Wake up and smell the dirt: the new boom sport of trail running is gathering more dust than a wildebeest migration.
By Chris Ord.
Face it. Bitumen is boring. Concrete? Crap. Tarmac is tedious and running asphalt is about as much fun as sniffing your own… ask anyone who has taken the plunge off-road and they’ll agree.
Of course, there’s nothing new about trail running — most people knew it back in their high school days as cross-country running.
And most people left it in their high school locker of memories along with their stinky gym bag.
And while it’s early days yet, you could see a clearing of the roads as runners start to turn to trail en masse. After all, the view is much better. The smell is nicer (no car fumes) and the chances of being car-doored by some hoon trying to brain you with a Jim Beam can on a night run are lessened to zero.
In the United States and in Europe, it’s already the latest boom sport, with events proliferating, competitor numbers mushrooming to sell-outs and recreational runners digging feverishly into their old trekking guides in search of wilderness routes to rediscover on the hoof.
Now it’s our turn, apparently. Ultras such as The North Face 100, Six Foot Track Marathon, Great Ocean Walk 100 and the Cradle Mountain Run are sold-out events, the former going as far as to attract international competitors, including the world’s best in Spanish flash Kilian Jornet, 24, along with mainstream media coverage in newspapers and TV news bulletins.
Even trail slogger Beau Miles, who in 2011 become the first person to run the length of the Australian Alpine Walking Track, all 660km of it, featured on television’s Sports Tonight. Never has the sport had such a high profile.
One man who has not just witnessed and celebrated such growth but also been an integral part of the flourish is Andrew Vize, co-founder of ultra running website Ultra168.com and a lead-packer in ultra events (anything more than 42km) across the country.
In 2001, the Sydneysider competed in five ultra trail runs ranging in distance from 45km to 240km, placing first and breaking the race record in three events (Mt Solitary Ultra, North Face100 pairs and Great North 100 miles). He also registered a third in the 240km Coast to Kosciuszko, Australia’s longest non-stop ultra marathon.
“There’s no doubt that trail running in Australia and around the world is growing exponentially. Races are selling out in hours, if not minutes. Lotteries for 100-mile (160km) races with 8000-plus people seeking 350 or fewer spots are now the norm,” says Vize, who snagged a slot in the granddaddy of trail ultras, the Western States 100, in 2011, and went on to become the fastest-ever Australian to run there.
He notes that while the global scene has taken the sport to new levels, the domestic scene isn’t far behind. “The level of competition at the top races around the country is fierce. Gone are the days of just trying to ‘complete’ an event, now there are dozens turning up to race as fast as possible for up to 30 hours at some of the tough 100-mile races.”
So what is it about trail running that is dragging competitive A-types and plodders off-road? “Trail running provides people with the ability to cover longer distances than traditional bushwalking, which gives enormous potential to explore new areas, touch trees, smell the dirt, cross rivers and generally get amongst it as if it’s just one big playground out there.
When any sporting ranks start bloating with newbies, it’s inevitable that the top end gets more competitive, but we’re a long way from punch-ups on the trail. In 2010, The North Face 100 witnessed an extraordinary outcome when the two blokes duelling for the lead, Stuart Gibson and Andy Lee, made a pact (and even more surprisingly kept it) 2km from the finish to cross the line together. Hand in hand, would you believe? Those days are over, reckon the pros, especially Gibson and Lee, who copped enough ribbing to ensure they never again consider such a gentlemanly gesture.
Along with the international success of the inspirational Born To Run, by US author Chris McDougall, another factor pushing trail running into the public consciousness is the emergence of celebrity trail runners, backed by big marketing dollars, appearances in adverts and films and the creation of super trail teams. “I’m inspired constantly by Salomon Trail running international athlete Kilian Jornet,” says Vize. “He’s in a different world to just about every other runner on the planet. Having run next to him on a few occasions, I’d say it’s equivalent to watching Tiger Woods hit a hole in one, or Michael Jordan attacking the hoop flawlessly in basketball. He makes the impossible look easy.”
Jornet, along with the likes of South African Ryan Sandes (recently in Tasmania for the Mark Webber Adventure Challenge), have pushed the sport to a new level, not just in terms of performance
(in 2010 Jornet ran up the 5895-metre Mount Kilimanjaro from base camp to Uhuru Peak and back in 7 hours, 14 minutes), but also the ability to inspire a new legion of fans through their media profiles.
But let’s be honest — the media’s mainstream pitch in general is still the “these guys are crazy” hook. After all, if Joe Public reckons doing a marathon is nuts, what will he think of runners doing that and much longer, but in the mountains?
The evidence that trail running is about to dump a heap of fun runners off-road is the emergence of shorter, less technical trail-running events designed to lure everyday punters rather than just the masochists. A prime example is the Salomon Trail Running Series (salomontrailseries.com.au), its first event held in the heart of Melbourne, along the banks of the Yarra River, last year. “Our events are tailored to be achievable by the average runner,” says event director John Jacoby. “And we’ve located them all within an hour of an urban centre, so they’re accessible, too,” he says, pointing out that many trail running events in Australia are held in the middle of nowhere on purpose.
