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Trail running tips: Why beginners shouldn’t ignore these 6 basic rules

Trail running: Beginners can easily minimise injuries and maximise gains with a little bit of knowledge. Here are some rules that you should follow.

Written by Abhimanyu Chakravorty | New Delhi | Updated: March 29, 2018 9:22:36 pm
Trail running tips: Why beginners shouldn't ignore these 6 basic rules Focus rather on finding a rhythm your body is comfortable with during a trail race (Source: Thinkstock Image)

Akshat Dwivedi has failed more times than he has succeeded. Ever since he graduated from road-running to the trails, he’s had a tough time adapting to the dynamic terrain. With each failure, he became more confident, more knowledgeable and eventually minimised injuries. A simple shift from road to trails made a world of difference to his motivation too. “I realised what this change could provide in terms of variety, strength and motivation,” said the 34-year-old Gurugram-based corporate lawyer.

Dwivedi adopted trail running six years back when he said adios to road running. Although he ran several half-marathons in New Delhi and Mumbai, trail running gave him the push he needed to break his fitness plateau and discover his unrealised abilities. “I had no clue that trail running would eventually lead to several marathons, give me access to a new community of professional runners, and knowledge about the strength benefits of training off-road. But it was not all smooth sailing. I’ve twisted my ankles more times than I can remember,” added Dwivedi, who is now a regular trail runner, and hits the Aravalli forests in Gurugram during weekends.

Shin splints, sprained ankles, runner’s knee, cuts and bruises are some common injuries that saddle new trail runners. Unexpected elements and uneven terrain can be very engaging but also increases chances of difficult trail injuries.

“These mistakes are common for beginners because of the key differences and expectations between running on different surfaces,” explained Coach Ravinder Singh, a fitness coach and veteran marathon runner, who was associated with Columbia Sportswear Annual Trail Run held in Aravallis, Gurgaon last week. “Graduating from road to trail should be focused on strengthening of joints and core because of high impact running given the surface,” said Singh.

Khyati V Bhinde, Vice-President, Chogori India Retail Limited (Columbia Sportswear), feels Indians have undergone a cultural shift in terms of physical activity. “People increasingly want to be in nature and away from the daily stresses of city life. Although trail running is still a niche, runners feel more elevated on the trail, it’s an emotional thing to be outdoors,” she said.

Beginners can easily minimise injuries and maximise gains with a little bit of knowledge. This will not only make trail running more approachable, but also easier to fit into your daily routine.

Here are some rules that you should follow.

* Slow down, leave your ego at home

“On the road, you run faster. On trails, you will be much slower,” says Dr Rajat Chauhan.

Might be the hardest to accept but as a beginner, you can’t maintain similar pace on trails as on the road. So leave your ego at home and slow down. Focus rather on finding a rhythm your body is comfortable with. Over a few weeks, you will see yourself running uphills which you used to walk.

“On the road, you run faster. On trails, you will be much slower. Ankle twists come easy because every step is unpredictable. One needs to understand that we ran very well when we were kids, now we don’t. So slow down. Realise that stability matters more on trails, so don’t jump into it and don’t compare your timing with road races,” said Dr Rajat Chauhan, a New Delhi-based sports medicine doctor, who organises the 333-km ultramarathon La Ultra – The High in Leh-Ladakh.

* To begin with, focus on intensity not pace

“Aim for easy long runs on road and shorter distances on trails to begin with,” advises Coach Ravinder Singh.

Measure your runs based on intensity, not pace. This is purely because you will take more time on trails than on road. “Go for time instead of distance. Aim for easy long runs on road and shorter distances on trails to begin with,” said Singh. For example, if a 11 km run takes approximately an hour on the road, do a 60-minute trail run instead of a 11 km trail run. Note than you may be only capable of doing 8 km, but the exercise will be similar.

* Go easy on uphills and downhills

Respect the distance, understand the surface and conquer the distance.

Most beginners tend to think that a ‘trail run’, as with any other run, means running throughout at a designated pace, without slowing down. But when they see other runners around them slow down to a power hike on steep uphills and downhills, they realise why. “Slowing down doesn’t mean you’re weak. It often translates into a more efficient way of using energy to trudge up or down the the trail. So respect the distance, understand the surface and conquer the distance,” said Singh.

Dr Chauhan offers a plausible explanation: “Shorten your strides downhill and uphill because pressure on your knees will be lesser. You will see that your effort per km will also be lesser and you will be much more stable and in control of your stride.”

* Listen to your body, not your fitness tracker

If you ask any experienced trail runner, they will vouch for the fact that listening to their bodies has been critical to their success.

Although gadgets are good for keeping a track of your physical activity, don’t blindly follow them. If you ask any experienced trail runner, they will vouch for the fact that listening to their bodies has been critical to their success. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push your bodies to perform more than they possibly can. But to ignore tell-tale signs of pain or extreme exhaustion is foolish. “Listen to your breath, listen to your body, go the natural way, there’s a direct connect. Stopping or backing off when your body is telling you to doesn’t mean you lack the grit, but it implies your willingness to recognise your real physical limits,” said Chauhan.

* Don’t experiment with hydration, food, training gear on race day

During the race, don’t try anything new. Be it with running gear, hydration or nutrition. “Certainly experiment with food, hydration and running gear during training to know what works for you. But on race day, stick to what has helped you improve your performance during training,” said Singh.

“Sometimes we come too dependant on gels. They hit your bloodstream and it gives you a momentary energy spike because of sugar and then it dips. In a trail race, which is going to take you more time, it’s not feasible to rely only on gels. Fats like nuts, for instance, take time to kick in but stay for longer in your bloodstream releasing energy slowly. Sugar will give you that kick for the next 20 minutes but then it also leaves you with low glucose in your bloodstream and will make you feel fatigued. And suddenly, you’re dependant on gels,” said Chauhan.

So stick to what you know on race day.

* Regular running shoes won’t help

It might seem an unnecessary addition, but trail shoes greatly reduce the chance of ankle rolls because they sit lower to the ground and offer more stability at the heel. “You just can’t wear hiking or road running shoes on trails. You will slip and fall inevitably,” says Chauhan. Their stability is due to the fact that they employ more supportive materials on the upper layer of the shoe that keep your foot down, reducing chances of sliding inside. This, coupled with a more secure fit around the heel which opens out to a spacious toe box, adds to the stability factor. Most trail running shoes also have ‘toe bumpers’ which insulate your toes should you hit a rock or root.

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