Running over rough, rocky, muddy or uneven terrain comes with a higher risk of tripping, falling or turning your ankle than running on a flat even surface. So inherently there is always going to be some risk of picking up trail running injuries. However, if you watch experienced trail runners in action, they seem to be able to glide over even the most challenging surfaces and rarely suffer a fall or an injury.
This shows that trail running isn’t necessarily as hazardous as it might first appear – and no one ever got hit by a car, van or truck while running trails, so there’s a bonus straight away.
Especially when you first start out running off-road, however, you might pick up trail running injuries from a slip or trip, or you may roll an ankle. It happens, but these tips can help reduce the likelihood of injury while out on the trails.
It might sound obvious, but you are more likely to slip and fall if your trail running shoes don’t offer enough grip. When you start running trails, you need trail running shoes. Don’t just assume your road running trainers will suffice – they won’t. If you intend to run on muddy ground or down steep inclines, you’ll need shoes with a tread pattern that bites into the soft surface. If you’re more likely to be on slippery rocks, look for a shoe with grippy rubber soles.
Don’t try to run at the same pace on trails as you do on the road, especially not at the beginning. Road running and trail running are very different beasts. Trails are full of surprises – that’s all part of the attraction. Even if you think you know a route like the back of your hand, it will be different in the wet than it is in the dry, the undergrowth and trail-side flora will change with the seasons, and sometimes a fallen tree or swollen stream will force you to vault, leap or climb a new obstacle. The very nature of this dynamic terrain means that a slower pace doesn’t necessarily mean easier running. Embrace it, but not recklessly.
Trail running requires you to be much more attentive to where you are stepping than running on the road. You need to learn to read the ground ahead and plan your route. This becomes more difficult as the terrain gets more uneven. Try to look at the ground about three paces ahead and resist the urge to look immediately down at your feet. This will allow you to see what’s coming up and react accordingly. If you’re running at night with a headlamp, the same thing applies – focus your beam three of four meters ahead of your feet.
Pick your feet up
Running over technical terrain with rocks, vegetation and other trip hazards requires a different technique to running on even ground. A lazy, shuffling style with feet close to the ground will almost certainly result in a trip, so some runners new to the trails might need to actively think about picking their feet up more than they are used to.
Use your senses and sharpen your mind
Trail running is a much more immersive experience than road running – being out in the wilds, surrounded by the ever-changing sights, sounds and smells of nature as the planet rotates through seasons sharpens your senses and helps you read the trail. If you typically run with headphones on, try taking to the trails without being plugged in and concentrate on the path ahead of you. Some people like to wear ‘barefoot’ or minimalist shoes, which allow you to feel the trail beneath your feet, and encourages you to think about foot placement – which sounds like hard work, but soon becomes second nature and can help you avoid ankle-crunching holes and slippery roots.
Remember, reading the ground and adapting your running style aren’t things that can be achieved overnight, they are skills that require time to acquire. As with any skill the best way to improve is by practice, and there are some things you can incorporate into your running and training that will help.
Deliberately seek out an area of rough terrain and practise running over it. Do some repeats, ten seconds is enough to start with at a brisk pace then walk back and repeat. As you get more confident you can increase the pace. Over time this exercise will help develop balance, agility and foot-eye coordination, and reduce the likelihood of trail running injuries from tripping and falling.
Practise fast cadence. A quicker leg turnover allows you to react faster and remain in control; while the impact forces associated with shorter steps are lower compared with taking longer strides, thus reducing the injury risk.
Injuries often occur when the runner becomes fatigued. I know from personal experience that I’m more likely to trip and fall towards the end of a long race than I am on a shorter yet faster race. Again, training can help prevent this. Trail running requires more sideways movements than road running – imagine jumping forwards and sideways to avoid a rock. The leg muscles also need to absorb impact using eccentric contractions such as when running downhill or landing after a jump. Strength training can make runners more fatigue resistant and is another way to ward off injury. You don’t need a gym, you can use bodyweight and improvised weights if you don’t have dumbbells. Simple exercises include lunges (forwards, backwards and sideways); step ups and downs using a park bench, fallen tree, garden wall etc. and jumping up and down onto a wall or similar.
No matter how well prepared you are accidents can still happen, so stay safe on the trails and be prepared just in case. Run with others, or let someone know your route and don’t attempt a run that is beyond your ability level. If you’re going on a long run off the beaten track, take a phone, small first-aid kit and spare clothing.
An experienced, competitive, fell runner and UK Athletics coach, Dave specialises in fell and mountain running. His personal achievements include winning the 2015 English Fell Running Championships (V50 category) and completing the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds. He has contributed reviews and training articles to magazines including Trail Running, Outdoor Fitness and the Fellrunner magazine. His most embarrassing moment was having a running shoe fall apart completely while high in the Lake District fells.
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