(The Gear Loop) - You're officially fed up with running loops around your local park or tackling the same boring stretch of road you now know like the back of your hand. This is why it might be time to start adding some trail running into the mix in order to spice things up.
Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, trail running isn't some groundbreaking new phenomenon. A lot of runners that regularly pound the pavement also like to spend some time off the beaten path and there are plenty of reasons why swapping the security of a paved road for something a little wilder and less predictable can be good for improving your running and changing your state of mind.
You'll likely not have to travel far to do it either, and with plenty of new apps and desktop software on the market, it's now easier than ever to discover new routes, plan interesting loops and join a community of like-minded runners. If you like the sound of getting away from the concrete jungle and tackling greener, more scenic routes, we offer you this guide on the useful things to know about trail running and the kind of gear to equip yourself with so you can hit those trails with confidence and enjoy that time away from the hubbub of the urban sprawl.
Trail Running 101: what exactly is trail running?
Perhaps the best way to explain trail running is that you are essentially swapping running on surfaces that are flat, predictable and surrounded by road furniture for those surrounded by nature and the sights, sounds and smells that come with it.
Like road running, it's as simple as planning a route, getting your kit on, lacing up your shoes lacing up those shoes and getting out there. Depending on the level and type of trails you seek, you will need to start factoring in a few things. It's nothing to be fearful of, but you may need to think more about the kind of kit you take with you and how you approach the route.
Selecting a loop should be down to your ability to not only run, but also navigate, while partnering up with someone can be safer to begin with. Considerations also need to be made about the type of terrain you're going to run on and how far you're going to run. You might need to start thinking about taking water and food with you if you're going to be out for hours on the trails, for example.
If the surface is going to be rocky, wet and slippery, you'll need to make sure your technique is in good shape to tackle said terrain. If it's going to be hot out there or you're going to be running at night, you need to make sure to think about things like sun protection and low light visibility.
It's perfectly possible to run free and connect with nature with minimal kit, but it's about making sure you do your homework to understand what the trails could throw up.
Trail Running 101: how do I find good running trails near me?
The good news is that you can find trails pretty much everywhere. Even if you live in a concrete jungle, you will be surprised at how quickly you can escape to find areas that are perfect for putting your legs to the test in more picturesque surroundings.
Unsurprisingly, there are some very good smartphone apps that play nicely with sports watches and smartwatches out there, meaning you can not only easily plan a local route but also follow it on a device. The likes of Komoot, which we've got a fairly comprehnesive guide to here, Strava, RunGo and AlllTrails are all options that can help you find popular, safe routes, but they can also make sure you find the most scenic spots and vistas, too.
Alternatively, try grabbing an Ordnance Survey map, which can help you find local trail spots if you like to keep things old school. The OS guys also have a thoroughly modern smartphone app, which requires a subscription to reap all the benefits, but acts as a really useful tool for analysis your surroundings and the type of topography you'll be tackling, although this only applies to those in the UK.
Is trail running good for you?
There are multiple physical and mental benefits to venturing off the beaten path. For starters, you'll likely break up the monotony that could have crept into your typical running regime. This is a chance to explore, discover new places and maybe even experience a dose of adrenaline served up by Mother Nature.
Secondly, trail running can have its benefits on your running from, compared to that time spent on more predictable surfaces. Depending on the terrain, trails can often throw up tricky elevated routes, but that also means enjoyable downhill parts too. The surface may often require you to think more carefully about how you run, avoiding debris on the ground to make sure your feet are protected.
You'll be engaging different muscles in the process, building stronger stabilising muscles and generally beefing up your biomechanical system. Spend some time running hills or scrambling down ravines and suddenly running on the pavement seems very easy.
Of course, there is also a greater risk of injury when you start introducing unpredictable surfaces, so it pays to take things slowly to begin with. Find a rhythm and keep an eye out for potential dangers.
What big trail events should I aim for?
If you like the idea of getting competitive and going after a medal, there are now plenty of trail runs in the UK (and further afield) to really put your running skills to the test. At the very elite end of the spectrum there are races like the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc), which covers 171km of off-road running, taking you through France, Italy and Spain. This isn't one you can just log onto the website and punch in your payment details, though. You need to have collated points from qualifying races to earn your place on the start line.
Closer to home in the UK, it's a little easier to enter something like Endurancelife's Coastal Trail series races, which take in the picturesque Jurassic Park Coast in Dorset. You can tackle simpler 10km distances or go for the ultra plus option, which is a heady 45.7 miles of stunning sea views and incredibly challenging terrain. A good website to have at your disposal is Trail Events Co, where you can start to plot your first trail adventure with other off-road running fans.
