mountains, desert, woods, plains …) with a maximum of paved roads possible (no more than 20% of the total distance).
The terrain can be varied (dirt road, forest path, etc.) and must be correctly signposted.
In many trail running competitions, food and water supply points are provided.
The types of trail running
There are different types of trail runnning with different characteristics.
The most common ones are:
- Sky running: race that takes place at more than 2000 m above sea level, where climbing difficulty must be taken into consideration.
- Fell running ou trail: running in nature or trail running over a long distance, generally on earth paths, footpaths in the plains, forest or mountains.
- Vertical kilometer: 1 kilometer difference in height uphill on very steep paths such as ski slopes. Trekking poles can be used.
- Mountain running: running whose principle is to choose the fastest way to get to the foot of the mountain. There is no defined path and the aim is to do it as fast as possible.
- Urban Trail / City Trail: contrary to other types, the urban trail is done in an urban environment. It is a race that prefers the height difference and narrow passages with short but intense height differences.
- Ultrarunning: running in nature with a distance of over 80 km.
Trail running races: features
Since the trail running is a race in nature , it is very difficult to make a precise classification. Each race is unique and does not look like any other.
However, different parameters are used to distinguish the different types:
- distance to travel
- maximum percentage of asphalt
- soil condition
- weather conditions.
- Weather conditions
The season and climatic conditions are fundamental.
Your performance will change a lot if for example it has rained and the ground is more muddy but also if it is very windy or very hot. So, the more informed you are about the forecast of the climatic conditions of the race, the more you can prepare yourself in those same conditions.
Difference in altitude and slope
First of all, if you don’t like running uphill , maybe trail running isn’t for you.
Even if you have chosen a race with few climbs, the advice is in any case to insert uphill training to improve your physical condition ..
But you don’t have to think that the announced difference in height corresponds to a single ascent: this difference is equal to the sum of all the ascents of the route.
In general, the difficulty is less when the positive difference in altitude is distributed along the whole route rather than in a single climb.
In fact, the undulating paths allow recovery on the slopes and tiredness is reduced when the climb does not last long.
It is for this reason that, when choosing a route, it is essential to check it in its entirety to understand how the difference in level is distributed throughout.
There is a ranking to keep in mind :
- Easy terrain: no need to use your hands to clear the passage. This race takes place in the countryside or in the low mountains and does not involve risks.
- Easy terrain but in some places it requires trekking knowledge. There is a risk of getting hurt.
- Difficult terrain: you have to use your hands. It is important to have medium and high mountain knowledge. There is a risk of medium or serious injuries. You must be able to be autonomous in difficult mountain conditions.
- Difficult terrain, steep rocks, frozen snow. Requires the use of ropes and high mountain knowledge.
- Difficult terrain, level 3 climbs. Specific equipment such as shoes with crampons is necessary. There are risks of serious injury or death in the event of a fall.
Importance of the equipment
Since 2000, brands of sports shoes and numerous newspapers have made a lot of publicity for trail running.
In fact, to get a more precise idea, 50% of runners spend an average of 1000 euros per year to get the right material . From a study carried out by ” Think Thank Trail “, the trailers would have an average of 2.2 pairs of shoes against 1.8 of those who run 10 km.
Trail running shoes: why do you need special shoes?
A road race always has a stable bearing surface.
Instead, in the trail, the supports and therefore the stride change continuously.
Trail running shoes must be chosen based on:
- foot protection
Obviously, when choosing a pair of shoes, consider the environment and the surface of the path that you will have to face. However, it is difficult to buy a single pair of shoes to tackle different types of trails. The climate, the season and your weight must also be taken into consideration!
Rules to follow when choosing trail running shoes
The choice of the shoe goes beyond the look or the brand image: it must in fact respect some rules if you want to be able to run for a long time.
The importance of the stride
Each runner has a different stride and the wear of the shoe makes you understand how you rest your feet during the race. For this reason, you need to determine if you have a stride:
- neutral : the wear of the shoe is at the center of the forefoot;
- supinator : wear is on the outer edge of the forefoot;
- pronator : the wear of the shoes is on the inside edge of the forefoot.
