6 (unconventional) tips for trail runners

I have spent many thousands of hours trail running. In those thousands of hours, I have fallen victim to my own stupidity on more than one occasion. This post will detail some of my personal (uncoventional) tips for trail runners. Don’t expect tips for enhancing your running performance or form. These are focused more on avoiding embarrasment and unfortunate situations on the trail.

Avoid caffeine mishaps

Have you had caffeine related issues whilst out on a run? I certainly have. And it took me an embarrasingly long time to figure out it was my excess coffee intake to blame.

Thankfully my friends don’t fuss at all when I need to stop and pee out on social runs. A while ago it dawned on me that I was taking 2-3 times more breaks than others. Eventually I figured out I needed to reduce my caffeine intake. Caffeine has a diuretic effect, leading to an increase in urine production. I’m not sure why it took me so long to realise the correlation!

I apologise profusely to anyone who has witnessed a wild looking bearded man dashing toward the nearest bit of cover to empty his bladder on the welsh coast, or fells / mountains.

bearded man dashing toward a bush on a coastal trail. (From the post about uncoventional tips for trail runners).

Urination hasn’t been my only caffeine related mishap. Here is a further lesson from my collection of caffeine-induced embarrassments…

During the Wild Horse 200 South Wales earlier this year, I was being paced by my good friend (and all around great ultra runner) Ben. I was struggling with fatigue and thought it would be a good idea to ask if I could try one of his “caffeine bullets” he was carrying. (They’re a super strong, minty flavoured caffeine “super shot”).

Being the smart guy that I am (sarcasm!) I decided I would chew half of the caffeine bullet, as I had not used caffeine during my training runs (or entire running history for that matter).

Well, it only took 5 minutes for my stomach to start the most immense grumbling and rumbling it had ever experienced during a run. We were coming back down a small mountain called Tor y Foel, and I held an almost constant butt clench, fighting the urge for a caffeine-induced number 2 the whole way down. Thankfully my stomach settled after 20 minutes or so of rather uncomfortable running.

Lesson learned – be wary of caffeine, and don’t try it when you haven’t practiced it on your runs.

Slipping and sliding on the trail

I’m proud to have a fairly low ‘stacking it’ incidence count. However, there are countless times I’ve wobbled, slid out, slid backward off balance, or stumped a toe and done the ‘waving arms wildly for a number of steps’ dance.

My next in this series of tips for trail runners is to remember to maintain focus when you get tired. 90 percent of the time these things happen when we’re fatigued and lose focus on the trail.

In muddy, hilly conditions, my next tip would be to be very wary of applying the brakes when going downhill. One small centimeter off balance can be enough to send your feet flying out forward in the slick mud. If you’re already at speed, commit to the downward incline, and try to keep your center of balance moving with you as you descend. If you have a long muddy hill to descend, and are already at speed, I’m sorry to say but you’re screwed. Take a controlled fall and commit to the mud slide.

It’s easy to say, but I still fall victim to this every muddy season. Most of the time I catch myself, but it’s always an awkward and embarrising moment in company.

Slipping backwards. A common occurence on our muddy trails!

The trail poo

At some point or another everyone will be caught by surprise by this one. It happened to be me in a recent backyard ultra (thankfully I was coming in with 10 minutes to spare each lap and had time to duck off course into a thick forest). It also happened to me on the final day of the Dragon’s Back race, embarissingly close to Cardiff Castle!

My top tips here are:

  • Don’t try un-tested nutrition on race day (see above)
  • Always dig as deep a hole as possible to bury the deed. Keep away from rivers or water sources. Don’t leave toilet paper behind.
  • Your trekking poles can double up as great digging tools!
Your trekking poles can double up as great digging tools!

Pre-race preparation

Few things are worse than running a race having not gone for your ‘number 2’. Well, actually there is another: queing and having to use the porta-potties at an event registration.

My tip here is to add an extra 30 minutes to your early morning alarm to take advantage of the luxury and comfort of your own toilet at home before a race.

