Playing in the dirt. That's what my friend Pam, an accomplished road and trail runner, calls it. It sounds more enticing than yet another plod on suburban pavements, ticking off the miles as a chore.
While trail and off-road running is becoming increasingly popular, many runners are still reluctant to incorporate it into their weekly routine when they are training for a goal road race. There is the fear of injury, the perception that it's not race-specific enough and maybe simply the avoidance of the unknown.
I'd love to change this attitude. Trail running turns every workout into an adventure; a journey where you can connect with nature.
Depending on your goal race and how accustomed you are to running off-road, it may be wise to stick to less-technical routes.
For shorter races, you can do a lot of your easy mileage on trail. For marathon training, the bulk of running needs to be done on roads to allow your legs to become accustomed to the harder surface, while recovery days can be run off-road to give a break from pounding.
While the trail network here is not as well developed as in other countries, local forestry paths are an ideal easy-running off-road introduction.
• Trails are perfect for running on easy recovery days. Running routes which are a little technical (incorporating lots of rocks, roots and other natural obstacles) will force you to slow down and take your eye off the clock.
• Incorporating a hilly, technical trail run into your training occasionally is a great way of increasing leg strength and power in the early season, and a fun way of substituting for plyometric drills to improve explosive leg strength. Use your power to attack short, steep uphill sections, using technical sections (jumping over rocks and roots) as your plyometric workout. Easy jogging allows recovery between efforts.
• Track-style 'VO2 Max' workouts using longer intervals (such as kilometre or mile repeats) can be substituted with a trail 'fartlek' or speed play workout, incorporating several four or five-minute repeats of hard but steady running, interspersed with easy recovery intervals. Faster running like this is best on smoother, less-technical trails. Remember that your pace will be slower than on a track so I like to run either using heart rate or perceived effort for this kind of workout.
This Saturday started with a big group run in the Marin Headlands, a hilly trail network in the Golden Gate National Park just north of San Francisco, with spectacular views. It's been an incredible couple of weeks' running – last week I was pounding across the Golden Gate Bridge at the US Half-Marathon; this week I was looking down over the same bridge from the Marin trails.
Benefiting from the better weather that the City of Fog sees in the autumn and early winter, we had crisp, clear views over the cliffs from Rodeo Beach and Pirate Cove. We ran what was probably for me a slightly ill-advised quad-thrashing 18 miles of very hilly, but not too technical trail. Run shorter? Not me; I was having too much fun!
The rhythm was nothing like a road run, with long sections where the only efficient way to get to the top of a hill without exploding was to hike. Rewards came in the form of long, fast descents, a joyous dash only tempered by the knowledge that we would probably soon be hiking uphill again.
With about 4,000ft of climbing over the run and the irregular surface factored in, the time clocked per mile was about two minutes slower than a regular road run, but somehow it passed in a blur.