“Which is understandable — part of trail running is about getting into these pristine environments and appreciating them on foot. But if we want more people to get into trail running, we have to provide stepping-stone events where we give them a stunning single-track course, but don’t put them through the mill too much. You don’t want to scare them off — they’ll be addicted soon enough.”
“There’s enormous potential to explore new areas, smell the dirt and get amongst it as though it’s just one big playground.”
The Salomon Trail Running Series consists of events with courses ranging from 5-14km. Even so, organisers have smelt the ultra roses too, and for 2012 have added a fourth 100km event on Victoria’s surf coast as a grand finale.
Another director of trail events, Brett Saxon from Trails Plus (trailsplus.org), believes it’s crucial for organisers to cater for the shorter, less technical, courses as more runners are willing to explore off-road. He puts on a shorter 30km option at his Mount Macedon Trail Run event (the main race is 50km) and his You Yangs Trail Running Festival has a 15km fun run, giving runners a taste of what to expect as they prepare for the longer courses: 30, 50 and 80km.
“There’s a definite need for stepping-stone events — you don’t just go out and do a 50km trail run
off the bat,” says Brett. “Yet it’s true that events to date have mostly been ultras, but that’s changing — and I think that those just getting onto trails will build up to the longer events.”
Trail tuition: how and why you should get dirty
Many would argue that the best trail running is on “single track” — often hiking trails that can only be traversed on foot. These are best because they usually lead to the most pristine environments. Trail running does encompass running on dirt roads and fire trails, and can sometimes include short stretches of road to get between trails. Essentially, however, it is about running in beautiful and inspiring parts of the world that remain as Mother Nature intended.
Serious trail runners such as Vize are akin to marathon or ultra runners — they train hard, are supremely fit and tackle extreme distances and terrain, sometimes over multiple days. The environment in which they run can also be tough — high altitudes (think the Himalayas), rough, off-trail routes (that need navigation) — and grades so steep you’d think you’d need a rope to get up and a lift to get down.
But that’s at the extreme. Events such as the Salomon Trail Running Series promote accessible and comfortable running and terrain that is about enjoyment mixed with fitness: routes that weave between trees featuring gentle inclines, with trails underneath being well-padded, smooth and clutter-free. What we’d call a non-technical trail. Technical trails have clutter underfoot: rocks, roots, drops, scrambles and scree.
Thus the incentive of trail running is much more powerful: the thought of running through a wild, beautiful place is more likely to get you out there than yet another dreary jog around the block. And if you’re out there more, that’s clearly beneficial.
Specifically, when compared to road running, the physical benefits of trail running are also clear. To keep on the environmental angle — you’ll be breathing in lungfuls of fresh, newly created tree-breath. That is, oxygen. Crisp, clean and free of nasty toxins and pollutants found in your common suburban city variety of air. Smells better too.
Your body benefits: trail running involves more whole-body muscle movement. You’re twisting and turning, changing direction, ducking a tree branch, pushing off a rock, taking a big step, then a little one, changing pace, climbing, descending. Simply, it demands more effort and uses more muscles. Holistically, you get much fitter.
Paradoxically, the long-term rigours on the body are lessened too. In road running, you maintain a similar pace and a repetitive motion, every time your feet crash into the ground. The hips, knees, ankles and foot arch are banging through exactly the same movement with every step, creating repetitive wear on the same joints and muscles.
Running trails, the contact with the earth and the angles at which you collide with it, are always changing. So the impacts are shared between joints and impact zones — and other muscles are strengthened, meaning less wear and tear overall.
Further, the compounds you’ll be running on (dirt, grass etc) are much softer than bitumen and concrete, so the sheer force exerted on joints is less as the ground provides cushioning. Again, when taken over the hundreds of thousands of foot-strikes we’re talking about, the cumulative benefit is huge.
And did we mention the view? While road running takes you past concrete monstrosities, trail running will take you to some beautiful and memorable places. What’s not to like about that?
The key to a lot of trail running is to stay light and nimble on your feet — as though you’re floating over the terrain, only touching down for a bit of spring. As you spring from side to side or up and down larger steps, resist the tendency to favour one leg over the other. A lot of runners start using one leg as the “plant” leg to land on heavily, and the other as the “drive” or “push-off” leg. Each leg should do these actions interchangeably.
Run on the balls of your feet, not your heels. This means less pounding, more speed and greater control.
Shorten your stride and keep your head up and chest forward. Run relaxed and try to find a rhythm that will take you up and over each hill with relative ease. Some trail runners don’t even run up a severe incline, as you actually waste more energy trying to bound up vertically and don’t necessarily go any faster than if you didn’t bounce and just power-walked up.
To a greater extent than on the roads, trails offer the chance to round a corner and “hide”. Practise bursts of speed when turning corners. Competitors won’t see you accelerate and will experience a mental letdown when they see you’ve “gapped” them. Include this manoeuvre as a regular part of your fartlek workout.
