Take your body – and spirit – off-road


“That’s why I’m a nervous wreck when it comes to off-road running!”

So had said someone I think highly of, upon seeing a picture of my swollen ankle after a trip in the woods. I will now be unable to run for a week or more, and then have to re-build very gently. But despite the risk, I would absolutely recommend to anyone to get off-road if you can: for your body and also for your spirits.

Aparrently, there is a public footpath here....

The map says there is a public footpath here….

I knew this was a bad one.

Sometimes when running in the woods you catch a toe or land a little off-balance, adjust your next stride and flow on. Sometimes you get pitched out-of-line, stumble, do that involuntary windmill-arms thing, but recover it. Sometimes you turn your ankle over but

Autumn Woods

Autumn Woods

it springs back up, amazingly elastic: you pause, rub it, set off again, wary for the first few strides until the strength returns fully and you relax, run on, thinking “Phew that was close”.

This was none of those. This was one of those where you hear yourself yelp. By which time you are already in mid-air. One of those where it’s only your knees and elbows which prevent your face being grated by the trail.

This was one of those where you feel the sound of tearing gristle, when you are aware of the burning heat even before you are kneeling, nausea fighting with your panting.

I have had this before, and both ankles carry the legacy. Three or four times, maybe, I’ve had a 9-on-the-scale like this, only once a ten (phoning for a lift, ending in casualty and crutches). And always in the same circumstances: running in the woods.

So why do it? Why not stay safely on the pavements? Why risk it?

Even as I sit here – one foot up in the interval between ice, compression and painful goo-breaking massage – I know absolutely that I will go straight back off-road as soon as I can: back to the woods and bridleways and fields and stiles and stones and grass and mud.

  • Firstly it’s better for you, better for your legs and body (and yes, I can say that now – hobbled as I am – sincerely without any doubt or irony).  The grass and soil has a little give, some cushion for your feet and lower legs, more forgiving than roads. But more, when you run on the uneven surfaces, each stride, each landing, has lots of minute variations and adjustments; when you run on a trail you have to put in a half-stride toStile 2 avoid a boulder, a bit of a leap over a tree-root, pitch a little sideways to avoid (or, if you are wearing gleaming new trainers, to hit) some mud. The effect of that over time is to strengthen your feet, ankles and lower leg. At every stride you have to slightly adjust your balance and position and take-off, and that strong flexibility spreads through your whole body.  This also helps avoid the wear-&-tear which comes from the constant repetition of the same stride pattern, over and over and over again, relentlessly, as you run on the same tarmac mile after mile, stride after repetitive pounding stride (and if you have had ITBS, or shinsplints, you know exactly what I mean). You will feel more tired off-road, precisely because it takes a little extra effort: but guess what, when you come back onto the road and don’t need that extra you will find you are turbo-charged! Train on trails, and your road-10k times will improve.
  • Secondly, it’s more fun. Leave the laptop and the smartphone and the work-face behind: go and find some mud instead, splash through some puddles. Be a kid again. It really is that simple.
  • Thirdly, you have far more choice of where to go. And some of those places will become special personal favourites: that stream, that slope to the break in the trees, that path across the large field (oh, how I hope they will grow barley there next summer!), that place where you turn right at the stile where no-one else ever goes, so you’re not running on a path at all and your line is dictated only by how to cause least disturbance to the sheep.
  • Fourthly, it may not be sheep it may be lambs. When you go off-road you see more immediately, and come to feel in cycle with, the seasons and the earth. The first green buds on the twigs, snowdrops and daffodils, the heavy green of spring turning to summer, the hard dusty tracks of the longer days (or more mud in a wet year), the glorious golden chills of an autumn morning (catch a leaf if you can – it’s harder than you think – and make a wish as you run), the snow and brutal hard of the frozen ground of winter (careful here, the wet muddy bridleway churned by bikes and hooves and
    Fields of Barley

    Fields of Barley

    then frozen rigid into a small-scale Himalaya… watch your ankles!).  That field: it’s been ploughed (smell that wet soil, oh my!); now there are soft green sprouts coming up; now they are taller and green; now they are turning yellow and the heads are forming; now they are high and dry and golden (apart from the occasional stunning-red poppy dotted around) and droop heavily to brush your knees as you run though….. then next time you run up, it’s gone: just stubble-stalks and dust and dropped fragments of the life that was there, and you are a little sad but at the same time you feel glad they got it in before it turned wet and black like last year….       


  • Fifthly, all of this will connect you more spiritually to your running. We all get runner’s highs, from the endorphins and adrenaline and oxygen and the effort… But when the rain falls through the leaves, or you see the first new-green in months, or a bird you’ve never seen before bursts out of a hedge as you pass, or the warmth escaping from your body meets the chill-mist and forms diamond-drops on your top as the cold air burns your lungs…… then, you find yourself stopping running to look around you for a moment or two to take it all in, because the split-times just don’t matter today; you may even say a little prayer.

So, when did you last feel like that, running past the off-licence?

Give it a go. Try a safe surface first, run to your local park or playing-fields but choose the grass instead of the footpath. When you are used to it, try a country-walk pathway, or a bridleway. You will feel unsteady and tentative at first, but that will pass: give your feet and legs and balance some time – you will be amazed at how they can adjust and they will thank you for it. Soon you will be discovering new routes, parts of your locality you had never seen before or appreciated. Your running will have changed and you will be getting more from it.

This is all as-well-as, and not instead-of your established running on roads. Give it a try, why not… what could possibly go wrong?

 Well, apart from the sensation of tearing gristle and searing heat. Just take care, you may not have a bad one.. . and it’s definitely worth it!

Oh, and I forgot to mention – you now also officially have an excuse to acquire all sorts of lovely special “Trail” kit. 🙂

First tracks

First tracks



About johntleeds

In amongst the perpetual juggling of work, family and things on my mind, this is MY time, MY escape. Any this is what my mind comes up with when it has time to wonder, as I wander on the trails... twitter @johntleeds
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