Choose a suitable shoe accordingly : neutral models, for supinators or pronators.
Height and weight
Height and weight are two important elements in choosing a shoe because tall and / or heavy runners will have less choice.
So, to avoid injuries , if you are very tall and weigh a lot, it is better to choose amortized models.
Knowing what type of terrain your next race is on is important when choosing your shoe. You may have to compete:
- in the mountains
- on the sand
- on paths
- on the plain
- off-piste, etc.
They are all elements that help you determine the shoe suitable for the type of race: more or less light, with reinforcements and with more or less shock absorbers.
The importance of the drop
The drop is the difference in height between the front and the back of the shoe : the drop is linked to the inclination of the foot in the shoe, it is measured in millimeters and generally ranges from 0 to 12 mm.
There are 4 types of drop:
- barefoot running : drop does not exist. The commercial explanation is that these shoes bring the foot back to its natural biomechanical shape and offer a better perception of the terrain.
- Minimal drop (0 to 4 mm): a good choice for runners who want to feel the ground.
- Intermediate (4 to 8 mm): traditional drop that allows you to run comfortably on stony paths.
- Maximum drop (8 to 12 mm): trail running enthusiasts say that these models are less binding on the joints and reduce tiredness on long distance running.
In any case, you must know that the less drop the shoe has, the more you are inclined to run on the forefoot.
It is an essential point when running on paths: the stability of the shoe must be perfect. If your supports are precarious, you will have less pleasure in running and you will be more at risk of injury.
Very important for runners . Some prefer cushioned shoes while others don’t like them. Again, the choice depends on your stride: whether you first put your heel on it or run on your toes.
However, recent studies have shown that an over-cushioned shoe is not good for tendons . So the advice is to alternate the cushioned shoes with other models.
The traction or grip changes as a function of the soil but in any case is essential. In some situations, a slippery shoe can be a real ordeal. Are you going to run on mountain terrain? In the mud? On wet ground?
In this case, the advice is to opt for a shoe with a perfect fit . Warning: shoes with large crampons are not necessarily the most suitable.
It is certainly one of the most important criteria . Do not be influenced by a seller who offers you a more technical model if you are not 100% comfortable in the shoe!
Some shoe manufacturers offer more or less wide models . Make sure you have a shoe that fits your foot width so you don’t get blistered while running.
It is generally recommended to choose a shoe with an extra size because during the run the foot swells . This is true in running, but in the trail it is good to be careful not to choose a too large shoe.
The important thing is to choose a shoe in which you are very comfortable.
Equipment to buy
Some races require precise equipment which is checked before the race.
In any case, basic equipment includes:
- lightweight backpack suitable for running in nature
- hydration and food bag
- windproof and ultralight rain jacket
- first aid kit .
Trail running: advice from the podiatrist
A good preparation of the feet for trail running is essential because running on the paths spoils the shoes but also the feet.
It is not recommended to do a treatment before the run, better to be careful and take care of your feet 3 weeks before . Instead after the run it is advisable to make an appointment with the podiatrist to give relief to your feet.
Here are some tips to follow.
Cut your nails
Never cut your nails too short . A straight cut must be made in front and slightly rounded at the corners with a file. It is useful to do a healing pedicure or go to a podiatrist if you have calluses or corns on your feet .
It is also very important to treat the sole of the foot by applying a pharmaceutical preparation based on picric acid to prevent boils.
Finally, hydrate your feet at least once a day.
Choice of socks
Use good quality socks of an appropriate size (they must not be tightened at the thumb level). Poorly positioned seams can cause compression injuries .
During the race, the advice is to provide a second pair of socks.
Trail Running : Motivations and benefits
In a trail, you don’t run with others and you don’t run against others. The aim is to try to overcome yourself without thinking about the ranking .
The trail is more fun than a race because nature always offers uncertainties (climate, different terrains, etc.). Not only that: some trail running races are held at night!
