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Newbies Guide to Trail Running

Our event would really like to encourage more people into trail running, to enjoy the beautiful countryside we have surrounding our Welsh Capital.  There are many scare stories that put people off - ‘I twisted my ankle and it put me out for 6 months’; ‘I don’t do hills!’ and so on.

I’d like to dispel those myths and encourage people to give trail running a chance.

The ‘Ankle’ question

Simply we have a choice.  We can spend our days in a concrete cube, or we can take some risks and get out there and see the world that Attenborough describes so eloquently.  Our race goes through several nature reserves and SSSIs.  Chris McDougall’s inspirational book Born To Run proposes that our evolutionary advantage is that we are quite simply the most incredible runners of the animal kingdom.  We are born to run, we are not born to spend 10 hours a day behind a computer.

That said, most of us do spend more time than we would like in offices.  We need to be aware of that and build up accordingly.  We know that damaging muscle (in training) causes it to repair and become stronger.  However, tendons are more challenging, and rather than taking a few days like muscles, can take months to recover.  Hence the very understandable concern of twisting an ankle.

Building up exercise will help with this considerably.  If you’ve only ever run on tarmac, then don’t be silly and go haring down a steep rocky hill.  As this guide is for newbies, I’d suggest taking the next few months to build up your strength.  Start by going for a walk on rough ground.  Time on Feet is often heard in trail running circles for obvious reasons.  Time on Feet will help build all those other facets of your body that contribute to health and wellbeing, over and above cardio vascular training. 

I regularly go for a walk with my family after my Sunday training run, and see this as an essential part of training – time on feet – it doesn’t need to be hard!

Strength Training – or resistance training

A lot of people will tell you, you need to do ‘Weights’.  Admittedly this will help, and I put it here, because core strength exercises will help with the ankles.  It will also help get you up the hills, and it will protect your body from damage.  That said you don’t need to do resistance training for this race but is worth considering if you have already completed a half or two and are looking to develop.

The beauty of trail racing is it is more of a whole-body exercise than street racing.  Up hill and down dale works more muscles and you are less likely to look like a bean pole runner! 

When looking at what to focus on Core strength is helpful.  When looking at exercises you don’t necessarily need to look at big weights, body weight exercises are great, like planks and stomach strengthening.  Chat to people about where you feel you are a little weaker – speed, running on rough, hills, or weak ankles.  Preferably ask a professional in a gym, as there are a lot of ‘experts’ out there, and you may not be training as effectively as you could be.

As an aside

I always hear that some women are worried about having muscles.  I find this a sad indictment on our society, but that is what people feel and I respect that.  However, resistance training will not give you big muscles unless you really train for it.   People spend years trying to get a muscular physique.  I can guarantee that 6 months weight training will probably make only one observable change – people may comment that you look good!

As I mentioned before I am not a trainer, but there are plenty around who will talk to you about your goals.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions – if you are worried about muscles, or anything else for that matter, ask the experts.


Yes there are hills.  And I do mutter the occasional unpublishable words to myself about half way up.  I also wonder about my sanity – why aren’t I at home with a nice cuppa in front of the fire etc.  Once you are at the top all that is forgotten, sense of achievement kicks in, pride and the views – it is all worth it.

One thing about trail running is we do races to be in the country, we’re not in the country to do races.  This subtle difference pervades the culture of the sport.  Take your time up the hills.  A little secret – in our race only about 4 people will run the whole way.  It is very acceptable to walk the hills.  Enjoy the walk, you paid to be out there, why rush.

Remember, the goal of a trail race is to finish, having had a lovely day out – don’t spoil the enjoyment and have two hours of pain, Why?  If this is your first trail, you will find the person who finishes last will get as much respect as those at the front.  Scott Jurek, one of the greatest Ultra runners of all time, after finishing a race, applauds everyone else over the line.  That cultural attitude is one of the main reasons I love the sport.

If you do want to improve your overall performance, one thing I will say, is don’t stop!  We all want a respectable time.  I notice that slower people always want to stop.  They spring off too fast, then stop.  As creatures we are naturally lazy.  In evolution terms there is a reason for this.  If we are fed, our body wants to repair itself, and be ready in case we are attacked by lions or bears.  I don’t think there are any lions in Taffs Well, so we need to overcome the evolutionary desire to stop.  Our brains are very clever at making things up (ask someone trying to stop smoking!), - I need the loo, I need to get my jacket out, I’ll just take a photo etc. 

In your training try and get your kit sorted so that you can make adjustments, get food out etc while walking.  Don’t stop – this will make a big difference to your hill walking speed.  Simply, slow down a little to keep your overall speed high.


If you have only ever run on tarmac, you may want to think a little about your running style.  On the road, if you overstretch it is unlikely to do you much damage.  Doing this on a trail increases the risk of injury.

Try and land your feet beneath you.  This keeps your mass aligned to centre of gravity, so if you do land awkwardly on a stone, your core strength can help.  This is how we should run anyway, but it is worth taking more care on trails.

You’ll find that downhill running is much tougher than going uphill.  So keep your strides shorter, and quicken the turnover of feet.  As mentioned above, this will reduce risks.  Elite runners may run differently, but as this guide is for newbies, we are looking to make sure you have a nice day and come back for more.  Keep the stride short and fast.

Don’t smash the first downhill either.  Going downhill puts a huge strain on your quads.  Strength work will help, but either way, I’ve seen so many people fly down the first hill and burn their quads out.  Take it easier for the first few down hills.

One last point,  I know it sounds obvious, but pick your feet up.  At the start of the race you'll be making sure you don't trip over that tree route.  As you get more tired, your mind will drift, the countryside is distracting, and the next thing you know your flat on the floor.  Keeping your feet up will also help with down hills.  Letting gravity do the work and focusing on keeping your feet off the floor is both helpful in downhill speed, but also makes it a little safer.

Finally, mindset with the race.

For those new to trail racing, timings are challenging.  I’ve run races which have taken three and a half hours for a half marathon, when my usual pace is about 2 hours.  This can be mentally very challenging.  Being aware of it helps.  The route is the same for everyone, and equally tough. 

This race has a climb after a half mile – this will add about 5 minutes to your usual time.  Mud will easily add another 30 seconds per mile.  The route to Check Point 1 has a tough little climb, and your only 4.5 miles in!  After 5 miles most of the climbing is done.  There is another climb later, but nowhere so big.  Take this into account.  Take it easy until you reach the top of the Garth.  Keep a bit in reserve.  I guarantee it will pay dividends.  All those people who shot off from the start will be looking in pain as you pass them going down hill over the last few miles. 

Apart from one short climb the route is all downhill after CP2, bear this in mind.

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