When I started running on surfaces that weren’t, y’know, concrete, I found out a few things, admits experienced trail runner Anne-Marie Cook. The first was that I wasn’t as skilled at ‘running’ as I thought I was. I figured that out pretty darn quickly, as I tripped and slipped my way through a 10-kay, and bum first into a creek! The second thing was that successfully running off-road is greatly aided by wearing off-road running shoes. And the third thing? That I absolutely loved it!
Here are seven things I learned, and my picks of how and where to hit the trail. Warning: you may never want to do the City2Surf again!
1. Find trails near you
For those of you who live in or near Sydney, as I do, whether you reside in Bondi or Bankstown, you’ll soon discover there are trails near you. Basically, you’re looking for bushwalking tracks – which you’re going to run on. Anything on Google Maps that says ‘National Park’ is a no-brainer. There will tracks there. But check out other dotted lines, too. For example, between Maroubra and Malabar there’s a few kilometres of fun single track that takes you out onto the bluffs and well away from any cars. The same goes for the coastline between Taronga Zoo and Balmoral. You’ve probably already walked from Manly to The Spit, so try running it. It’s faster and more fun. As you come to appreciate more and more the bush and hills, you’ll want more and more bush and hills (I guarantee) – see point number 6.
2. Get the right gear
To learn to love trails, it helps to get a grip, with your shoes, that is. There are a bunch of brands you may have never heard of that make running shoes with chunky nuggets on the soles, keeping you and the mud at a healthy distance. Check out Salomon, The North Face, Inov-8, La Sportiva, Hoka and Altra. Asics, Adidas, Brooks, New Balance and Nike also have trail running lines.
Next, pack it up. They may look a bit ‘space-age wanker’, but a hydration pack or vest is definitely the go for any trails further afield than Centennial Park. When you head into the bush, filtered water stations are few and far between. A pack with a small bladder can come as cheap as $20, though a serious vest with front pockets and about a 2L capacity is more likely to come in at the $200 mark, or more. Check out brands such as Camelbak, Nathan, Ultimate Direction and Salomon.
Handheld water bottles with a glove-like strap also suit some runners, though I definitely prefer my hands to be free (refer to point 4). The third essential is a first aid kit. This should, conveniently, fit into your pack. I’ve never used my space blanket or whistle, but I always have them as a reassuring ‘just in case’. I have used alcohol swabs and bandaids many times and highly recommend a supply of various sizes – they’re not heavy and they definitely save the embarrassment factor when a lady the age of your grandma walks past, sights your bleeding knee, elbow, hand, forehead, and asks with genuine concern, ‘Are you all right, dear?’ Depending on your choice of terrain you may want to pack a thermal top and beanie and, of course, you’ll want a running watch to record your effort for Strava, but otherwise you’re set to go. One note about running skirts, I was never a believer in these until I realised how much faster they make a bush wee!
3. Hone your technique
Running on trails takes a mental adjustment. The primary one is concentration. There’s no zoning out and putting one foot in front of the other, as you can on the road. The moment you do, you’ll either slow to a crawl (especially on the uphill) or face plant (usually on the downhill). Here are the key things to remember.
- Lift your toes. Lift them higher. Now lift them higher again.
- Depending on the course, half a trail run may involve walking, climbing and clambering. On the serious uphills, push your hands off your upper thighs to distribute the work through your arms as well as your quads. And make a conscious effort to engage your glutes. But do keep your head lifted to get the most air through your windpipe.
- Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate. Shift your gaze from about two to 10 metres ahead. You don’t want to just be looking at your feet all the time, but you may need to sometimes.
- Watch for eye-level branches whipping back at you and ditto for skull-cracking trees that reach across the track, especially if you’re wearing a hat with a visor.
- See infographic below about tripping hazards (thanks to relentlessforwardcommotion.com)!
4. Take the falls
You will fall. Sooner or later, you’ll trip. Try not to land heavily on your hands or knees, but instead roll toward your shoulder. If you get a chance to think about it at all. Then, get up. Dust yourself off. Hopefully you haven’t done damage. Leave your pride on the ground where you landed; you won’t need it where you’re going. If you have done damage, assess carefully whether to continue to run or if you need to walk and get help. I fell in a race called Raffertys Coastal Run. The point where I tripped was a steep downhill, but not technically difficult. I would have kicked myself, except I was pretty worried about the popping noise I’d heard as my knee twisted under me. I quit the race, hobbled my way to an aid station and got a lift back to the finish line. I was pretty lucky – with a few weeks of physio I was back amongst it, though more cautious, focusing on my concentration as well as foot placement. Yes, I’ve tripped again, many times, but it hasn’t stopped me planning to sign up for Raffertys again. Because it’s the track that ‘got me’, I’m keen to get it back. OK, maybe I haven’t left all my pride where I dropped it!
