"Let's off-road!" I like to think it was Paul Whitehouse's thrilling experiences of off-road running that inspired his gormless would-be adventurer on The Fast Show. His deliriously enthusiastic call to arms wasn't aimed at triathletes, of course, but trail running is enjoying a surge in popularity among multi-sport athletes. The current Under-23 World Triathlon Champion, Alistair Brownlee, is even harder to beat on the fells than in a triathlon, while the number of off-season trail races continues to grow. It seems that our appetite for mud, hills and inspiring scenery knows no bounds.
The off-season attributes of freedom, fitness and variety make off-road running the perfect winter pursuit before the triathlon racing seasons begins. So whether you're taking to wooded trails or conquering mountains, try these off-road tips to make the most of the great outdoors right now.
After Britain's washout summer and equally wet winter, expect plenty of mud when you take to the trails. To ensure you don't look like an out-of-control ice skater as soon as you hit the slippery stuff, try this: "Stand tall and strong through your midsection to stay as light on your feet as possible," says Anna Frost, current World Mountain Running Grand Prix Champion. Fast feet through the sludge will ensure you expertly negotiate any muddy patch.
Rocky terrain poses a particular challenge. Look roughly five metres ahead of you so you have time to avoid tricky-looking landings. "Use short, quick steps," says Frost, "that way you can change direction quickly and adjust your stride if you think you might slip."
A dunking in icy water is often a feature of off-road races - and many competitors feel cheated if they don't get soaked - but if you want to avoid becoming wetter than is totally necessary, keep your knees high to avoid tripping on unseen obstacles. You might even race ahead if you take the plunge and run through a puddle while everyone else tiptoes round it.
Up and over
A couple of simple rules will see you up and over even the steepest hill. "Use short, quick steps when you're climbing," says Rob Jebb, current English Fell Running Champion. "When you're running downhill, relaxing your body will help you to avoid slipping and becoming injured on rough terrain."
Change of scene
Taking your running off-road now and then will give you a welcome break from the miles of flat, bleak asphalt that can dominate triathlon training. The variety of terrain and stunning locations are guaranteed to motivate even the most jaded athlete. Try open countryside such as a trail with grass, gravel, mud or mossy forest floor to get started.
Rocks, hills and slippery mud are perfect terrain for giving your core muscles a workout, leaving you stronger, less prone to injury and with a more efficient running technique. "The strength training and endurance benefits of trail running really pay off when you are training for a triathlon, but it works both ways - I do triathlon in my off-season to train for mountain running," says Frost. The core » strength you develop running off-road will ensure good technique even in the late stages of a triathlon.
In the mind
When you're in an unpredictable off-road environment, not knowing what lies round the next corner will teach you to think tough. You'll learn to break down psychological barriers and develop a hard edge that you can take into competition. "Trail running is mentally challenging," says Frost, "but the more challenges you conquer, the more you'll feel you can overcome the next barrier."
Sidestepping brambles, vaulting streams and sliding down mud-slicked paths will improve your mind-body coordination, as you use every muscle to stay upright and on the right track. Concentrating on every step also has the added benefit of distracting you from aching legs and burning lungs.
Snow-capped mountains, wooded glades, bleak moorland: you name it, trail running delivers. It gets you out into some of the most beautiful spots imaginable. Forget personal-best times and focus on enjoying the scenery, wildlife and solitude. "There's nothing like it," says Frost. "You can't beat the feeling of reaching the top of a mountain."
If you've been up on the fells in winter, you'll know that many runners wear little more than a skimpy vest and shorts, but they pay far more attention to what's on their feet. "It's essential to have studded trail shoes," says Jebb. "They'll give you grip and the confidence that you're not going to slip and fall." He also recommends wearing well-fitting clothes that won't cause you to trip when you're charging downhill.
One step at a time
If you're a newcomer to challenging terrain, it's a good idea to start off easy. Giving your feet, muscles and brain time to adjust to running off-road is crucial if you're to avoid injury. "Progression is key," says Frost. "Go out with a friend. Run for no more than 30 minutes and build this up gradually, throwing
in steeper hills as you become more experienced."
From mountainous fell races to coastal-path trail runs, there is a huge variety of races for you to put your training to the test. "Entering an event will give you much more motivation to go out and train," says Frost. "If it's your first race, arrive early, find out what other people are wearing, whether there's any compulsory kit - such as waterproofs and maps - and enjoy the friendly atmosphere."
The first time you run a new trail, it's a good idea to go with someone who knows the route well. Be sure to tell someone where you are going and take a mobile phone and whistle with you. "If you are running in the hills, take a compass and map with you," says Jebb. When civilisation seems a long way off, it's also essential that you pay attention to the weather, which can change very quickly. "Take a waterproof top and bottoms with you," says Jebb. "If you become injured and have to walk back, layers will protect you from the dangers of exposure."
Forget obsessing about mileage when you're running off-road and aim instead for time on your feet. You'll cover far less terrain on a trail than on a road, so remember to make allowances for this. "I live by time, and never train by distance," says Frost. "You'll soon be able to judge roughly how far you've run by how long you've been out."
Whether you're training or racing off-road, carry energy bars or gels for an instant energy hit. You should also aim to stay hydrated, too, so if you're going to be running for more than an hour, consider carrying a water bottle or wearing a CamelBak.
Blazing a Trail
Alistair Brownlee, the 2009 ITU Triathlon World Champion and seven times Yorkshire fell-running champion, heads for the hills as often as he can.
"I've been doing fell races since I was eight. We used to spend all our family holidays in the Yorkshire Dales. There were fell races and local shows on most days so we would compete and feel really proud when we won £2.
I don't run on the fells in the summer anymore because I'm triathlon training or competing - it's a bit dangerous, too: many fell races are long and run over rough ground. I race off-road in the autumn and winter instead for fun, as part of my training. I enter fairly short team events and don't take it that seriously.
I love the variety of running off-road, concentrating on where I put my feet and relishing the toughness of the hills. It's a great all-round workout, and great for mental toughness. If you can run hard off a hilltop, you can run hard off the bike in a triathlon.
Fell running in the off-season is a huge advantage when I'm racing regularly in the summer. Winter training could be the same every single week so a fell race is a great way to break that up. I also have to remember that in the summer when I'm racing all the time, I'm fitter than in the winter, so I have to remind myself not to worry if a race feels harder than I think it should."
Fleet fell feet
- Follow Brownlee's top tips to see your off-roading flourish.
- It sounds obvious, but watch where you put your feet.
- Know the route or follow someone who knows it well.
- Take short, fast strides up hills and try to keep running.
- Run downhill on your heels and use the grips on your off-road shoes to keep you stable.
- Run and race on the trails in winter for a great motivation boost and to enjoy the sociability of events.