Off-road running requires more than a change of terrain. It requires a change of mind set. The accepted rules of road running are turned upside down as trail runners begin to define success by other metrics. Enjoyment and your own longevity as a trail runner, will require a certain amount of experimentation.
A lot of trail runners love to race instead of train, because the yardstick by which they judge themselves is quite simply different. While there may be no distinction between the competitive nature of trail runners and road runners seeking that lick of competitive action to keep the ambers glowing, to find the flow, or to put it another way- to properly engage with trail running, you may need to think about reframing what competition means to you.
In the 17th century, the age of enlightenment, the definition of competition was: “To strive alongside another for the attainment of something.” (etymonline). The classic Latin definition, was: “To come together.” (from com- “together” + petere “to strive, seek, attack.)
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, today’s definition is: “A situation in which someone is trying to win something or be more successful than someone else.” …and “An organised event in which people try to win a prize by being the best, fastest, etc.”
Compare the start line at your average road race, to a trail race, and you will notice a difference in people’s visages. Trail races, by and large, are much more communal and so the feel at the start is of one mass of people going off on a collective journey, at least until you hit the first hill!
An attachment to outcome can mean that you lack the lightness of say, a Kenyan distance runner (or a bloodhound!) who can quickly shrug off disappointment, despite being totally committed. I would argue that trail runner’s are less likely to internalise their mini-defeats because each segment of a trail race represents an opportunity for achievement.
Despite his competitive instinct, GB trail running international Damian Hall, is realistically down to earth in his expectations: “I’m much more likely to tell myself I have to be top 10 or similar and enjoy the thrill of racing other people. In a big city race, you can overtake 100 people and there’ll still be 100 ahead of you. That’s no fun! I also like to try and get as muddy as humanly possible. Sometimes though, especially in mountainous, longer ultra-distance or especially tough races, it can be just about finishing the event and enjoying the experience.”
If you’ve ever been a road runner, you might remember what it was like to be slightly obsessed with mile splits and data. But to truly enjoy the trails, you need a more flexible relationship with the ticking clock. Splits will be decided by the terrain.
Although Damian Hall always wears his Suunto, it isn’t to check his splits.
“I look at my Suunto far less frequently in a trail race and when I do it’s to see how many miles are left, not my pace, which is fairly irrelevant, as it’ll likely be much slower than my road running speed anyway. I do enjoy road running sometimes, but I hate the fact it glues my eye to my wrist as I race my watch. I prefer racing other people. Unless they beat me.”
When discussing flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes how all consideration of time loses its meaning.
“The sense of time becomes distorted and the activity becomes an end in itself.” (Finding Flow).
Being in the flow also means you will not be intimidated by failure, which an orientation towards the clock, is more likely to engender. If you really believe the maxim, ‘you are only as good as your last race, interval session, 10k time,’ you will always be looking over your shoulder.
Keen trail runner and world leading speed climber Ueli Steck, once joked that he took up speed climbing because his wife suggested she never saw him. “I figured if I wanted to carry on climbing, I had to speed up.” This is another form of motivation, which I don’t recommend you try at home!
Road running involves the monotonous pounding of feet on concrete, which doesn’t sufficiently challenge your skill range. Running on scree or mud on the other hand, can really tell 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.
Because natural landscapes offer a mosaic of horizons to stimulate your mind, it is much easier to focus on something external without drifting off on to autopilot. The going underfoot, dictates your shoe selection, race approach and more importantly, your proprioceptive feedback. As each new feature rears up, the terrain provides natural segments or chapters to renew your purpose. You won’t be able to go eyeballs out in the wake of somebody’s slipstream, until you reach the final furlong!
Road runners tend to have well-defined legs and the upper-body of an emaciated toddler. Trail runners, by contrast, come in all shapes and sizes. Ricky Lightfoot, a fireman by trade, works a lot on his core, while Robbie Britton has been known to dabble in a spot of indoor climbing, which requires a certain amount of upper body strength, as well as co ordination and balance.
The best sight you can hope to see during a road race is the finish line. Not so in trail races, where the scenery can be motivation in itself.
Damian Hall says: “Trail running is much more likely to keep me in the moment, partly because there’s far better scenery to enjoy and as it changes, it can take your mind off the hurty bits of your body. Plus a rooty or rocky path makes you concentrate and keeps you in the moment, whereas I spend much of my waking time thinking about things I need to do in the future, or regretting things I did wrong in the past. It’s temporary, if sweaty, Buddhism.”
Some things you would never hear a trail runner say:
“I knocked off a few reps last night in 3 minutes.”
“I just bought a new countdown stop watch.”
“I can’t train because I have to take my dog for a walk.”
“I don’t eat cake”
“I hope I don’t get lapped.”