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What is trail running?

What is trail running?

Jul 2013

Words by Deon Braun, pic by

Trail running is just like we’d have done 20,000 years ago, as we tried to outrun the chasing sabre-toothed cat or exhaust a prey animal. Nowadays, with a distinct absence of sabre-toothed cats, trail running is a lot less terrifying. Normally it doesn’t involve crashing headlong into saplings, trying to ignore the stinging pain from devil thorns in our naked feet. Normally. 

Modern trail running likes to stay on established footpaths, singletrack, firebreaks and jeeptrack, keeping things tidy - but there are no rules and some races take participants where there are no paths at all. Distances can vary enormously and some of the most revered events are 100 miles (160km) long. Anything over 42.2km is considered an ultra trail event.

Newcomers to trail running from road often try to match their road speed. Baaaaaap! Fail! It’s not possible on the greater range of gradients as well as the uneven footing in trail running. Slow down, relax and enjoy the glide in these sub-categories of the beloved trail run.


Coastal rock running is what a small band of adrenalin junkies like Gert Weich do. They risk skin and broken bones by running over seaside rocks - sharp, slippery and covered in mussels and barnacles - ready to punish any errors in judgement. This kind of running features at a very small percentage of events like Otter African Trail Run and for some is the highlight of the experience. 

Fell running is also known as mountain running or hill running. Wikipedia describes it as “running and racing, offroad, over upland country where the gradient climbed is a significant component of the difficulty. The name arises from the origins of the English sport on the fells of northern Britain, especially those in the Lake District.” Races include Fellsman (UK, 98km), Alva Games (1.6km)

High altitude running may involve running over rocky mountainous terrain (see mountain running) but the more difficult component here is the lack of usable oxygen. Races include Everest Lafuma Sky Race (Himalayas, 200km, up to 5,790m), XTERRA Colorado Trail Run Series (USA), Everest Marathon (Nepal), Fuji Mountain Race (Japan)

Hill running is usually categorised as shorter events raced entirely uphill. Races include Dolomites Vertical Kilometer (Italy), Vertical Kilometer del Puig Campana (Spain), Vertical Skyrace, Elbrus Vertical Kilometer (Russia)

Mountain running usually involves serious gradients encountered on the side of big hills and mountains, often cutting across ill-defined paths or where there are no paths at all. Some go uphill only (see Hill running) or just downhill, but mostly they’re longer distances incorporating both gradients. Races include Salomon 4 Trails (Europe), Thule 4 Peaks, Salomon Skyrun (both South Africa) 

Parkour could be described as running amok in an urban setting, leaping up, over and down from whatever is there - dustbins, handrails, roofs, stairs. It isn’t trail running but the principles apply in non-urban settings too. 

Sky running is the most extreme variant, defined as mountain running where the incline exceeds 30% and the climbing difficulty does not exceed 11° grade. Governing body International Skyrunning Federation, founded in 2008. Races include Pikes Peak Marathon (USA), Mount Kinabalu Climbathon (Borneo), Dolomites Skyrace (Italy)

Ultra trail events are becoming increasingly popular in South Africa, fanned on by our universally human obsession with pushing our limits. The Comrades Marathon fixation no doubt plays a part too. Ultra trail events mirror the road definition of any event over 42.2km, but trail events by and large seem to want to go further than road ultras! races Grand Raid (Réunion), Western States 100 Miler, Leadville, Hardrock (USA), Salomon Skyrun, PUFfeR, Tuffer PUFfeR, Mont-aux-Sources 

Stage races have a similar allure to ultras but the two and three day ones tend to be more doable than ultras for the Average Jane. The longer stage races sometimes have ultra distance days. Races include Marathon des Sables (Sahara), Transalpine Run (Europe), Trans Rockies (USA), AfricanX, Grootvadersbosch Trail Run, Mountain Warrior, Wildrun, Southern Cross, Three Cranes (all SA).


Source: The original article is part of "204 Greatest Trail Running Tips" in TRAIL Magazine Issue 4, available as a print back issue. Also available digitally for digital devices.

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