Trail is more passionate because there is more:
- variety of routes
- different terrains.
Warning : if you want to start approaching this discipline, the motto is progression! Better to start with a short trail and not aim for an ultra trail right away!
How to prepare for a trail running
A good athletic preparation is the basis for being able to get to the race in excellent condition.
However, before starting any type of preparation, it is strongly recommended to make a sports medical examination, which certifies your fitness to do physical activity at a competitive level and is mandatory to register for the event.
Before defining a trail training plan , it is important to do various sessions with fractional work to stimulate the heart in a different way.
For example, if you are a beginner, the first few weeks will alternate between running and walking . Fartlek workouts are also recommended (speed play) which always alternate the pace of the race.
Warming up and cool down
Before each workout, it is a good rule to provide a warm-up with continuous running, 4/5 stretches on 50/60 meters and dynamic stretching exercises.
Also, at the end of each workout , make a good habit of foreseeing a cool-down with a few minutes of slow running that will bring the body back to its starting physiological conditions and static stretching exercises in particular for the lower limbs, in order to rebalance the muscles and tendons and prepare for the next session.
It is also of fundamental importance during preparation to have a healthy diet and to hydrate well .
The importance of nutrition
To run, the body needs to activate and contract the muscles useful for this mechanic .
The energy needed to produce muscle contraction comes from the nutrients you take:
If the body has exhausted the available reserves , the organism no longer has the energy capacity to produce contractions .
In running and trail running, incorrect nutrition is a factor of defeat while correct nutrition is your ally to win.
Not only that, nutrition has a fundamental role in the prevention of trauma (such as tendinitis). After training, the inflammatory state is at its maximum: feeding also helps to recover in a faster way .
Carbohydrates, but not only!
Before the race or a workout, many think that a pasta dish can improve performance but this belief is wrong, because high glycemic index carbohydrates such as bread, pasta and pizza, potatoes, eaten alone, increase blood sugar and therefore insulin , compromising performance.
However, not all carbohydrates are the same: there are high, medium and low glycemic index carbohydrates. Therefore, it is better to favor medium glycemic index carbohydrates such as whole grains (bread, pasta and brown rice) and low glycemic index carbohydrates such as fruit and vegetables.
The best thing is to combine high glycemic index foods with proteins before training or a competition because they have a lower glycemic index.
Training period: tips for proper nutrition
During the training period, you should not follow a low calorie diet, better listen to your body and its needs. The important thing is to have a balanced diet .
Very important are fruit, vegetables and fish, rich in natural antioxidants, but also dried fruit, rich in omega 3 which fight inflammation.
What to eat before a race
Is the day of the race approaching? A week earlier, you can increase your glycogen stores with foods that contain them like whole wheat pasta, yogurt, oat flakes, etc.
Here are some tips:
- reduce your consumption of red meat
- you prefer fish
- eat carbohydrates such as potatoes and rice, pasta is also good but whole.
- On the eve of a race, dinner could be a rice dish with legumes.
While on the day of the race , lunch must be done 3/4 hours before departure: even in that case, brown rice with ham is fine. Instead, before departure, yes to dried fruit .
During trail running : the importance of snacking
Energy products during the trail can help maintain high performance, especially on medium and long trails. So yes to bars and energy drinks.
For long trails , carbohydrate bars and gels are very practical for keeping glycogen levels high. But be careful not to overdo it because excessive consumption can cause reactive hypoglycaemia. On long trails, you can take advantage of refueling spots that often offer savory food.
In any case, hydration is essential to be able to better face training and competitions.
Trail running: athletic training
Trail running is more physical than road running and requires excellent preparation to avoid trauma. The variations of the terrain and the difference in height put strain on many muscles and joints. It is therefore important, for beginner trailers or those who dream of doing more, to do preparatory strengthening exercises .
The aim is to work the areas at risk, that is:
- abdominal belt.
Stones, branches and all imperfections of the ground can be the worst enemies of unprepared feet.
