Trail running has experienced a huge boom in popularity over the past couple of years and is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities worldwide. Locally one only has to look at the popularity of events like Spur’s Trail Series and the recently held African X to realise that South Africa has followed this worldwide trend and that the scene is definitely on the “up-and-up”.
Many runners (myself included) who come from a road running background are, however, completely overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of information out there when one starts doing some research. Not only are there bucket loads of information available, but quite often a lot of it is completely contradicting and therefore very confusing. The following guidelines should clear up some of the most FAQs and might help you get onto the trail a little quicker:
So. Much. Gear.
One of the first things you will notice when you start delving into trail running sites and blogs is that there is a lot of different gear on offer. Between the latest hydration pack, the newest GPS watch or the funky looking shoes it is very easy to get overwhelmed before you even set foot on a trail. Where a typical road runner’s kit collection will consist of one or maybe two pairs of shoes and some technical apparel, the amount of trail gear out there is unbelievable. That being said, you don’t need much more than a decent pair of trail-specific shoes to start out with and the rest being added as and when needed. Speaking of…
The single most important part of any runner’s arsenal is his or her shoes. This is literally where you “connect” with the trail and probably the most discussed item in our running group’s conversations (to the irritation of most non-runners who happen to be around). Technology has advanced rapidly over the last few years as the sport has grown but the basics of any good trail shoe remains the same, namely better grip and more protection than traditional road shoes. While you might get away with using regular road shoes on a non-technical trail, over the long term it is definitely advisable to invest in a pair of trail-specific shoes. Try to visit a reputable running store (I recommend RUN in Bree Street) to get the best advice possible as to what type of shoe is suited to your gait and goals as there are literally hundreds of options out there. A shoe that works brilliantly for your friend could just as easily be the worst one for you, so don’t try to crowdsource an answer here.
Expect the unexpected
The difference between the weather conditions at the start of a run and the latter parts of it can quite often be seasons apart, especially if there is a lot of vertical distance involved. As a general rule I never run without at least a windproof jacket if I go any higher than Table Mountain’s contour path or plan to run longer than two hours. It is also a good idea to carry a space blanket with you for in case something goes wrong and you need to wait for help. These are super light, small enough to fit into a pocket when folded and can be bought for less than the cost of a beer, and has saved many lives on the mountain. (For a tremendous range of outdoor apparel, windproof & waterproof jackets, I recommend visiting: RUN, Drifters Extreme, Drifters Adventure). Lastly, it is much safer and way more fun to run in a group or with at least a partner, but if you do end up “going it alone” remember to always make sure that somebody knows where you are headed and when you are expected back. Also - always carry a cell phone (with emergency numbers saved on it) with you in case you need to call for help. Or even just to take the required selfie.
Always try to carry at least a small amount of water with you, especially if you are unsure as to whether there is water on the route. As a rule of thumb you need about 500ml per hour but it is always a good idea to carry a little more just in case (see point 3). There are many hydration vessels available on the market but as a start something as simple as a plastic bottle carried in your hand (or stashed in the waistband of your pant if the going gets a little technical) will do the trick. As you start going longer and further it is a good idea to invest in a hydration pack equipped with a bladder and/or bottles – these normally give you between 1.5 and 3 litres of carrying capacity and therefore give you some additional range. Again – once you take the plunge and decide to spend money on a hydration pack try to do some research or get some expert advice first (see point 2). There are many options available and the “ideal” pack for you will depend on a range of variables. I am a big fan of the Ultimate Direction hydration packs and additional outdoor hydration products.
Pick a trail, any trail
With the variety of trails available there is definitely something out there for every runner, no matter their level of experience. As a start, try to do some research on local trails or see if there are any running groups that operate in your area (Facebook is normally a very handy tool in this regard). Better yet, try to enter a local race - most races these days offer different distances that cater to varying abilities, sometimes from as little as 5km to 25km for the same event. Do keep in mind, however, that there are a couple of big differences between running a road race and running a trail race. Do not, for instance, expect to run a 20km trail in the same time you can run a half marathon. Due to varying degrees of technicality, the same distance on a trail is often effectively double what it would be on road in terms of time. Also – be prepared to walk a bit. A steep incline on a trail is often not runnable for all but the elite athletes and this took me quite some time to get used to when I just started out. You will also not be quite as fast as the frontrunners when you first start hitting the seriously technical downhill sections but this will change as you gain experience and shouldn’t serve as a deterrent.
All in all, don’t be scared to step out of your comfort zone a bit. If my experience is anything to go by, trail running will open up a whole new world and lifestyle to you. The reward of standing on the summit of a mountain after using your own grit to get there is second to none, and something you have to experience yourself in order to fully understand. Don’t take my word for it though – go out and see for yourself…