If you ventured into the world of trail running over the summer and loved the experience, there’s no reason to head back to the concrete jungle just because the weather’s turned. Trail running throughout the winter months can be an exhilarating experience and, as long as you know how to keep yourself as safe and injury-free as possible, it will do your running and fitness the world of good.
“Winter trail running is an exciting step and will really see you up your game,” says Sammy Margo, a chartered physiotherapist in private practice (www.sammymargophysiotherapist.com). “While any running is great, be it on a treadmill or on roads, it’s great to run off-road. Trail running is a whole new level of challenge – and I’m all for a challenge! The key is making sure you’re prepared, to help you avoid injury.”
There are several things to think about when it comes to hitting the trails this winter…
When you head out for a trail run, the terrain you’re running on will be unpredictable – especially in winter.
“You’re likely to encounter wet leaves, mud, shale and slippery rocks, and you’ll also need to be prepared to jump out of the way of dogs and over tree roots,” says Margo.
With this in mind, it pays to be prepared for all eventualities. The footwear you choose will be key to your safety.
“Properly fitting trail shoes are a must and are so important for ankle stability,” advises Margo. “You should ensure they are laced all the way to the top, to provide as much ankle support as possible.”
Downhill trail sections can often be the most fun and thrilling aspect of your trail run, but hills can also be hazardous.
“If you’ve never run down a particular hill before, my advice is to take it slowly at first,” says Margo. “If you’re a novice, traversing the hill in a zigzag pattern – much like a skier – will help to take the strain off. Then, as your confidence builds as you get used to the route, you can gradually reduce the zigzags until you’re running straight down the hill.”
Be aware that if you’ve been used to running a particular trail during summer months, the more extreme weather conditions of winter could make it look and feel very different. “An area you normally think of as safe can suddenly become treacherous underfoot, so it’s important to be aware of your changing surroundings,” says Margo.
When you’re trail running during the colder months, getting your clothing right is crucial.
“When the temperature drops, your muscles contract as a physiological response,” says Margo. “If you have a problem area and the cold causes your muscles to contract over it, this will cause pain.”
Layering is key when you’re trail running in winter, so you can start out snug, strip layers off as you warm up, and add them back on if the wind picks up. Remember, cold muscles are more vulnerable, so be prepared with your clothing and get those layers back on as soon as you feel cooler.
Margo recommends high-tech compression garments to offer support and warmth. “Running tights are also a great idea, rather than loose-fitting jogging bottoms, which can flap around your ankles and get weighed down with mud or caught on brambles,” she says.
Ordinarily, 40 per cent of the running injuries Margo treats are knee injuries. However, when it comes to trail running, she says, anomalies pop up because of the unpredictable nature of the terrain.
“Ankle injuries become more prevalent because of the uneven, slippery surfaces, and we even see the odd arm fracture or shoulder injury if someone falls,” she says.
The main thing you need to work on before hitting the trails is your balance and stability. This will help you stay on your feet over tricky terrain.
“Start incorporating balance activities into your daily life,” advises Margo. “Stand on one leg as you’re brushing your teeth or taking a phone call. Once you are better at this, you can try it with your eyes closed, or do some single-leg squats. To make it trickier and to get you used to balancing on an unpredictable surface, do these exercises while standing on a pillow. Buying a wobble board is also a good idea.”
When you’re out on the trails, be alert to what’s coming up.
“You should have an open running posture, looking forwards but averting your eyes down slightly to anticipate the terrain ahead,” says Sammy. “This will make your posture slightly more rounded than usual. Your arms should also be more open for balance.”
If you do get injured, your best course of action is “RICE” (rest, ice, compression and elevation) within the first 36 hours. However, Margo is keen to stress that this is “relative rest” as opposed to sitting down doing nothing.
“Relative rest is very important because often, if you don’t move at all you get much worse, both physically and mentally,” she says. “So of course, respect the pain, but don’t stop movement completely.”
After 36 hours you can introduce heat treatment. “This will increase circulation to the area, bringing in more oxygen and nutrients, and removing waste products,” says Margo. If you don’t see an improvement after five to seven days, or if there is excessive pain or swelling, visit a chartered physiotherapist. It’s about listening to your body and knowing what feels normal for you.
It’s also important to think about your safety while you’re out on the trails. Running with a friend or a group is the most obvious way to stay safe, but if this isn’t possible, there are other measures you can take to make yourself more prepared.
Even if you don’t think there will be many other people around to hear it, carrying a personal alarm is still a good idea while out on the trails.
“Do always carry an alarm,” says Jo Walker of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust (www.suzylamplugh.org). “Someone could be within hearing distance; if you set it off close to an attacker’s ear it can shock and disorientate them, giving you a chance to get away; and it could scare an attacker into thinking someone will hear and come to your help.”
If you are alone, try to stick to more open areas, such as fields rather than dense woodland. “This will mean you’ll be able to see anyone approaching, which will give you time to take appropriate action,” says Walker. “It also means you’ll be more easily seen by others and it’s less likely that you would be approached or attacked by someone in plain view of a passer-by. If you’re in an open space and someone does approach you, veer off in the other direction. If they follow, head as quickly as possible to where you know there will be other people, and if they get too close or you feel threatened, use your alarm and make as much noise as possible.”
Now, armed with the knowledge of how to stay on your feet in the winter mud and keep yourself safe, get out and head off-road!
Words: Claire Chamberlain