With scenic vistas, mud aplenty and a rollercoaster set of hills, the Trailscape series 2014/15 was a firm fixture on my winter running calendar. And now it’s all over (well until October), it’s time to reflect on how these races have helped strengthen my mind, body and soul.It was tough and a real test of technical ability for runners but well worth the 5:45am wake-up call on a Saturday morning. More than simply being a series of four races, this trail running can improve your strength and fitness levels – it seems to have worked for me anyway.
For not only do you have to be relatively quick on your feet but you also have to face up to whatever the trail throws at you – mud, obstacles or the Prime Minister on a Saturday morning stroll.
Here are 10 ways I think trail running can make you stronger:
1. Works your core body strength
If you don’t use your tummy muscles, you will find yourself falling over as trail running is all about the uneven, muddy surfaces that drag you down if you’re not pulling on the inside. You may not be running as fast in a trail marathon as you would be in say a cross country race but the principles are exactly the same. Your tummy muscles will feel it a day or two later and these are imperative to stop you from falling boobs-over-bottom into the mud.
2. Uses your upper body
Whether you’re climbing over stiles or using your arms to propel you up a hill, those arms will be toughened up in no time. OK, you’re not going to develop massive pecks but your upper body will be put to use – especially when you consider that you’ll probably have to carry a rucksack packed with snacks and mandatory kit (if you’re racing) and also need to propel yourself over obstacles that get in your way.
3. Wakes up different sections of your limbs
You still use the hamstrings, calf muscles and quads when running trails as the hills challenge those hamstrings in particular but you also push your lower limbs and smaller ligaments such as around your ankles, lower calves and areas around the knee. When combined with bolstering your core, you will feel sore but as hard as nails after a few trail runs.
4. Tests your agility
Trails are long, windy and often with obstacles along they way so you really get to test the way you move your body. Forget straight linear running, you are constantly having to change the way you run as well as jump over the occasional stile. If you’ve ever warmed-up a run by wiggly running, then you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say trails is like a long path of wiggly running.
5. Works on your ability to be self-sufficient
With limits on numbers entered for trail races and often miles between you and other competitors, you get used to running on your tod. It can be challenging, especially if you go off-piste but all the more worthwhile. And while some trail routes have checkpoints (the Trailscape series does) where you’ll find enough energy sources to keep you going until Christmas, there are others where it’s down to you to feed yourself up. Running trails is an education in self-sufficiency both practically and mentally.
6. And yet appreciate your fellow competitors
Trail runners are undoubtedly a friendly bunch as you support each other along some rough terrain. Yes, you can end up running alone for miles but there are times when you find yourself in a small bunch of runners taking turns to take the lead and making decisions collectively in terms of the direction to take. You don’t necessarily have to chat but having the silent companionship alongside you while you muddle through a route led by arrows and red and white tape makes you appreciate those who love the sport as much as you do.
7. Improves your concentration
One false move and you’ll be feasting on mud pies or worse, find yourself with a crippling injury. While the views can be spectacular, you really need to be aware of your footing and focus on the route that you’re plodding. Trail racing may fire up your imagination but it’s not the time to go into your own little dreamworld. And yes it does improve your concentration (and teaches you how to be tactical in cross-country racing).
8. Helps you to adjust your pace
Unlike a road race where you can pretty much run the same pace throughout (give or take a few hills), you have to get used to adjusting your pace when running trails. Not only are you faced with undulating hills but there’s the uneven terrain which takes it toll on your speed. You find yourself in a balancing act between speed, agility and mental strength. Or adjusting your speed between a conversational pace and one sentence pace throughout the longer trails races. And you’ll come out all the stronger for it.
9. Get out of your comfort zone
Sure trail racing isn’t for everyone but by pushing you to the limit and challenging your body, you’ll find out that you’ve been sitting in your running comfort zone for way too long. I’m no running expert but I do know that to fundamentally improve you need to adapt your training routine so that you are hitting that good pain threshold and working muscles that have been asleep for a while. And you’ll also get a mental boost from the knowledge that you overcame a difficult and technical race.
10. Push yourself when the going gets tough
Here’s where the what running taught me about life comes in (I try not to get too philosophical about it all): by overcoming a tough trail where at times your legs feels like lead and it is so freezing you think you will never feel your fingers again builds your confidence. You were able to challenge yourself, feel the burn and come out the other side with a real sense of achievement and elation. And if you can do that then you can pretty much face life head on.
I loved the Trailscape series as it really helped build on my strength both mentally and physically throughout the winter months. Why not join in their next series? I promise you will not regret it. To find out more go to http://www.trailscape.co.uk/
Payday treats? Instead of spending £4 on a pint of cider, why not motivate me on the Marathon des Sables by putting a little cash my way. Find out more here http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/SaharaBecsRun