Start trail running

So you want to start trail running? Imagine it: You are in the outdoors, amongst nature, conquering terrain amongst beautiful scenery, that’s what is so cool about trail running!

The soulful activity can take you to some of the most stunning places on the planet, many of them untouched by mankind. If you have a sense of adventure, trail running is one of the easiest ways to get off the couch and into the great outdoors.

It’s also a great way to meet like-minded people.You never know who you’ll meet at one of the many social meets around the country during the week and on weekends.

A sign of its popularity is that sales of trail products have been growing year on year. Back in 2009, we asked a well-known road and trail running brand for stats. Over a measured period in 2009 they sold 7,000 trail shoes while just a year previously, over the same period, they had sold 5,000: a tangible sign of trail’s growth.

equipment you need

Wear trail shoes. Compared to road shoes, they provide greater ankle support to prevent rolling and more lateral support and flexibility for uneven terrain. Trail running shoes also tend to sit lower than road shoes, with a harder midsole to take the impact of the trail. They tend to have sturdier and more aggressive treads on their outsole. If you’re likely to encounter regular stream-crossings or mud, choose trail shoes with drainage holes as well as waterproof uppers and laces that won’t stretch when wet or retain the extra weight of water.
“Make sure your laces are done up properly, allowing the shoe to offer the support it should, especially over rough terrain,” says Cape Town’s Tatum Prins, a member of adventure racing outfit Merrell Adventure Addicts.

Also important, but only when you want to start running further, is a good hydration pack.

Eyewear, a cap or hat and a reputable sunblock are good choices if you don’t want to look like a tomato at the end of your adventure.

The sun can add to your perceived fatigue significantly, so long-sleeved tops are versatile for both cold and warm days. Alternatively, if you hate the feeling of long sleeves, there is a wide range of short sleeved shirts and sleeveless shirts for both men and women.

Last, but definitely not least, a comfy pair of running shorts is always good to keep you decent, even if you feel like a wild mountain goat. No point getting putting into the back of a van on your first trail run!

training for novices

Take your time building up distances. Don’t tackle the really tough trails if you are inexperienced. Start running in your local park to begin with.

Flat trails are recommended if you’re unfit or a beginner. Trail running is nearly always much more of a workout than road running, so plan to run fewer miles at a slower pace on trails than you do on the roads. Although it will feel tougher as you’re using more muscles to get around, over and under things, choosing soft forest paths means your musculo-skeletal system is actually taking less of a hammering than on a road. But don’t be shy to walk when needed.
“Walking is very cool. Often walking is faster (and more efficient) than running up a hill!” says Leo Rust, winner of three Bat Runs and the only person to go sub-four hours.

Prep your feet. Trail running forces you to wriggle your feet more in the shoe, increasing the likelihood of developing blisters. “Use a product like Glide or Vaseline between your toes to minimise friction,” says’s Lisa de Speville, who admits feet are close to a fetish for her.
“If blisters are a regular occurrence, wearing two pairs of thin socks should eradicate the problem.”


Don’t run alone unless you really have to. And remember to tell someone where you are going to run.

“If it’s your first real trail run, go with people who know the trails so you can learn as many different routes as possible. Running in a group or with a mate is definitely a good option. Makes for great company and means there’s someone else for the dog to bite when you can go faster,” quips Tatum Prins of adventure racing team Merrell Adventure Addicts.
“Always tell someone where you are going – and take a cellphone,” advises Ryan Sandes. “Take extra food and water. Often a shortish trail run can end up taking a lot longer than expected. Terrain, weather, or getting lost are all factors! A 20km trail run may take twice as long as 20km on the road.”

Sandes, winner of multiple races around the globe, adds: “When in the mountains: make sure you have warm clothing. It can be a bright summer’s day but on top of the mountain it can be raining with ice cold winds. I have learned the hard way on Table Mountain a few times!”

Watch where you’re going. Keep your head up and your eyes on the trail ahead. This will allow you to pick the best line and watch ahead for obstacles such as rocks, roots, logs and branches. Jump over obstacles. Stepping up on unsteady rocks and roots is not only tiring, it can be hazardous.

pro tips

Keeping your bearings. Things look different coming back than going. Pause to look around when two or more paths diverge from the one you’re on. Look at trail signs and identify rocks, trees or landmarks on the horizon.

Uphill busters. At some point, you’re going to find the terrain heading uphill, often a lot steeper than on the road. There’s a specific technique to survive this leg-and-lung-busting challenge:
Take short quick steps. Use your arms in a straight back and forward motion to help lift your legs and your opposite hip. Concentrate on relaxing your upper body and keeping your shoulders down.

Run tall. Posture is everything on the uphill. Leaning forward from the hips puts a lot of pressure on your lower back. An erect posture provides better push-off.
“Relax your shoulders to get rhythm and flow in your running,” says Merrell Adventure Addicts’ Tatum Prins.
Really steep hills may require power-walking: place your palms just above your knee to assist with the push-off. Don’t over-stride or your legs will be toast in no time.
“Train on trails that are more challenging than those on event day. That way you’ll find the event much easier.” Ugene Nel, Team Energy member and Quantum Adventures owner.

Downhills anyone? What goes up (slowly) must come down (fast)! Once again, offroad running requires technique a little different to that on the road.
Lean forward keeping your whole body perpendicular to the ground. Lengthen your stride to take advantage of the hill but don’t over-stride. Keep your weight forward by having your hips over the landing foot.
Each landing will put extreme stress on your quadriceps, so stop braking and allow yourself to fly a little. Land on the balls of your feet with your knees slightly bent, throwing your arms to the side. But don’t flail.
If you need to control your speed, slalom from side to side like a skier*. Don’t lean back or dig in your heels to brake, which would seriously pound your joints.
Also cut your stride length and increase your cadence. Land quickly and lightly.

Focus on time, not distance. Don’t expect to match your road PR. Out-and-back routes are great because you can cover the same distance a little bit faster on the way back.
Take a break. Find a spot to relax and just enjoy nature. Smell the roses for a change. And grab a bite to eat. “A bar or something yummy is always a good option. It is different for everyone so get to know what your body needs to sustain the length runs you do.” Tatum Prins

fuel yourself

There are some useful hydration packs on the market. They will add immeasurably to your trail running experience, allowing you to carry up to 2 litres of fluid as well as snacks, keys, cellphones and extra clothing.

Eat before (or not). This depends entirely on personal preference, so get to know how your body handles running on empty or with a small meal before if you’re new to the longer runs. On average, most people we interviewed said they want to get their energy up before a run but they don’t eat too much. Some say it causes discomfort while running. A liquid meal like a protein shake or fruit or toast seem to be most agreeable for the general weekend warrior population. Experiment and see what works best for you.

contact and events

There are a rapidly growing number of trail running events and series throughout the year. Notable events in South Africa include the Otter African Trail Run, Wild Coast Wildrun, Skyrun, 4 Peaks, PUFfeR, AfricanX Trail Run and the Rhodes Trail Run.

Useful links:

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One Response to Start trail running

  1. Shelly March 22, 2011 at 6:52 am #

    Im looking to train with someone, to improve my fitness level. Are there any clubs around Johannesburg that concentrate on trail running. 🙂

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One Response to Start trail running

  1. Shelly March 22, 2011 at 6:52 am #

    Im looking to train with someone, to improve my fitness level. Are there any clubs around Johannesburg that concentrate on trail running. 🙂

Leave a Reply

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