Introduction To Trail Running: What You Need To Know
In recent years, trail running has taken an extraordinary left turn. What was once something that existed in the corner of one’s eye has since edged out slowly - and then very suddenly - into the mainstream. Gone are the days when “running” correlated directly to roads and distance was a measure of length alone, and in is an era of athletics in which a 5km on a flat, paved course for one is a gruelling 100 miler across entire mountain ranges for another. Yes, trail running - which, for all intents and purposes, refers to fell running, mountain running and anything else that is not typically focused on roads or cross-country - is here and is here to stay.
This is not to say that trail running is necessarily a new phenomenon: if Wikipedia is to be believed, then one of the first ever fell races took place in Scotland somewhere between 1040 and 1064 (i.e. quite some time ago). For those in want of a slightly more credible source need look no farther than Adharanand Finn, who uses two specific ultra-running websites to illustrate trail running’s growth from humble beginnings. To clarify, ultra-running consists of any distance that exceeds the classic 26.2 mile marathon, and while trail running is not confined to any one specific distance, be it 1km or 200km, ultra-marathons are more commonly found to take place on the trails. Following Finn’s index finger, one will find first Steve Diederich’s website, runultra.co.uk, which, between its foundation in 2006 and 2018, has seen a 1000% increase in registered races, jumping from 160-1800. The second website is the German-run DUV, which plays host to a database of races that date back all the way to 1837. And these are just ultra-marathons: trail running itself, be it as a recreational activity or functional necessity (read: Shepherds proving who can best herd sheep - true story), has been around for a while. So, with its recent surge in popularity, we thought we would take the time to give you a quick run-down on the basics.
The Boom Without The Bust: The Surge In Popularity
As with anything as diverse and variable as trail running, one cannot point to any one narrative to explain its surge in popularity. It might help, however, to first make a comparison with road running, which saw a hayday and boom all of its own back in the 1970s and 80s. Road running today is, well, massive, and the recent lockdowns worldwide might even be read as a second coming for the road running community, which has since seen thousands of new athletes eagerly join its ranks. Yet, road running, too, was previously an outlier. To see someone running out in Dublin before it had hit the mainstream was to see someone outlandish, extravagant, a social pariah - not, as is so often the case now, someone looking to improve their fitness and mental health, or to liberate themselves from the confines of the desk, the couch or the obligations to one’s in-laws. It was not until the latter decades of the 20th century that it really began to shine. This is not necessarily to say that trail running is, even in its advency as a popular activity, an outlier - after all, with running and hiking both now fixed in the mainstream, and with the extremity of certain other outdoor trends reaching new heights, it seems almost inevitable that people would begin to mix the two.
So instead, let’s think of road running as square one for a moment. We runners tend to forget that running in and of itself is not the be all and end all for everyone: it serves as a basis for the dreaded “cardio” for gym-goers, as the means-to-sweat for boxers, and as the most obvious means to improve both anaerobic and aerobic power for players of GAA, hockey, football, and dozens more field-based sports. Running as a format lends itself to so much - trail running should not be held up against road running with a mirror, but rather, it should be seen as a unique activity on its own, bringing the lust for a challenge found in endurance sports and the desire for adventure and escape together. If there is a reason to be found in road running’s boom for the popularity in trail running, it is that once something has established itself as new, exciting and brilliantly liberating for both one’s mental and physical autonomy, it begins to grow exponentially into a sport all of its own.
From The Yellow Brick Road To The Multi-Coloured Trail: Escaping TheConcrete Jungle
Of course, one cannot help but notice one glaringly obvious difference between road running and trail running. The former typically has the same kind of terrain, similar kinds of scenery, and, more often than not, cars to fill our ears and people to dodge on narrow paths. In other words, it is busy. You cannot slip out of the daily grind quite so easily when it continues to happen all around you. The latter, however, puts a stop to the clammer of the day-to-day, offering uncontested variety, beauty and a sensory experience that the roads could never offer - if, of course, you can find the right trial.
Thankfully, one never has to look too far. The nice thing about living on a small island is that trails are only ever a drive away, be it in the Mourne Mountains in the north, Connemara in the west, Macgillycuddy's Reeks a little further south, and the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains near the east coast (sorry midlands!). And it is not only the mountains that offer opportunities: woodland trails, coastal paths and even your local boreens are all ripe for trail running. There is an immense variety of environment on offer for trail running - no one trail is the same, nor should you expect any one trail to remain consistent from start to finish: and that’s a good thing. We as a species instinctively want to replace car horns with birdsong, apartment blocks with ancient trees and towering mountains, a sedentary lifestyle with one of movement and flow: after all, we have not spent the last one hundred thousand odd years of evolution sitting at desks. Is it any wonder, then, that we have once again begun returning to trails?