It’s possible to cross a stream while barely wetting your feet. All you have to do is high-step across as quickly as possible, allowing your feet to touch down only for a fraction of a second. Try it. And don’t be afraid to run right through a stream. Too many competitors lose valuable time by stopping at the edge of a stream mid-race.
Train for the Trail
With road running, it’s easy to get into a rhythm in terms of your cadence, your breathing and your mindset. With trail running, the pace and exertion levels change constantly — initially, this makes it hard to find a rhythm, making some runners uncomfortable. There is a rhythm to be found in trail running, but it’s more about the natural rhythm of changing pace constantly and attuning to your environment.
You’ll use many more muscles overall when running trails. Your movements will be more varied as you constantly twist and turn, weaving between trees, stepping over roots and rocks, learning where and how to place your feet and shift your centre of gravity to remain upright while also maintaining pace.
You’ll also improve your reaction times and co-ordination as your responses get used to the constantly changing terrain.
Importantly, it’s important to build your base fitness. If you’re starting from a low base, don’t go out there and suddenly put in marathon efforts. You will only end up injured and not able to run. Better to start off slowly.
TRAIN FOR DISTANCE
To prepare for any race shorter than a 10km, plan a long run that lasts around 60 minutes. For 10km or longer, work up to 90 minutes or more. Don’t feel discouraged if you’re running slower than you do on road; that’s the nature of trails. Obviously, the more kilometres you get in your legs, the better — to a point. Overtraining can be more harmful than under-training. Never increase your total distance for a week by more than 10 percent.
CROSS-TRAIN FOR STRENGTH
Some resistance and gym training can be good for the trail — high reps on lower weights, doing exercises that strengthen core muscles and some larger muscles, such as your quads and hammies.
Developing your quads and glutes through weight training and cycling (either on a stationary bike or mountain bike) will give you more power when running uphill and more strength late in the race. Also, you’ll strengthen the ligaments and muscles around your knee. Step-ups with weights are good for trails where there are a lot of big steps, up or down. Some squats and knee-raises are also good for general strengthening, helping your leg-control for heavy landings and protecting your knees.
TRAIN FOR AGILITY
Get out on some rocky or root-strewn trails. Take it slowly at first — no use busting an ankle. This is half about training the body and half about training the instinct. Your mind needs to be in two places at once: a few metres ahead to ascertain what’s coming, while also telling your feet and body where to be right in front of you.
You can train for agility off-trail, of course — even in your backyard. The old witches’ hats, set at uneven distances, are great for weaving and changing direction quickly. Or if you have access to some old tyres or similar hoop-like object, try the old one-two line-up, army-style, where you rapidly put your feet in them, alternating, one after the other.
TRAIN FOR SPEED AND EXERTION VARIABILITY
A good trail racer possesses two forms of speed: leg speed and trail speed. Alternate the following two types of speed-training sessions every week:
Leg speed is the flat-out turnover of your legs, best developed on the track, not the trail. You’ll increase stride efficiency, sense of pace and anaerobic threshold by doing a weekly set of 6-8 x 400 metres or 3-4 x 800 metres at slightly faster than race pace. If the track just isn’t your bag, try some hill work. Start with 4-6 repeats of a 200m to 400m hill, eventually working up to 8 or 10.
Trail speed is the ability to run at race pace over varying terrain. This is best accomplished with a 30- to 45-minute fartlek run on a trail that’s not too rugged. The term fartlek, or “speed play”, was coined by the Swedes to describe speedwork on trails. It involves alternating your speed in bursts over varying distances (or better, for different, set time periods), i.e. fast/1 minute, slow/2 minutes, medium/5 minutes, fast/2 minutes, medium/5 minutes, fast/30 seconds, slow/5 minutes and so on.
10 BEST TRAIL RACES IN AUSTRALIA
- The North Face 100 — the biggest and most famous, through the Blue Mountains, NSW. 100km. thenorthface.com.au/100/
- GOW100 — run along the stunning Great Ocean Walk, west coast Victoria. 100km. https://sites.google.com/site/gow100s/home
- Bogong To Hotham — in the Victorian Alps, one of the most brutal trail runs in Australia. 64km. Solo. https://sites.google.com/site/bogong2hotham/
- Pomona King of the Mountain — short, but steep as hell. Leaders top the mountain and back in under 30 minutes. kingofthemountain.com.au/
- Kokoda Challenge. Perhaps the most brutal of all the runs listed — 96km of the Kokoda Trail. Others walk it in a week or more, you run it in a day (and night). kokodatrail.com.au/kokodachallenge.html
- Six Foot Track Marathon — one of the most revered and oldest trail ultras (just, at 45km). sixfoot.com/
- Cradle Mountain Run — 82km along Tasmania’s famous Cradle Mt to Lake St Clair track. cradlemtnrun.asn.au/
- Triple Top Mountain Run. Tops off Mounts Claude, Vandyke and Roland over 19.7km. kentishlions.org.au/triple-top
- Coastal Classic — an inspiring 29km run along the Royal National Park’s (NSW) classic Coast Track. maxadventure.com.au/coastalclassic/
- The Track — unique nine-stage 520km race from Alice Springs to Uluru . Yes, this is the next level. canal-aventure.com