Ever since I fell in love with trail running all those years ago, I never understood how every road runner who set foot on a trail was not immediately converted and never looked back. How to beat the thrill of single-track trail through spectacular natural environments, wildly diverse landscapes, brutal climbs in beautiful mountains, constantly changing trail conditions? I mean surely it doesn’t compete with the drudgery of flat tarmac, traffic, suburban street sameness, perfectly measured race distances and perfectly regular water stations with a gazillion plastic sachets lying dead in the road? And yet obviously it did.
As a passion for trail running evolved, more by luck than strategic business plan, into becoming a trail event organiser, the question become a commercial one: How to convert some of the hundreds of thousands of dedicated road runners that line up at the hundreds of organised road races every weekend to the joys of trail!
10 years later I have not found the answer. But in analysing the question I have come to a few important understandings around some of the key but less obvious differences between the appeal of road running versus trail running. Hopefully this is helpful in my crusade.
Trail running and trail races are by definition more expensive. Most of us live in cities or towns where we step out of our doors and just start running. Almost none of us are lucky enough to have trails on our doorsteps, and for most of us, “good” trails are a long way away. To spend any time on trails is going to take more time and cost more money in terms of transport and, for the better “destination” trail events, accommodation. There is no getting around this, but there is a compromise. Every weekend in or around the major centres there are small affordable trail races that as often as not people do not know about. So before thinking that they need to commit to getting to the Drakensberg for Runtheberg, the Garden Route for The Otter Run, or the Kalahari Desert for the Klipspringer Challenge, roadies can explore their trail curiosity closer to home. Most running clubs these days have fledgling dedicated trail sections, and of course, there’s Google. It’s not hard to investigate the options. Just in Joburg, as an example, there is the authentic semi-annual WildJoburg Trail Run in the mountainous South that most people living North of the Hillbrow Tower never think about, as well as wonderful and safe trail destinations like Klipriviersberg, Rietvlei and Wolwespruit in Pretoria. Swap out your planned 10-15km road run one weekend with 8-12km on dirt – you won’t be sorry!
Trail running does require more kit & equipment than road running, where essentially all one needs is a pair of running shoes. Compulsory Equipment lists can include things like torches, space blankets and even GPS devices, but the one stock standard requirement is carrying your own water. Many experienced trail runners use different systems for different types of outings,
alternating between handheld flasks, waist-belts and full hydration packs. It’s easy enough through a fairly cheap trial and error process to find what works for you. The advantages of carrying your own hydration are twofold. First, more and more road races are specifying some kind of “carry your own” requirement. This trend will only continue to get out ahead of the curve. Second, the sense of freedom that comes from being self-sufficient is exhilarating. There is nothing more liberating than knowing that you have everything you need on your back and that you can run as long and as far as your legs will allow.
A lot is made of the need for dedicated trail shoes. There are specialist mud shoes, technical shoes, rock shoes, fell running shoes, wet weather shoes, cold weather shoes, desert shoes and so on. Shoe shopping can be fun but also expensive. Remember this – nobody has yet died from running a trail in road shoes. There’s no reason you can’t run your first few trail races in your trusty pavement pounders. For entry-level newbies just trying trail out for size, another good option could be any one of a number of crossover road/trail shoes offered by most recognised brands.
Pace & Speed
Road running is all about pace, speed and PB’s. Trail running is not. Strangely enough, I think that this is one of the reasons new converts find trail running so hard – they are trying to run everything. Experienced trail runners know that on any good trail there are parts that are either not runnable or just not worth running in terms of the reward for effort. Roadies struggle to get their heads around this and often make the mistake of either running the unrunnable bits and finding the whole experience so hard that they hate it, or they are devastated by a pace that is significantly slower than their road pace for the same distance. While obviously very similar, road and trail are very different disciplines. Being aware of this upfront will allow you to enjoy rather than fight the differences. When you hit a steep technical climb put the watch away, forget about running, break out the energy bar and get ready to take some pictures at the top.
Remember that trail running is a relatively young sport. Many of the Founding Fathers and Mothers of the sport are still with us, and trail runners generally see themselves as some kind of muddy bloody pioneering mavericks. In our grandparents’ day, short distance running was on a track, long-distance running was on flat city streets, a few nutcases ran Cross-Country on grass, and anything on a trail or in the mountains was called Hiking. That maverick spirit lives on. Don’t be surprised by trail races that don’t have prizes or give medals, don’t be surprised by a shortage of aid stations, or by aid stations serving Sunday roasts and a selection of beer and wine. Especially don’t be surprised by deviations in advertised distances. An unwritten rule of thumb for an authentic trail race is that anything within a 10% margin, either over or under, is OK. This is not just laziness or some kind of protest against uniformity. It reflects the reality on the rocky ground – three people measuring
a rugged 50km mountain trail that has 3000m of net vertical ascent with the same GPS devices set to the same settings are guaranteed to get fairly significantly different readings. Know this and take it in your stride. The Race Director that gets the measurement of a road marathon wrong may get fired; the Race Director that is told that runners ran an extra couple of kilometres in a mountain ultra will likely reply jokingly that the runners can pay for the balance at next year’s race.
An old trail running adage goes “It’s not a real trail run if there isn’t any blood”. Every trail runner with half a brain acknowledges the idiocy of this concept, but roadies will be horrified to know that it holds true for most of us. There’s a reason that many trail races specify a basic first-aid kit as part of the runners’ compulsory equipment list. The important thing is to be prepared. The simple fact is you are more likely to fall while running down a steep rocky descent than on a flat road, and you are more likely to hit your head on a low branch while running through a forest than on a street sign while running through a suburb. The good news is that it is definitely possible to train yourself to concentrate better and for longer, to improve your peripheral vision, and, critically, to fall with minimum damage. Aren’t those good skills for everyone to have anyway?
Vert & Technicality
Net Vertical Ascent affectionately referred to as “Vert”. This is one of the stand-out points of departure between tar & trail. Of course, many road races have net elevation as a factor, with our legendary Comrades Marathon the first to come to mind, going so far as to have alternating UP and DOWN races. Vert, however, is one of the fundamental strands of the DNA of trail running, with the elevation profile being almost as important as the distance, in some cases more so. Trail running even has a thing called a “Vertical Kilometre” – it’s as hard as it sounds! The third strand of trail is technicality. “Non-technical” refers to a pretty flat course that almost emulates running on a road. Very runnable, easy to get into a rhythm, and fast. Then there are levels of technicality, yet to be officially or uniformly graded to any system, that add exponential levels of complexity and difficulty to a run. Rockiness, slipperiness, loose gravel, soft sand, mud, vegetation, ice & snow and water crossings are examples of things that contribute to the technicality of a run. And we begin to see why PB’s are not a huge feature in trail running!
On reading this it may seem that this is less a list of the differences between road and trail running as it is a list of things that make trail running harder. It is important to warn against this approach. Different disciplines but same sport. It is all running. Good road runners are likely to be good trail runners, and vice versa. Obviously being a trail champion does not mean you will be a road champion. Similarly being a 10km champion means you’ll probably run a fair marathon (with proper training) but it doesn’t mean you’ll win it. Different disciplines. Runners who are used to bringing up the rear in a trail race may find themselves closer to the middle of the pack in a road race, and vice versa. Different disciplines. But the same sport. I’ve given up trying to convert road runners AWAY from tar, but I will never give up on exposing them to the
absolute bloody grimy spectacular sheer self-sufficient natural exhilaration of trail. Different disciplines, same sport. Until you’re doing both, you’re not getting the most you can get out of your love of running.