Essential trail running gear
Inov-8 VentureLite 4 Vest
This great low-profile hydration vest option from run specialists Inov-8 offers a generous amount of room to take three litres of fluid or up to four litres of kit on your back.
It's made from breathable fabrics for when things get sweaty, and features reflective elements in the design to aid your visibility for night time trail runs. So long as those trail runs feature some sort of light source, otherwsie you'll need...
BioLite Headlamp 200
If you’re heading into darker spots, you can save a lot of grazed skin and twisted ankle by illuminating the path ahead.
At just 50g, the Biolite 200 is an illuminated choice. It has a wide head strap for unrivalled comfort and zero bounce when running, while it's tiltable beam kicks out a path-lighting 200 lumens for up to 3 hours on max power.
It is Micro-USB chargeable and has multiple light settings including white plus dim, red plus dim, white and red strobe. If you need more power, the Headlamp 300 is a brighter option for jogging into the back of beyond.
Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar
When you can't trust your phone signal to hold up and you want to keep track of your adventures and not get lost, Garmin's beast of an outdoor watch can help you navigate your way.
It packs rich topographical maps, safety features if you get into trouble and a lengthy battery life with added solar charging powers to make sure you're good to track for days on the trails.
Buff Pack Speed Cap
You need to think about the elements when out trail running, including the heat in warmer climates, as the trails will often leave you fully exposed to the sun if not careful.
Buff's run-friendly cap is suitable for tackling hot and cold conditions with a foldable design letting you squash and pack it away when you want to feel that sweet vitamin D injection once again.
Saucony Peregrine 11
Investing in a pair of shoes that are fit for rough surfaces and will protect delicate feet is a smart move. Saucony's latest Peregrine is one worth lacing up with nicely-sized 5mm lugs on the sole to offer good grip across a range of surfaces.
It also packs in Saucony's PWWRUN cushioning tech, which does it best to soak up imperfections in the trails and add a sizeable dollop of comfort when worn over longer distances.
CEP Run Compression Sock 3.0
An asymmetrical toe box and a unique blend of comfortable materials ensures these socks mitigate any blistering when hammering the trails. They are extremely well-fitting and offer a great amount of compression for the calf muscles, stemming the onset of fatigue and reducing the chances of shin splints and other common running injuries.
The additional ankle support of these hugging compression socks feels particularly useful when running on rough, unpredictable terrain, while CEP's use of smart fabrics means these socks can keep feet dry and cool when hot, but will also warm vital extremities when the mercury drops.
Tips from the pros
Zak Hanna - Salomon GB Team & Winner Mont Blanc VK, Slieve Donard, selection for Ireland at World Champs in Feb
What is your best tip for anyone tackling trail running for the first time?
My best tip would be to make enjoyment the number one factor when starting out. The trails are a very fun place to be and it's important to remember that, as there is nothing worse than doing something that you don't enjoy.
Don't be too hard on yourself if you don't immediately take to running on the trails for the first time, they are completely different to the road so take your time, embrace the change of scenery and no matter how far or fast you run, do it with a smile!
What piece of kit has become an essential part of your time on the trails?
Coming from Ireland where the wind and rain is a frequent visitor I would say my Salomon Gore-Tex Shakedry rain jacket has been a lifesaver when out on the open mountains where the weather suddenly takes a turn for the worse. The jacket is waterproof but very breathable, it's super light and can fold up very small to fit into your vest or belt; I never leave for a run on the trails without it as a safety precaution.
What is your top safety tip for spending time running on trails?
Always tell someone where you are going and take a mobile phone with you, even if you are only heading out for a short run. Trail running is unpredictable like most things and in the event that you injure yourself during a fall or you roll your ankle badly, you have some way of contacting someone to let them know you need assistance. Having a back up plan in case things go wrong is always good for piece of mind for yourself and those closest to you.
What are your top places to run in the UK and further afield?
I'm being biased here, but the Mourne Mountains where I live in Northern Ireland is a must visit for any trail running lover. It is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and they are a range of mountains that compare to no other mountains in the world. They aren't high altitude, though, as the highest mountain - Slieve Donard - is only 850m high, but you start right beside the sea, which makes it even more special to run. Plus, you have the choice of running on the trails in Donard forest if you didn't fancy heading up onto the higher summits.