In addition to the classic leg jumps and jumps, the advice is to do ” jump strides “. It is simply a matter of jumping from one leg to the other by performing more or less long strides. Your foot will gain elasticity and you will have more powerful strides .
If your ankles are weak, the risk of getting a retort is insured. They are very stressed during the race, so they need to be strengthened to be able to withstand the effort.
Yes to proprioceptive exercises to be performed on the board. Discover 5 exercises to do .
Here is another very effective exercise : start standing, raise one leg and bend the knee. When you are in balance, stand on the tip and hold the position for 30 seconds keeping the belly in and the arms that act as a barbell. Repeat 5 times per leg.
Quadriceps and hamstrings
In trail running, the thighs work a lot . To strengthen the muscles, there are many exercises. Among them, the squat. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat 10 times.
Mountain biking or exercise bikes are also good for varying your workouts.
You can also do stair climbing to strengthen both quadriceps. It is a very complete exercise that also makes the ankles work.
The height differences you encounter during trail running require you to have a toned abdominal belt to protect your spine from shocks.
Perform a session at least 2 times a week to tone your abdominal , lumbar and back muscles and improve your posture.
The importance of training uphill
When you start training, the uphill run is scary and seems very difficult: often you tend to go too fast and, after a short time, your heart rate skyrockets. First of all, running uphill requires a technique . Follow our advice.
Uphill race: support on the forefoot
First tip: on the way up, take your forefoot support. This type of stride promotes rebound and lightness. Warning: your calves will be very stressed and, during the first sessions, it can be tiring.
Remember to warm up first and stretch your calves.
An exercise to improve the technique
Jump on the spot alternating left foot and right foot. Seek support on the forefoot. Afterwards, go uphill remembering the sensations you experienced before.
Don’t go too far with your body
To counter the descent, we often lean too far forward, but this is wrong. Do not bring the torso too far forward, the right technique involves straightening looking ahead and slightly bringing the center of gravity towards the forefoot.
Climb at your own pace
Don’t change your pace and don’t try to stretch your stride to slow down later, because changing your pace costs you a lot of energy and penalizes endurance.
At the beginning of the climb , start slowly focusing on technique and breathing. Your heart rate must not go too high, the important thing is to go up to your rhythm to save energy. Instead, towards the end of the climb , if you feel up to it, you can increase the pace.
The movement of the arms during the ascent
Swinging your arms on the way up brings your whole body upward.
You can also decide to walk uphill. The brisk walk is very effective and helps to save your energy. In difficult climbs, it is equally effective and much less tiring. While walking, help yourself with your arms by placing your hands on your legs.
Warning : the support of the hands must be at the level of the knees and not of the thighs.
Running or fast walking uphill?
The important thing is to always listen to your body and your feelings.
In any case, the choice depends on:
- physical condition
- form level
- uphill technique
- slope of the climb.
The importance of downhill training
Once you have purchased the technique to go up, it’s time to think about going down! Here are our recommendations.
The importance of support
When you go down the stairs, you tend to place your toes first: well, when you run down a path it’s the same thing! Landing on the forefoot , associated with leg work, helps you cushion shocks. Instead, a support on the heel during the descent creates a lot of instability and increases the risk of injury .
Many retorts in trail running are caused precisely by the support of the heel during the descent.
How to improve the support of the foot during the descent
Slightly move your center of gravity forward.
This exercise can help you face the descent better:
- open your arms for more balance
- let yourself be carried forward
- look for landing on the forefoot.
The position of the torso during the descent
Your torso must help you balance yourself. Also, learn to open and play with your arms. For example, during a turn, turn your arms more and the rest of the body will follow them.
Lengthen your pace
Taking big steps will help you analyze the terrain and anticipate your support.
Advance, lightness and balance are the keys to managing the downhill race well.
Adapt to the ground
Running in the mountains means confronting many different terrains.
Runners often face dry terrains with stones, but also asphalt, snow or mud.
If you run in the mud , the downhill advice is to stay in the mud if it is not deep, trying to avoid roots and stones that are slippery. Instead, on a dry ground , try to take support on the large stones anchored to the ground.
