With the Old Mutual Two Oceans newly added trail run coming up on Easter Friday, we asked a few seasoned trail runners for some tips on how to prepare and what to expect.
Trail running is vastly different from road running, and anyone thinking of making the transition should do a little research before they hit the rocky road.
Sue Bracher, Douglas Roussouw and Mike Buys are experiences runners, they have run many a rock-strewn road and tacked narrow, bushy tracks with the agility and speed of a rock dassie. And there is one thing they all agree on – trail running rocks.
Brains and brawn
One thing that separates running on a trail from road running, apart from the obvious difference in terrain, is that trial running requires more concentration.
“It's more exhilarating and less monotonous than the road” says Bracher, a road running champ with medals to prove it, “The surface is different and constantly changes. It's also more time consuming - some events continue for several days and involve camping out.”
Rossouw agrees and says that anyone looking to make the transition from road to trail should realize that “a fast road runner will often be a fast trail runner, but the fastest road runner is not necessarily the fastest trail runner”.
“There are definitely techniques that have to be learned to run up major inclines and down hill. For example, when approaching a collection of rocks, it may be the fastest solution to go over as opposed to around the rocks.
“There is also a certain amount of courage or stupidity that determines the maximum speed on trail, and not necessarily fast twitching muscles and such things. Trail running is not as repetitive, therefore you do not suffer from as much body strain as road running. I am more stuffed after a 56 km Two Oceans on the tar that after Tuffer Puffer.”
Meanwhile Buys says that for him, the allure of trail running lies in the freedom it gives him. “There are no km markers and no water points - the challenge to run on your own.”
Where to begin
Right, so now you’ve been convinced to hit the trail and challenge those muscles – how what? Firstly you will need more gear than you do with road running. It’s important not to underestimate how tough trail running can be, so coming prepared, even as a beginner, will make the experience a whole lot more pleasant.
Bracher advises getting the best trail shoes that you can afford.
“You may need two or three different type of shoe to suit the terrain as well as trail socks, which are thicker than road socks. Most events also require the entrants to carry water, so you'll need either a waist-band bottle holder for short events or a back-pack with a water bladder. And for night runs, a headlight is essential, hand hold torches are useless,” she says.
Rossouw adds that the shoes should also be sturdy enough to ensure you don’t slip on smooth surfaces.
“If runs are in remote areas, or in unfamiliar territory, then things get more complicated, but there is no such thing as bad weather, only badly dressed runners. A compass strapped to the outside of a backpack (accessible - not buried down deep) is very useful, just to keep track of where you are heading in good and bad visibility.
“If you are attempting a longer, unsupported run, take basic first aid stuff such as a blister kit, bandages for strapping sprains/snake bites, myprodol in case you need to dose up to get off the mountain before dark. Snacks are always cool.”
No shame in walking
Another difference from road running is that in trail races walking is not frowned upon as sometimes it’s virtually impossible to run if the track is too rocky or steep. It also allows you time to catch your breath before you tackle the next obstacle that’s bound to be waiting over the next hill. However, you do need to be relatively fit to do trail running in the first place as Bracher points out.
“Your fitness will determine the distance you can attempt. The fitter you are, the more you'll enjoy it. But mental strength, as for any form of sport, is 80% of the battle.”
The fun factor
According to Rossouw one of the best parts of trail running is “downhill rock hopping - It's like being a kid again!”
Other attractions, as Bracher points out include “beautiful routes, the relatively small number of entrants and better organisation than road races. “The routes often pass through restricted areas, so entering a trail run may be your only opportunity to go there.”
The not-so-fun side
Unfortunately however, there are a few draw-backs to trail running that one must consider before heading off into the wilderness.
“Some of the dangers include falling and mugging (in some areas). Snakes are often not a problem but it’s best to prepare by never running alone - and don't run with an idiot,” says Rossouw. Bracher agrees and advises that you get to know the area you plan to run in first and be aware of any possible dangers that might arise.
“Always run with a buddy and let someone know where you are going and how long you expect to take,” she says.
How to tackle the routes
While Buys says the best advice he gives is “Run like hell and don’t hold back” there are a few other considerations that novice runners should take note of. Firstly the loose stones and rocks that make your ankles wobble and your step unsteady. These can be very treacherous especially if you have built up momentum on a downhill and hit a rocky track.
Rossouw says that if you do come across a path where the rocks are a bit ‘wobbly’, just keep going.
“You should be running at a comfortable clip, which tends to ensure that you have momentum that carries you over the wobble and your next foot is in contact on the next rock by that time.”
As for the high climbs, however, they all agree you will have to figure this out for yourself as each runner is different and while some can run up a rocky hill, others might find it easier to take it slow and steady, and make up the time on the downhill’s.
And speaking of the downhill’s, Rossouw advises a smooth run “gently touch each rock as you glide over it. Sounds like nonsense, but the odds of you slipping increases in direct proportion to the time you spend on the rock, which is allied to the traction that you are hoping to achieve between your shoe and the rock. Ergo, if you only briefly touch the rock as you glide down, you won't slip. If you try and stop on each rock on the way down, you will you will fall - and take a lot longer.”
Other useful info from the experts:
Event duration: Just like in road running, you have short events and long events. Short can be anything from 1 hour on, and long can be two, three days or even weeks.
Surface: Trail running in the western cape takes place on a variety of surfaces:
Jeep tracks: This is often a gravel road that a 4x4 vehicle can drive on. Not cool for hardcore trail runners.
Sandy paths: This is a single track, windy little paths, often with isolated rocks here and there. Running along here makes you think that you are fast.
Rocky terrain: This is often up or down hill. Most of the rocks are Table Mountain sandstone, which is usually not at all slippery. Up hills often involve a fast walk, and down hills often involve rock hopping.
Navigation: You do need to know where you are going, or be with someone who knows where you are going. You will get lost somewhere, sometime on a trail run.
Time / distance: You tend to proceed a lot slower on a trail run. It is not unusual for a two hour 21 km runner to take six hours from Constantia Nek to the Waterfront (which is the same distance).
Falling: Everybody falls now and then, but this usually happens in the car park on the way back when the concentration switch gets flipped to "off".
Sources: Sue Bracher, Douglas Roussouw and Mike Buys.
(Amy Henderson, Health24, March 2010)