Marathon training week 3: Get off the road!

I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!

Worm's eye view of the Runnymede Relay

Worm's eye view of the Runnymede Relay

Last weekend I took part in a marathon relay. That is to say, I ran a few miles and so did some others and in total we ran 26.2 miles. (Although maybe there's room for a race where EVERYONE runs a marathon and it goes on for days.)

The race, hosted by Runnymede Runners, is an annual event held in Windsor Great Park with Windsor Castle as a backdrop. As well as taking part in a relay race - I don't think I've ever done one before - it was that it was off-road. It's tougher than road racing, and invariably slower, but I find it a lot more fun.

At first glance, it might seem as though there are two types of runners. Those who run on roads and those who don’t. I used to be firmly in the road running camp. After all, I was training for a road marathon so it made sense for me to practice on the surface I'd be racing on. To an extent, this is a sensible approach. Specificity in training is crucial to success.

Another reason I avoided trails was that I felt it increased the chances of me twisting my already weak ankles - ligaments damaged from years of football-related injuries. But having completed five months of training and racing on the roads, I got bored. Bored of the surface, bored of the same old sights near where I lived, even a little bored of running. On a whim, I entered a trail half marathon taking place in Devon.

It's impossible not to take photos of this sort of thing

It's impossible not to take photos of this sort of thing

The closest I'd been to off-road running previously was on the Tamsin Trail round the outside of Richmond Park. As anyone who's run it knows, it's barely even trail. So I was wholly unprepared for the rocky, root-ridden, hilly paths of rural Devonshire and found myself sprawling face-first to the dirt within the first mile. No harm done, but it was a big wake-up call.

Despite my little tumble, I had the best time seeing the countryside on a beautiful day, not worrying about my time (it was about 15 miles anyway) and testing out some new skills (not falling over).

Sea crossing; swimming optional

Sea crossing; swimming optional

Since then, the vast majority of the races I've entered have been off-road and here's why I recommend trying it out if you've only ever run on the roads.

It develops new muscles

The uneven surfaces means you use and develop stabilising muscles, particularly in your feet and ankles.

It’s a natural obstacle course

The trails can often create their own obstacle course which keeps the mind focused and helps to hone your (not to be underestimated) leaping-clear-of-fallen-branches skills.

There are often hills involved

Not always, but when there are they will give you a nice little interval-style workout as you're constantly having to change your pace. It also gives you a chance to walk and enjoy the views, or even an opportunity to leap down them like a mountain goat.

It’s a chance to explore

Sure, you can explore in cities too but getting lost in woodland trails is far more fun. Better still, learn how to use a map and compass and don't get lost!

The softer the surface, the quicker you recover

Tarmac is very unforgiving on muscles and joints. Fields and trails - even hard-packed ones - are easier on the body than our man-made roads and footpaths.

The peace and quiet

Nothing helps clear the mind than a run in silent forest or a mountain footpath. We don't all have the Alps as our back yard but you don't have to travel too far to find some solitude and get away from traffic and Sartre's idea of hell (other people).


Did I mention how beautiful it can be? You might even see some wildlife. (Any excuse to include the following photo of a bear I saw while trail running in California.)

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today...

I didn’t see any bears in Windsor Great Park but did have a great day out with some lovely people.

The South London Mavericks (Photo courtesy of   Jen Slater  )

The South London Mavericks (Photo courtesy of Jen Slater)

Strava data: 5.34 miles in 40:17

Strava data: 5.34 miles in 40:17