Parkour, the tricky urban phenomenon made popular in Casino Royale, involves running in, up and over urban environments. You don’t stop at a wall, you flip over it. Trail runners have been applying this no-compromise approach to running in nature since the sport’s inception. There’s a stream, a rock, a mountain, so what? Where’s the next step?
Fitness isn’t going to be enough to get you by, there’s an entire skill-set of tips you need. The most important trick you can have for trail running is to know that your road experience means zip. “Road runners are faster, but the discipline of controlling your heart rate and running at a pace isn’t applicable here,” says record-breaking trail runner Leo Rust. For the trail runner your gym is the terrain. Different tracks give you different workouts. You need to cultivate a confidence with obstacles like streams and hills – it’s more important than fitness or speed.
This confidence grows from a fearlessness of injury. “Seventy percent of twisted ankles happen in the last 20 minutes of a race,” says Rust. It’s when your focus abandons you. So the primary edge you should focus on is this confidence. You can’t learn a specific route because trails are always changing, so try to play with gravity instead. You might not be a parkour master, but if you keep finding ways to interact with gravity, whether that means walking along the curb or climbing a tree, then it’ll pay-off on the trail. If you watch a kid you’ll see they do it all the time and have better balance than most adults.
Rust never enters the gym. He does all his work out on the trail. He sees guys with intense fitness approach a stream and then stop dead. To be prepared you need to simulate the conditions of the race as closely as possible. “Even by mimicking how much water you’re going to carry in the race,” he says. Water weight changes your balance and mobility. Carrying extra weight to get fitter won’t help as much as familiarising yourself with exactly what you’re going to be carrying on the day.
The same goes for running at night. Know what you’re doing to avoid a treacherous turn. The trick is scan, don’t stare. If you look at a specific place in the dark for too long your eyes will become less sensitive to what little light there is. However, if you scan your eyes back and forth over the area you are looking at, you will be able to see details clearer.
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If you’re still worried about injury, the best way to stop ankle cracking is to improve your balance. In the morning you can put your socks on standing up. It’ll force a little one-legged maneuverability. Spend time standing up with your eyes closed – sounds easy, but it forces you to rely on your internal balance mechanisms and so develop them.
How To Survive The Trail
1. Take short, quick steps so you can react. Your stride rate should be about 90 per minute.
2. Tough terrain and hills can double your time. Experienced trail runners cover about 10km an hour, less-fit runners should target about six.
3. If you do go solo, give someone a map of your intended route.