They Who Sow: The Material Benefits Of Trail Running
Indeed, trail running certainly breaks up the monotony of running the same paths and roads around your house or workplace, while also allowing a quick escape from the urban environments that are increasingly swamping us with work commitments, social obligations and household (dare I say the dread word?) chores. Of course, while all of these are incredibly valid reasons, one could argue that they can also be susceptible to subjectivity - one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, after all. So here is a short list of practical benefits to trail running that might also explain why, on the back of the road running’s immense success in the popular sphere, trail running has also begun to experience a spike in popularity.
For this, one only needs to look at what actually happens to your body when you’re powering up a mountainside or zipping along the undergrowth. I’m sure many of us have heard the usual non-runner friend ask us: “isn’t running bad for your knees?” Yeah, we’ve all been there. And no, it is not so simple as that. It is true that running, especially on hard surfaces, can take quite a toll on our joints and muscles: that is why recovery and strengthening exercises are so important. The degree to which a particular surface will impact your legs, however, varies from surface to surface. The concrete and asphalt that make up our roads and paths, for example, are among the worst offenders. Although the faster terrain, the stone Bonnie and Clydes can send quite jarring shocks up our legs.
This is where trail comes in: while it certainly won’t safeguard against injuries absolutely, it does take quite a bit of stress out of specific crunch points by reducing the shock of impact that comes hand in hand with road running. It also draws not just on a limited group of muscles, but on a whole range of muscles while further honing in your agility and coordination. This is due to both the softer and more technical terrain. The softness is not as hard on the legs, while the technical aspects ensure you shorten your stride while making greater use of your core and hip flexors. Grass running also falls into this category. As Runnersworld put it: ‘While grass is soft and easy on the legs in terms of impact, it actually makes your muscles work hard. This builds strength and means you’ll notice the difference when you return to the road.’ So, too, with the trails.
Getting To Grips: Trail Shoes
Now that you have a fuller picture of why exactly we at The Run Hub are so enthusiastic about trail running - from escaping the concrete jungle to strengthening our legs and minds - you are ready for the hard news.
Your road shoes just aren’t gonna cut it chief.
Although the trails are often softer and less impactful for your feet than roads, they also offer a whole different set of challenges that your body has to face. As such, you will need a different pair of shoes for most of your trail running. Trail shoes are, typically, heavier than road shoes - they need to be, if they are going to ensure you have the right kind of protection against the harsh terrain. Some might feature a rock plate, which is a harder material going either through the entire midsole or just part of it, while others go all in on cushioning and density. Meanwhile, the outsole will be markedly different for trail shoes than road, featuring different kinds of lugs with different depths and patterns according to what kind of grip you are looking for, or what kind of terrain you plan to be running on (rock or grass, loose or slippy, etc.). Some trail shoes are also waterproof - others are not. Some have lock-laces - others have standard laces. In other words, there is a lot of variety in trail shoes.
This is definitely not a bad thing. Road shoes, for example, fall into either a neutral or stability category, depending on what kind of gait you have. This is important on the roads, but less consequential by far for the trails. Because the terrain is always changing, both along the route and in accordance with the weather, your feet will have to go at different angles all the time in order to find security. As such, all trail shoes are, by design, neutral. A stability shoe will attempt to force your foot to go one way, which may go against where it actually needs to go. This means that no matter what kind of gait you have, any trail shoe will suit you - so you get to have a lot of fun experimenting.
Conclusion: So. . . Why Do It?
I have thrown a lot of information at you: some of it is mindless jargon, while some of it is practical and directly useful. But I have not quite told you the one reason you should try out trail running that actually tops everything else I have said thus far.
Trail running is simply a blast.
You can walk and you can run; you can hike and you can climb; you can stop for photos or even just to explore. Above all else, snack breaks are a must. Some of the most interesting conversations you will have with a stranger is on the trails. There is an immense level of informality about trail running, an alleviation of any kind of pressure, be it with training, work, study or family, that just makes the entire process a joy to endure. I do use the word “endure” deliberately: don’t get me wrong, this is a tough activity at the best of times. But it is infinitely rewarding and immensely enjoyable and, most importantly, the trail running community is ridiculously welcoming.
But don’t just take my word for it: a world beyond lockdowns awaits. When you can, the trails are waiting for you.
Post-Script: Climate Crisis And Trail Running
This article is actively encouraging people to hit the trails - its author is, as always, eager to meet more people in the mountains, or even chat about their experiences in-store. However, if you are going to head out into the forests or valleys, be acutely aware that the Earth is not a natural rubbish bin. Take account of what you are bringing out of your bag as you go, ensuring that, unless it is biodegradable (fruit skins, for example), it goes straight back into your bag when you are finished. The number one rule when on the trails is leave no trace. No one wants to have found Tír na nÓg just to realise Oisín has littered the entire place on his way out. Anyone who uses the trails has a responsibility to the health and well-being of them. Thank you.