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Heading for the hills

One of the attractions of road running is the ability to get into a rhythm, switch off and enjoy the peace and solace of running down a smooth road. This ability to disassociate in road running is sacrificed when you take up trail running. Any loss of concentration can literally see you in full flight, as each footfall is anything but predictable or consistent.

Trail running is beginning to take South Africa by storm with arguably the Western Cape the leaders in the current boom. The introduction of the Old Mutual Two Oceans Trail runs in 2010 was a first for a major event, and has immediately became a success.

The Old Mutual Two Oceans Route:

The 10km distance event provides an ideal transition for those who have never experienced trail running, and the 22km has a unique blend of technical trails, open running and awesome views from one of the world’s greatest landmarks – Table Mountain.

Although sufficiently challenging for the experienced trail runner this event is also suitable to those who have minimal off-road running. Preparation and training for trail running requires a different approach not only in what is done in a session, but also in approach.

To help you prepare and train, Old Mutual virtual coach Norrie Williamson, has developed a customised training programme for the 22km Two Oceans Trail run.

Numbers Mean Nothing

Numbers have less significance in trail running. A kilometre distance is rarely an indication of the effort or energy used in completing the course. Only open gravel road or wide forest footpaths have the potential for comparison with equivalent distances on the road, but even then the gradients achieved by these types of thoroughfares can be significantly different to the maximum and minimum inclines of a formal roadway.

A one kilometre of technical trail running can easily take three or four times the energy and time of running the same distance on the road. So before venturing out to the trails or entering an event there is much more information that is required if one is to be correctly prepared for the race.

Time is a better indication of the physical impact of the trail in both racing and training, but even that needs to be considered within a context of intensity.

A majorly technical section with many irregularities can reduce even the better trail runner to a prolonged period of stop-start running that majorly reduces the distance covered and the intensity of effort. By comparison steep uphill can send the heart rate rocketing and yet severely curtail the distance covered, or good open jeep track can see the runner blasting along the contour at full tilt.

Wherever possible get a good feel of the race grading from the web site, race organizer and discussions with runners who have done the course. Based on this and your knowing your own strengths and weaknesses you will have a better idea of how to prepare and what equipment you will need for the race. Preparation is extremely important in trail running.


Of course few runners have the opportunity of training on trails all the time, so inevitably much of the weekly training will continue to be on roads. However there are aspects that you can adopt into everyday training.

The one sure thing about off road running is that the environment seldom allows you to get into a rhythm so vary the pace and stride length in the majority of your training whether that is during an easy run or a more focused quality session.


The use of fartlek sessions where the pace is varied considerably over the duration of a run is one way to try to mirror the trail effect, another would be to find an undulating course and power all the hills and jog the easy sections in between. Finding a park with an embankment around is a further option for running high intensity efforts with easier recovery between. This is a key attribute for the trail runner to be able to have sections of hard work and then to be able to recover in the shortest period possible thereafter.

Long Trail runs:

The weekly long trail runs are an important part of training, not just for the physical improvements that a roadrunner undertakes a long run, but also for the development of trail skills.

These runs form a vital part of the preparation for any trail not so much for the development of physiological attributes, but for the attitude and approach to trail running which by its very nature requires more patience and flexibility. Try to find a rhythm and style to your trail running that will keep you moving, but still able to slow, recover and work with the varied terrain of the course.

The physiological attributes of long runs, such as enhancement of the fat-burning energy system are more efficiently evolved on the road where it is possible to maintain a more consistent level of intensity.

Trail training in the city:

Although many avid trail runners are city bound for the working week they can still make some training gains with a few subtle changes. First prize may be an open park or hill in the city which although not very large can provide a useful circuit for off road training.

Doing a series of intense laps in the same way that a road runner uses track interval with short periods of recovery can provide a great boost to trail running confidence, the ability to change strides and pace, and improve the agility required on irregular terrain. A drawback of this is that you quickly get to know the layout and quirks of that particular trail circuit, whereas it is the unknown and unseen that makes trail running challenging.

At worst trail enthusiasts can be seen heading for the grass verge or central reserve along the city roads. While considerably flatter, even just running on the grass is of some benefit and the more uneven the surface the better. This helps to improve your proprioception system and reduces the risk of turning your ankle or other instability.

Use you stride:

For years roadrunners have used off road running to make them stronger in road races. One of the reasons this works is that off road running requires a higher leg lift to clear potential obstacles, particularly if the path is overgrown or otherwise hidden. An overgrown path can easily hide holes, roots, stones and a wealth of other obstacles lurking to unbalance the runner at best or more seriously send them tumbling to an injury.

A high stepping action provides the safest progression other than walking, but such a stride requires more specific training if fatigue is to be minimised. Running 30-40m repeats with high knees over equally (and then unequally) spaced canes or a net, and running up multi-storey buildings are all good training, and easily done during a week in the city.

If considering the stair option, commence training by simply with walking up the stairs focusing on lifting the leg vertically from the hip using the hip flexors. Many distance runners don’t lift their legs for each stride they rather skim and rotate them in from the side. While this can be fairly efficient for very long runs on the road, it is potentially disastrous on the trail where the chance of skimming, and then tripping, over an obstacle is a real and present danger.

After a couple of style sessions move from walking to running up stairs and begin with say 10 flights before attempting the 20 and 30 flights of the local office block! In other words get the style correct before looking at the length of the session – quality not quantity!