The worst.

Double-knot those laces

Of the most frustrating things I find myself doing (I never seem to learn) is re-tying my shoe laces. Where I live there is often a lot of thorny bramble across the trail. These deviously barbed branches are experts at untying shoe laces.

If I don’t double-knot my laces, I’ll forever be stopping to tie them up again after a bramble snags them.

Recently, I purchased some Scarpa Spin ST trail running shoes, which have a handy lace fastening system and pocket to tuck them into. This has been a life saver!

Untied laces while out running are possibly the second worst thing.

Prepare for and adapt to the weather as you move

This is less of an ‘uncoventional’ tip, and more of an obvious one, but I do have another funny story from that same bit of the Wild Horse 200 South Wales race I ran, being paced by Ben.

As we got to the summit of Tor y Foel, having been baked in the sun going up, the weather turned suddenly. Clear sunny skies darkened, as the wind blew in clouds. Ben asked if I wanted to stop and get my rain shell on. Being 24 hours of running in, and tired beyond belief, I declined, stating it was too much effort to get it out of my running pack.

Not two minutes later, the darkened clouds let out an almighty shower of hail. The tiny hailstones felt like needles on my face and hands. My core temperature dropped rapidly too. We were decending now, so I no longer had the heat generation of the uphill effort.

I feebily accepted Ben’s offer of his spare outer wrapping glove mitts instead of stopping to get mine out.

First of all, I should have got that shell out a few minutes earlier when Ben suggested it. Take your running partner / pacer’s advice!

Anticipate and adapt to the weather, especially if you’re in an exposed area, or high up in the mountains.

I should have listened to Ben earlier…

That’s it for my unconventional tips for trail runners.

Let me know if you have any coventional (or unconventional) tips for running. Whether it be for pre, during or post, on a casual run, training session, or event!

2 thoughts on “6 (unconventional) tips for trail runners”

  1. Oh, these are hilarious! You had me laughing out loud at the digestion incidents. I can relate so well, although I’ve never had a coffee bullet on a run!
    Your comic pictures are great too! How did you do them?

    An ultra running friend Reto told me this story: last summer, Reto and Gabi, another running friend, were sweepers for a multi-stage trail race in St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps. A few hours into the race a woman was struggling. She was out of the cut-off time to reach the next aid station. The sweepers asked her to stop the race and to take the next gondola down. She refused.
    So Reto ran ahead to the next aid station, grabbed a few items and released the aid station crew. He returned to the woman, who had now slowed down to a shuffle. He gave her some food and drink and again told her that she was out of the race. She absolutely needed to take the gondola back down.
    Again, she refused and they had a huge argument with her, right there on the trail. Finally, they managed to convince (telling her, among other things, that she would need to pay for the helicopter when it got dark). Finally, she agreed to take the gondola. Uff!

    So: Obey The Sweepers!

    • Thanks Catrina! I’ll never forget the discomfort on that descent on the Wild Horse 200!

      I generated pictures using specific prompts with DALL-E – a machine learning model trained to produce images. E.g. “cartoon frame of an ultra runner with a beard, digging a hole in the trail with his trekking pole”. The prompts took some tweaking to get right, but eventually I managed to get it to stay fairly consistent with the style and look of the character in each frame.

      Oh, poor Reto and Gabi. I sympathise as I have encountered one or two difficult participants when I have volunteered at events. Thankfully nothing nearly as bad as that. A friend told me a story of how she was shouted at for sweeping too close behind the last person. She had greeted her in a very friendly manner and said she would just be a few hundred yards back if she needed any help. This didn’t sit well with the participant (probably tired, fed up, and not happy at being last I guess?)

      I agree with this – the sweepers have very specific instructions and the cut-off times are there for a reason. It’s part of what you agree to when you sign a waiver at race registration. This person would be lucky if they got off not being banned from future events for not listening to the sweepers.


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