Alternate brisk walking and running
As uphill, the advice is to adapt your pace to the type of terrain. Walk if the difference in height is high, because braking can lead to trauma and cramps as well as getting very tired.
With good technique, you can manage support and balance and you will feel the pleasure of feeling free and relaxed during the descent.
Relax, breathe and enjoy the ride!
Example of a basic training plan to get closer to trail running
Before starting the specific training for trail running, which involves going up and down on uneven terrain, it is advisable to provide a basic preparation to create the physiological conditions for the effort you will have to support.
Considering a weekly commitment with three training sessions, you will have to insert in the first three weeks of preparation of the works of continuous running and walking , keeping a pace that allows you to speak with a partner.
In this way, you will be able to increase the duration of the continuous race every week by about 10% .
From the fourth to the tenth week , the continuous running sessions on the flat are reduced to one per week and you are able to alternate a continuous and repeated running session with a session for a few weeks that will last 40 minutes.
After the first 10 ‘minutes of continuous running, there are the repetitions, that is, the stretches at a pace that initially is slightly faster than the one held in the long work, but which will later become more demanding.
The first time two sections of 3 ‘are inserted with a run that brings a greater commitment, with the passing of the weeks the commitment in the repeated must pass from slightly engaged breathing to busy breathing.
Between one repeated and the other one must always make a continuous run, even a slow one.
In the third workout of the fourth week , there is continuous running at a uniform pace on a wavy course, a workout that helps perfect the technique and contributes to an improvement from a muscular point of view.
Example of training plan for a medium trail
Slow pace is a race that takes you to 75% of your maximum HR . Above this heart rate, you exit this beneficial work area to progress. To stay in the good HR area, you can bring a heart rate monitor with you .
Find out below how to calculate your maximum heart rate. Once found, just divide it by 100 and multiply the result by 75.
Ex: if you have 180 of maximum HR, just do 180: 100 x 75 = 130 bpm .
Some trail running in the world
1 – Runiceland
Period: September . Location: Iceland.
Volcanoes, ice, desert, black sand beaches and ancient lava flows as a theater for five fantastic stages, one different from the other.
Two solutions :
- run 110 km in 5 stages, all different in length, height difference and landscape.
- 3 mini stages of 10 km.
Would you like to know more? Go to the official website .
2 – Petit Trail des Merveilles
Period: March in France (Breil-sur-Roya).
There are 2 routes:
- Short route: distance of 15.5 km with a difference in altitude of 900 m
- Long route: 28 km with a difference in altitude of 1900 m
Would you like to know more? Go to the official website .
3 – Addo Elephant trail run 100 miles
Period: March in South Africa (Addo).
Founded in 2005, it is South Africa’s oldest 100 mile ultra trail race.
Challenge to run on a wide range of terrains, including single track, 4 × 4 and old jeep tracks inside the park itself, as well as some stretches of dirt road inside Addo park which is the only national park that can boast of still having the 7 big (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, southern right whale and the great white shark).
There are 4 races to participate in:
- 5 km fun Trail run
- 44 km ultra Trail run
- 76 km ultra Trail run
- 100 mile ultra Trail run
Would you like to know more? Go to the official website .
4 – Epic Trail Vall de Boì
Period: July in Barruera in Spain.
You can register for several races:
- 65 km with a vertical drop of 5000 meters
- 42 km with a difference in height of 2,900 m
- 26 km with a vertical drop of 1,800 m
- 12 km with a difference in altitude of 480 m.
Would you like to know more? Go to the official website .
5 – Grand Raid
Period: October in the Reunion.
There are 4 possible routes to choose from:
- grand trail (the diagonal des Fous): distance 165 km and 9576 m in altitude
- trail de Bourbon: distance 111 km and 6433 m in altitude
- Mascareignes: 65 km and 3505 m of positive altitude difference
- zembrocal Trail: 4-way relay.
Would you like to know more? Go to the official website .