Safety and Energy resources:

Safety is a major concern in trail running and few events will let you leave the start without carrying your own water / fluid supply, some form of wind and rain protection, a source of energy and a cellphone. Depending on the expected running time and conditions organizers may require a whistle or other specific safety items to be carried throughout the event, or medical or safety check spots during the event.

With virtually every run, and particularly unknown trails, runners should carry a bank bag with some energy and a sachet of hydration powder. Try a pack of 32GI chews and Hydrassist rehydration sachet. The total weight is only 65 grams and its small enough to fit in pockets on some shorts, but addresses the need for hydration and energy for an extended time if you take a wrong turn or get lost.

The other advantage of these choices is that you can make up the ‘emergency pack’ and keep the same one for months. You use the other supplies for your normal running.

Adapt to the equipment:

Once you know all the things you need to be carrying it becomes important to include this equipment in your regular training be that on or off road. For instance most trail runners will use some form of fluid carrying device be that a belt with bottles or a water bladder strapped to their backs. Such items change your centre of gravity and alter your running style so it’s vital to train wearing this equipment.

There is a need to give serious consideration to what equipment you buy and where possible select items that keep loading going directly through your natural centre of gravity. If you have two litres on your back try using a pocket on your chest to provide some form of counter balance so the effect on your running style is minimized.

Test the equipment out on long runs and in particular in off road conditions. In this way you will find the points that cause chaffing and how to avoid them. It is important to get used to drinking from this sort of equipment, as it is not always easy to gauge how much you are drinking in trail running. One way is to work on time and to ‘measure’ the quantity by counting the number of swallows per drink. For instance each swallow will be about 20-25 ml and so taking four swallows ever ten minutes or six to eight swallows every quarter of an hour is a reasonable way to pace your drinking.

The best way to test equipment is on short circuits. So instead of doing a 20 or 30km off road run with new equipment do four to six circuits of a 5km route which then allows you to pull out if you feel an injury or stop and make adjustments if there is chaffing or other minor problems.

Complimentary Training:

Agility is one of the key skills that can differentiate between the enjoyment and performance in trail running. The ability of your ankle to absorb the slope and irregularity of the trail surfaces is vital to any reasonable progression and this can be improved by doing specific exercises in the gym

Standing on an upturned Bosu ball or wobble board is a good starting point. Once you have mastered a simple stand, try doing two leg squats, then progress to single leg standing while catching and throwing a medicine ball then one leg squats in a running style on the upturned Bosu ball. From this fairly stationary exercise you can move on to doing dynamic one leg bounding on and off the Bosu. These exercises also have an impact on core strength bringing improve running style (on and off road).

Adding exercises such as the plank where you are supported in a straight press-up type position, but using your forearms rather than your hands, is a great way to increase core strength. Holding your hips back and legs in a straight line for two minutes is a good minimum target to achieve. Try a more advanced version by lifting one arm, then one leg off the ground at a time, and then combine lifting one arm and the opposite leg off the ground while still keeping a straight body and core. Holding these positions for 15 seconds at a time will give a good work out.


Although I have left shoes to last these are without question the most important piece of equipment. To some extent there needs to be a compromise in the selection of shoes. While looking for the flexibility to adapt to the running surfaces, there needs to be the protection to prevent damage from sharp stones, or other objects. Similarly grip will nearly always be a compromise because of the difference in ideal sole type for loose sand, gravel, and rocks-hoping in both wet and dry conditions.

A trail run can easily have extended distances with all these different surfaces but you are able to select only one pair for shoes for the event so your choice of shoes needs to be carefully undertaken.

It is best to solicit the advice and experience of other trail runners in the area that you intend to train and race. Find out what works for them, and why. It is just as important to get their opinion on what doesn’t work, as this will give you a feel for the basis and extent of their experience. Once you have this information you are better placed to evaluate what will best suit your adventure into trail running.

An important characteristic of the shoe should be that it should be as close to the ground as possible. In other words the midsole and heel should be low (thin) as this will be more stable. Thick midsoles and heels may look as though they will protect against stones and provide cushioning, but the drawbacks are substantial.

Not only are they less flexible, they reduce the feel of the ground, create greater instability, and dramatically increase the wet weight when forced to wade through rivers or run in the wet.

A high heel will also tend to make the runner land further back on the shoe. Trail running is a sport where change of pace and stride is important so much of the running should come from the more reactive forefoot drive. Light, flexible, close to the ground with a blown rubber outer-sole and a strong but light nylon upper is a good starting point to consider.

Perhaps the biggest area of compromise should be in the forefoot cushioning: the longer the distance, the more forefoot protection / cushioning that’s required as acceleration and drive (for uphill and downhill) should all come from the ball of the foot. If the shoe is too thin then you will feel this under the metatarsals: however the more flexible the shoe the better the grip. Look at and try the Puma, Innov-8 and New Balance ranges for some ideas and differences in styles and protection. It is a fallacy that you need a rigid shoe to protect against sharp rocks or stones.

The cross training benefit of trail and road:

Trail running is a growing sport in South Africa and we certainly have the countryside and views to provide great routes. Although it may be hard to go back to running in the concrete jungle, one of the benefits of the off road running is the gains in strength and agility which can also result in some blistering improvements in your road running times!
On the other hand the change of pace, the sudden change in terrain and the climb and descent of trail running provides the strength and stamina that can change an average road runner into a determined and confident road racer. In the end – like most things – the balance and variety of a bit of each works best all-round!