A Beginner’s Guide to Getting you Trail-Run Ready

A Beginner's Guide to Getting you Trail-Run Ready
A Beginner's Guide to Getting you Trail-Run Ready

Fresh air, scenic views, adrenalin pumping through your veins – what’s not to love about trail running? Getting fit by running in nature sounds extremely appealing, but if you’ve never attempted a trail run, you may be unsure of how to start, or whether it’s even for you.

But we all have to start somewhere, including newbie trail runner Nkine Letsela, who’s based in Johannesburg. He’s one of Fedhealth’s “Dream Chasers” – an inspiring group of six Fedhealth medical aid members who were each on their own three-month fitness journeys which culminated in the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon events on 14th and 15th September. To help get them there, Fedhealth has supported them over the past few months with two running coaches and a dietician.

For Nkine, his goal was to complete the 12km trail run at the event. It’s his twin daughters that have been his biggest motivation for this: he wanted to show them that health is hugely important, and he wants to be around for them as long as possible.

Brendan McBirnie is the expert running coach who has been helping out the Dream Chasers with their goals, and he has some pearls of wisdom for beginner trail runners:

  • Choose your trails: Don’t start your trail running experience by finding the biggest, most technical mountain to run up. Trails can by anything from jeep tracks to mountain goat tracks, so do your research and find those suitable for your skill level.
  • Soak up the sights. Trail running is a journey. There’s no point getting up a mountain to just turn around again and head straight back down. Enjoy what trail running offers, take in the scenery and if you are into selfies, do that too!
  • Pick a manageable distance. Not all things are equal when you compare trail distance to road running, so pick a route that is about 30% less than a road distance you could run.
  • Don’t splash out on expensive footwear. You’ll be able to run most trail runs with normal running shoes, so there’s no need to spend more money to give trails a go initially. See if you like the sport first before you invest in specialised gear.
  • Hydrate properly. Remember that there aren’t reliable water sources on most trails, so take your own. Carry a bottle with you for shorter distances, and for longer distances use a good hydration pack.

Now that you’ve planned your first foray into trail running, there are three focus areas for your training, according to Brendan:

  1. Building strength: Being strong is crucial for any runner but even more important for trail runners. Trail runners need the strength to run up over rocks and then deal with the high impact of coming downhill. Nkine agrees with this, citing how you need to build muscles to steady your legs up the hills, and a strong back to carry you through. Brendan says you should focus on building your core muscles, glutes, quads, back and calves.
  2. Energy system development: When running trails, your heart rate is generally higher due to the demands of trail. Regular road runners typically train their aerobic base, which is responsible for long, slow energy release. While this still holds true for trail runners, they should also do more training in their lactate training zone than road runners, to get used to the higher energy demands of the trails.
  3. Skills: Trail running has the added excitement of a skills element that applies to running up and down technical sections. You need to master the different ways to run uphill (shortening your stride length, keeping your eyes on the ground, leaning into the hill from the ankles) and downhill (leaning slightly forwards, following diagonal lines like a skier would, and becoming more “springy”).

Now that you’ve got some guidance, it’s time to hit that first trail!