Google “running off road” and you could be forgiven for thinking that running trail is only for experienced runners and that there is a whole checklist you need to consider before you venture out. Don’t go out alone, pump your arms, don’t over-do it, don’t bend at the waist, tell someone where you are going, lift your feet high, stick to clear paths, wear the ‘right’ shoes and so forth. You might then think that running trails is akin to journeying to the Antartic with the chance of a polar bear encounter, and if you need to follow all these “rules”, you may well never leave the house.
Yet if you talk to the Absolute Beginners whose first experience of running is on trail with me, I suspect you would get a big grin and a cheeky comment. Ranging in age from 12 – 65, these beginners often join with huge barriers to running but “running off road” isn’t one of them.
Some have been told they were rubbish as a child; some have had serious injuries; lots have never exercised and all tell me ‘I can’t run’. Most are concerned they don’t run “properly”. But refreshingly, as new runners, they haven’t read the blurb, they haven’t been told that they need to proceed with extreme caution. They are too worried about actual running to worry about where they are running.
In fact, if you are new to running or have never run, running off road is brilliant. The scenery is constantly changing, the air feels clean and walking hills is normal. The trees don’t care if we are turning bright red or not wearing the latest running gear and on top of that there is always flora and fauna to wonder at and touch. This fires up our brains, our imaginations and importantly our motivation. Add this to the natural smells and colours of being on trails and it’s no wonder that research shows huge positive mental health benefits from running off road.
My experience is that beginners get fitter quicker off road than they do on. The nature of trail means you have to lift your knees higher, you learn to be more nimble so improving your balance and co-ordination and you use your whole body to stabilise on uneven ground. The uphills, downhills, muddy puddles, long grass and so forth means that our bodies and brains are challenged and to meet that challenge they get stronger. But we don’t have to have a tick list to achieve all this. It just happens because running off road is so much more than running. Its about the experience, its about the adventure.
So ignore the voice saying ‘I can’t’ and give it a go. Go explore. Walk, jog, shuffle, run, whatever. Be curious and have fun. Grab a map of your local area, find a funny place name and go look for it or follow that path that you have never been down before.
Take a look at my beginner groups after a few weeks of coaching and they believe it is normal to jump that puddle, to run ankle deep in mud, to spy other runners and comment if they are running tall. Ask them if they can run and their answer: ‘I am no snail…. I can run trail!’
Written by National Running Show ambassador Jude Palmer