Route Planning for Trail Runners
Self sufficiency is the essence of hill running, and it starts with sound planning. Those from a walking background may not appreciate the different considerations involved when planning a run rather than a walk, while runners used to waymarked trails and marshalled events have a whole new set of skills to learn. Here are some top tips from running guide Keri Wallace.
Trail running is one of the fastest growing sports in the UK, and it's easy to see why. Running off-road brings you closer to nature, offers ever-changing scenery and feels more adventurous than simply pounding the tarmac. But still most trail runners have a small number of 'go-to' routes that they revisit time and again, and many shy away from unfamiliar ground.
Apart from expediency, the main reason I've heard given for this is 'fear of getting lost' – especially in remote or mountainous areas. But overcoming this aversion and planning your own routes injects an exciting, exploratory component into the sport of running that takes the experience to new levels.
The running gait has an 'aerial phase', and it's easy to underestimate how hard it will feel running into the wind
If you're lacking inspiration for new routes or want to take your trail running to the next level, here are some tips on planning great trail runs and stretching your comfort zone at the same time.
Learning to navigate
Compared to trail runners, hillwalkers are typically better acquainted with the feeling of freedom and self-reliance that comes with being able to self-navigate. Wouldn't all runners benefit from a bit of that, too?
Knowing how to use a map and compass, rather than relying on a GPS device or smartphone, is the bedrock of route planning and safety in the mountains. Thankfully it's easy to learn! There are hundreds of providers out there offering navigation courses, ranging from introductory level to advanced skills and refreshers. They are inexpensive and available all over the country – just look for providers with NGB-recognised qualifications.
You could also check out a few navigation skills articles on UKHillwalking:
Running solo in the hills is nothing like following a waymarked route on race day - finding your own way is a far more liberating feeling, but also a lot more demanding! But if you're looking for unforgettable trail running, then planning and implementing your own route is the ultimate empowering experience.
While out-n-back runs and circular routes are logistically convenient, they typically lack the sense of 'journeying' that comes with a linear run. Try getting creative with your bike, car or public transport to plot a route from A to B. It might feel more inspiring if you create an aesthetically pleasing line e.g. following a watershed, ridge-line, boundary or across a geographical area. With a through-run you will feel you've travelled further for the same distance and the complexity brings with it a heightened sense of accomplishment.
Edit your profile
A good walking route in the mountains is not always the same as a good fell run. By scrutinising the gradient and terrain on the map, you can plan a route that maximises runnable ground. For example, a short, steep ascent, followed by a long undulating descent is often far more enjoyable than the opposite way around. If you find that your 'run' involves a lot of 'power-hiking' then take a look at it in reverse. When deciding which way to run a particular trail, choose the direction with the elevation profile that best suits your objective, whether that's a training goal or just a relaxed run in the hills.
Get out clauses
For any remote adventure or hill-walking journey it's always best to plan a safe escape route or two, in case conditions or circumstances cut short the experience. And with growing numbers of people turning to ultradistance running challenges, the same logic applies increasingly to trail runners. It's easy to give this component of the planning process cursory treatment and assume you won't need it. Instead, try turning this on its head and see it as an opportunity to set yourself a 'stretching goal'. By making your escape route or short-option a viable and well-thought-out alternative, you can head out on your run with bigger aspirations in mind, safe in the knowledge that you're not committed, and that cutting things short can still be a quality objective.
Run like the wind
Maximise runnable ground. If your 'run' involves a lot of 'power-hiking' then take a look at it in reverse.
In contrast to walking, the running gait has an 'aerial phase', which makes for hard going in a strong headwind. It is easy to underestimate how hard it will feel running into the wind, and how much longer your run will take. Instead, check the wind direction as part of your route-planning process and run with the wind at your back – you'll enjoy it so much more!
Wind in your face means rain, snow or hail in your face, too, and that's no fun for anyone (except seemingly repeat Spine Race finishers, but they don't count). Also consider the direction of the wind for any high or mountainous sections of your run, and plan a route that uses the terrain to provide shelter wherever possible. Sometimes, the fix can be as simple as running a given route in the opposite direction.
Link awesome things
If you're tired of running the same old routes, try linking awesome things instead! These could be summits, scrambles or wild-swimming spots. Alternatively they could be pubs, ice-cream vans or cafes – whatever tickles your fancy. Once you've made your hit-list, plot the line of least resistance between them to create your own awesome adventure.
If you need navigation practice, try teaming up with a running pal to swap a list of random grid-references. You find theirs and they find yours (of course taking a running-selfie at each checkpoint as proof).
Give it time
Road runners know exactly how long it's going to take them to run a 10k or a half-marathon distance on the tarmac. When transitioning to trail running, it can therefore come as quite a disappointment to find that it's taken twice as long run to a particular distance. But what might at first seem like failure is actually the very essence of this popular sport. The rocks, bogs, heather, sand and scree eat away at cherished metrics such as minute-miles, splits or PBs. And by the time you've factored in ascent, poor visibility and walking(!!), you've all but lost it. What you're left with is a liberating form of running which allows you to take stock of your surroundings and the environment while making peace with the fickle passing of time.
Compared to hillwalking or rock climbing, running is a sport that many of us 'squeeze in' for maximum fitness in minimal time – e.g. before work or at lunchtime. The single most effective way to plan a great trail run is to give yourself enough time to enjoy the experience and not feel pressured to cut it short. Step away from the to-do-list, from your troubles, from the rat-race and take it all in. More people than ever before are running for their mental health, and green spaces and mountains have a special role to play.
Be generous in your time-estimation and you won't regret a second.
Plan your own mountain round
With experience of running in the mountain environment and good contour interpretation skills, it is possible to plan a route that links multiple summits in a mega mountain round. Can you make a route of your favourite skyline or summits close to home? Be inspired by exploring new places and pushing beyond your normal sphere of experience - you never know what you'll discover about yourself!
Thanks to COVID-19 lockdown it became apparent that there would be no trail running events in 2020. In search of some motivation, my mind started to turn to personal challenges in my local hills.
I hatched a plan to run a 'round' of the Corbetts in the Glen Coe area where I live. Corbetts are defined as Scottish hills between 2500 feet (762m) and 3000 feet (914.4m), with a drop between summits of at least 500 feet (152.4m). These hills are usually far apart, typically quiet and are often overlooked by visitors to the area. I was surprised to discover that I too had only climbed three of the six, despite having lived in the area for over a decade.
- Read about Keri's recent Glen Coe Corbett Round here.
About Keri Wallace
Keri Wallace is an experienced fell runner and a fell/trail running guide with Girls on Hills in Glencoe. She is also a keen rock climber and member of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team. She is a qualified summer mountain leader and climbing instructor, with Fell/Trail Leadership in Running Fitness (FLiRF) accreditation from the Fell Running Association. Girls on Hills Ltd delivers skyrunning courses and guided skyrace recce events for Skyline Scotland.