My Love and Learnings From Trail Running
A few years ago, after completing a number of Ironman triathlons, I started trail running. Our TA Sunday runs with Greg at Fairfield had given me a small taster, which I loved, and a couple of friends at the time were organising some weekend trail running trips, so I decided to give it a go.
I’ve learnt so many things, many of which can help us with our triathlon training and races, and others more broadly with just life in general, so I thought I’d share them. This is how trail running has benefitted my life, many of these completely unexpected….
- It has built my strength – I am noticeably stronger now – running up and down hills, hopping, scrambling and climbing over rocks, traversing uneven surfaces, stumbling over tree roots (I’m particularly skilled at that) have all made my body stronger, more adaptable and more resilient than just running on flat road surfaces. It shows up in my speed and endurance when I do get back on the roads. And as an older athlete, I want to still be agile when I’m in my 80’s and I’m confident this will really help with my mobility and agility and get me there.
- It helps to mix up my training – too much of the same types of training for several years can cause challenges – it might be boredom resulting in a lack of motivation to get ourselves out of bed for yet another 6am swim session; it might be injury due to just too much relentless hard work striving to do it all for long periods of time; it might be a plateauing of our race times and not feeling we’re improving. Regardless, it can often make a big difference to just mix it up and do something different, to recharge, refresh and re-energise and re-discover the love and passion for what we do.
- It is building my skills, confidence and courage – I like to think I am a good road runner (generally top 10 in the run leg in a triathlon). Trail running has however been like learning a new skill for me, and I still have a long way to go. I love to watch the best trail runners fly down the technical descents like a mountain goat, sighting ahead and negotiating the boulders and rocks and tree roots with ease. And this isn’t just the fast runners, some of the slowest runners on the flat, smooth parts of the course just fly past me when it gets technical. Practice, practice, practice leads to skills, which leads to confidence, which leads to speed. Just watch some of the big international trail running events (UTMB, Western States) on YouTube to get a sense of what I am taking about.
- I get to explore amazing places – those of you who see my Facebook and Insta posts get to see the amazing and beautiful places that trail running takes me. It gets us right out into nature, with beautiful places and scenery to explore. And you can guarantee race directors have done the hard work for us, by choosing the best locations and routes for their courses. And particularly in this covid time when we can’t travel overseas, it’s enabling me to explore some beautiful parts of Victoria that I’ve never been to, or even heard of, before.
- The trail running community is incredible – yes, I know our TA family is awesome and supportive. But in the typical road running race, once you’re out there on the course it’s each for themselves; you might nod or make eye contact with another athlete, occasionally a high 5 with someone you know, but that’s about it. The trail running community is a whole different place when you’re in the middle of a race – everyone chats to each other during the race, even the very fast people leading the race will say a few words in passing. By the end of a race, you have made new friendships or at least some familiar faces for the next event. If you trip and fall, the people around you will stop their own race, even if it means taking significant time from their own race to make sure you are OK. In fact, it’s even an expectation of race directors that athletes stop and look after each other.
- While you might have goals, you’re not as obsessed with your watch and the time and your pace as in road running. In actual fact it can be completely meaningless – it might take you 15, 20 or 25 mins to complete a single km, if that stretch of the course is very technical. Instead you learn to use other signs to gauge how you are going – it becomes about how well you have managed to get up that particularly long hill and your strategy to get there, and whether you are managing your HR and intensity effectively.
- Many coaches will say trail running, and especially the longer distance events, is all about Problem Solving. Like an Ironman in some ways, it is about how you face, and overcome, a series of problems that will face you, and how you don’t let them get in the way and defeat you. I have to admit this is the bit I’m still struggling with and learn with every single race I do. It might be bad weather, an unusually difficult course that you hadn’t anticipated, chafing, blisters, niggles, running in the dark, nutrition or hydration issues. In the shorter events, it could simply be how you motivate to get yourself up that next hill or through that next tough looking section of the course.
- And finally, and most importantly for me, the mental health benefit. Linked to the above item about getting out into nature, I’ve just discovered I love it. I may never be as good a trail runner as I am a road runner, but that’s not entirely why I do it. I’ve discovered that when I get into nature, surround myself with trees, lakes, mountains, streams, that I am just happy and have a huge smile across my face. It is the yin, to the yang that is my busy job in corporate land. And, in fact, the biggest surprise outcome to me is that I have literally just bought a house right in the middle of those trees, mountains and streams so I can be closer to my beloved trails. And it might just be near some great cycling routes too….