Off road running allows the non-specialist to be a specialist in all styles. As a species, we are incredibly adaptive but we are also a product of our environment.
If you regularly run the same route in to a prevailing wind, you will soon develop a leaning gait. If you’re forever running up big hills, your calves may well bulge like giant corn in the cobs. Because we are also quite fussy, monochrome landscapes will rarely suffice, which is why we need to mix it up. With trial and error, eventually you’ll discover your favourite element.
Terrain: Rocky runs
To find the best rocky landscapes, you have to go back in time. In Snowdonia National Park, glaciation has created the archetypal aretes or ridges, such as Crib Goch and moraines, making it a giant skate park for runners.
Scree and slate slopes are found everywhere in Snowdonia, the lakes and many northern slopes of big hills, where the top layers have been exposed, provide an extra level of technical difficulty.
The rocky outcrops and piles of granite found on Dartmoor and Exmoor, suggests acidic soils and moorland, while Wester Ross in the North Western highlands, where Torridon Sandstone and Lewisian gneiss provide perfect rock leaping platforms.
Rocky terrain tells its own story of the landscape and can provide physical inspiration, as well as a place of refuge on a windy day.
Boulder leaping requires concentration, while pebbles and stones, provide extra sensory feedback, which is so much more satisfying for the body. By estimating the technical difficulty of your terrain, you will develop an awareness of your limitations.
Cautious, more methodical runners, may want to avoid rainy days on technical descents, where the risk of slipping will spoil your enjoyment of the run. Until you feel really confident, you should not run alone on extremely gnarly descents and slopes, without a windproof and waterproof top, bottoms, hat, compass and whistle, in case you fall, miles from rescue.
Richard Askwith, author of Running Free, says: “When you’re not used to it, the roughness of the surface is in some ways more challenging than the gradient. So it’s best to get used to that somewhere where the ups and downs aren’t too extreme and there aren’t too many rocks to hurt yourself on when you fall over.”
Watch out for hidden mine shafts and warrens. The numerous old warrens on Dartmoor, are booby trapped with sudden mini crevices, which could easily result in a sprained ankle or broken shin bone.
Run on your toes or midfoot, with your arms outstretched for balance. Landing on your heels will not provide the sensory feedback to take quick evasive action and increases your risk of an ankle strain.
Types of shoe
Inov-8 Roclites or La Sportiva Bushidas, provide good sticky soles and heel stability repectively.
Terrain: Sandy runs
Pembrokeshire Beaches or Northumberland beaches in the summer and Norfolk all year round.
Few running experiences can be better than a long, barefooted run along a beach on a sunny day with a slight breeze on your face. Running through dunes provides good resistance training and strengthens the legs. The Chariots of fire cliché has become etched in to running mythology because of its universal appeal.
The softness of the sand can mean a higher risk of Achilles tendon injury. A prominent camber near the water’s edge, can result in knee or hip injuries from running too far on one leg.
The harder sand can cause blisters, while stones and pebbles can throw in minor irritations, if you’ve cast off your shoes.
If you already suffer from tight hip flexors and calves, running on soft sand or shingle beaches will prove an energy sapping experience. So vary your stride length and cadence, which may mean running with and against the wind.
Types of shoe
No amount of traction will really help to grip sand but a responsive shoe with good toe flexion will provide your best chance of some four wheel drive.
I recommend you go barefoot but if not, choose light shoes with shallow soles like Merrell minimalist or Vivo barefoot shoes, as you won’t need the cushioning.
Terrain: Woody Runs
Forest of Dean, Charnwood Forest. Sherwood Forest.
There is scientific proof that physical activity in forests can reduce stress, improve your immune system and enhance your mood. In Japan they call it forest bathing.
Yoshifumi Miyazaki, director of the Centre for Environment Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University, believes the scents of trees, the sounds of brooks and the feel of sunshine through forest leaves, all have a calming effect.
One study he conducted on 260 people at 24 sites in 2006 found that the average concentration of salivary cortisol, a stress hormone, in people who gazed on forest scenery for 20 minutes was 13.4 percent lower than that of people in urban settings.
Miyazaki said. “When we are exposed to nature, our bodies go back to how they should be.”
Austria and Finland are renowned for their forest trails. Lasse Viren, the double Olympic distance champion, was among a clutch of top class Finns, who swore by the benefits of forest trails.
It’s easier to get lost in a forest, which is why the brother’s Grimm always placed a forest centre stage in their cautionary tales. The chances are a compass or a map may be useless in your average woodland or plantation. Roots can also present hidden obstacles.
Most forest trails allow you to get up a head of steam, which means opening up your stride and getting up on to the front of your feet, or practicing a bit of fartlek or speed play.
Types of shoe
Saucony Peregrino, Inov-8 Ultra 270 will do. They also offer a bit of toe flexion.
Terrain: Muddy runs
The Peak District. Dartmoor, the Lake District fells and Yorkshire Dales.
Richard Askwith has great fun describing the many types of mud we have in the English dictionary, coming to over a hundred, in his estimation.
Running in mud really tells you what kind of day you are having but it can also change your mental outlook. It’s impossible to run in mud and not have at least a grin on your face. If it feels ridiculous, it looks even more ridiculous to be the one with a grim looking face, as you’re sliding your way over a quagmire.
Too many to mention! Lets just say cowgloop.
Running uphill on a greasy surface requires even smaller steps and a more pronounced arm drive, while going downhill involves following the direction of the descent. Running across a contour should mean leaning in to the slope.
Type of Shoe
Inov-8 Mudclaw or Talon XC 212, Salomon Fellraiser or Seedcross 3 or 4.
Terrain: Grassy runs
Any fell, moorland or upland, urban park or golf course.
One of the few virtues of the predominance of golf courses, is they are ideal for a spot of intervals or barefoot running. Likewise with cricket pitches, especially at the start of summer, before the grass has had a chance to dry.
These days Richard Askwith’s favourite surface is ‘rough, undulating turf’, the kind he gets in the pastures around his Northamptonshire village.
“It’s varied, forgiving, changes with the seasons and the livestock, but not really technical or, more of the time, very demanding. It’s pretty tough right now, though, with several fields that have been left to lie fallow being virtually waist high, requiring a knees-to-chest movement with every single stride,” he says.
The downside is you have to beat the early birds, if you don’t want to be chased across the fairway by a polo necked caddy.
Take off your shoes and let your feet do the talking. Shorten your stride, increase your tempo.
Type of Shoe
This may be the ideal surface to try barefoot or minimalist shoes, in case you haven’t already. Merrell or Vivo barefoot shoes.