5. Find your peeps
As you dig into the world of trails, you’ll discover it’s not as solitary an endeavour as it may seem. Generally, when you’re way out on a trail in the bush you may not see another hiker or walker, let alone runner, for anything from minutes to hours … which is probably one reason why trail runners love to take company.
If you’re heading out on a jaunt to a national park – think Great North Walk, Blue Mountains or Royal Nat – you’re probs looking at an hour or two of driving time. Take a mate and share the adventure! One option is to take two cars so you can leave one at your finish point and avoid the dreaded ‘out and back’. Or, even if you’re taking the train (which works for any of the above-mentioned spots) you can enjoy reliving the adventure on your way home, or hope one of you stays awake to keep an eye out for your station.
So how do you find these mythical people, the trail runners? Well, they definitely tend to congregate at trail running races (see point 7). This friendly species is highly recognisable by their hydration packs and trail running shoes. And they’re very often happy to chat and exchange numbers when found in their natural environment. Other ways of infiltrating include joining a trail running coaching group – try Mile 27, Squadrun, RunLab, Ultra Training Australia – or check out running community groups such as Running Mums Australia, Summit Sisters and Running Wild.
6. Go further afield
Loving life on the trails? Now’s your chance to go (further) out of your comfort zone. Basically, wherever you’ve planned for your next holiday, you can introduce a trail. Recently, I headed to New Zealand for a friend’s wedding. My helpful running adviser – Google – let me know that there was a trail race called Motatapu on the day of the wedding, within an hour’s drive. Sweet as! The wedding didn’t start until 3pm and the 15km began at 8.30am. I signed up for the run before I’d even decided what dress to wear to the wedding. Priorities! Of course, you don’t have to race; you can just ask Googlemeister about the best trail running in the area you’re heading to. Get out of town to find a world of bush/forest/mountains. They’re everywhere!
7. Set yourself a big goal
I’ve never won a race. That really doesn’t bother me and it’s not why I run. But I do enjoy participating in races. A) it’s a great way to meet many friendly trail runners; B) it’s a fabulous way to find out about awesome trails; and C) it’s a challenge, always. When you’re running with others, or maybe just because you’ve paid an entry fee, you naturally feel inspired to give it your all. If you’re keen, it’s definitely worth putting the ‘entries open’ date in your calendar, as many events sell out very quickly. Most also offer a range of distances, so you can pick one that suits your level.
Trail runs I’ve done and loved
Sydney and surrounds
- Sydney Trail Series – Easy to get to spring and autumn events at Manly Dam and Royal Nat Park.
- Sri Chinmoy Sydney Series, Royal National Park – Affordable entry point to the trails, plus pancakes!
- Raffertys Coastal Run – A challenging course near Lake Macquarie.
- Coastal Classic – Stunning views along the RNP coastline and not outrageously hilly. (Though there are enough stairs to keep it interesting!) Party atmosphere at the aid stations manned by Billy’s Bushies.
- Ultra-Trail Australia – It’s simply the premier trail run in Oz and well worth the experience, especially those 951 steps in the final km! Last year I gave the 22km course a crack and had a blast. This May 22 will see me take on the 50km. Next year? The 100km beckons!
- Hounslow Classic – The half marathon distance takes in a fair bit of climbing around Blackheath, but it’s achievable to finish in a morning. The 68km has been called the toughest Sky Running Ultra in Australia.
- Running Wild NSW – This not-for-profit group runs a packed season of trail events in the Blue Mountains, including a night run and a lap race.
In New Zealand
- The Hillary – The course takes in the stunning coast of the south-west of the North Island, starting from close to Auckland. It was Sir Ed’s stomping ground when he was climbing mountains. Yep, a few hills in it!
- Kepler Challenge – Real mountain running; there was snow! It follows the 60km Kepler Track through the Fiordland National Park on the South Island. Oh, and entries sell out in seven minutes.
- Motatapu – A whole celebration of high-altitude fun for mountain bikers and runners. This year I did the 15km Miners Trail due to wedding attendance commitments. The marathon or ultra distance is calling pending a return visit.
On my bucket list…
- Buffalo Stampede – Another run with plenty of climbing and a festival atmosphere, in the town of Bright, Vic.
- Routeburn Classic – Tougher terrain than Kepler, on another NZ Great Walk.
- UTMB – Yep, that’s Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, in France. Yep, it’s 166km. Other options include the CCC (101km) or the OCC (53km). We’ll see!
- Western States 100-mile Endurance Run – OK, we’ve gone from wish list to wishful thinking list, but this was the world’s first 100-mile (161km) trail race. You get a silver belt buckle if you finish in less than 24 hours … now that would look awesome on my bling wall!
You can follow Anne-Marie Cook’s trail running adventures at Runinspo on Instagram.
What trail runs have you competed in? Or what events would you love to give a go? Share your thoughts and any other trail-running tips in the comments below.