Make sure your training matches the terrain of race-day.

Rat Race City To SummitBecoming an Ironman is the ultimate accolade in triathlon and the event itself pushes even the most hardened triathletes to their limit. Completing the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26-mile run is tough enough on flat terrain – but it’s even harder when the course is hilly. Rat Race City to Summit is the hottest new addition to the UK long-distance triathlon calendar and will see competitors race to the top of Ben Nevis during the 26-mile marathon!

For those of you that have entered this beast of an event, you need to tailor your training to the demands of the race – after all it’s not every day you’re asked to run up a mountain during the final leg of an Ironman. Considering you will be running off-road for most of the 26 miles, you need to make sure that most of your training also takes place off-road so that you can get used to the different demands this type of running places on your body.

Off-road running is tougher than road running but it has a whole host of additional benefits that make the extra effort worth it for any triathlete – whether you’re racing this years event or not:

Builds endurance safely. Though many roadrunners fear the trails and see a sprained ankle round every corner, the soft ground helps you build endurance without battering your body over tough Tarmac. In fact it’s best to do some of your long runs off road all year round, even if it’s just sticking to a level but soft towpath or park trail.

Builds muscular strength. Squidgy mud absorbs some of the energy you’re powering into the ground, meaning you have to work harder with every push-off. Add that to tough off-road climbs and you have the perfect muscle-conditioning programme.

Improves core stability. Depending on the trickiness of your chosen trail, you’ll need to work much harder to stay balanced and upright than you would on the road. That balance comes from engaging your core muscles in your abs and back. Take that new-found strength back on the roads and you’ll be better protected from injury and have a more powerful foundation for each stride.

Makes you more efficient. The more easy-going surface off road means you can wear pared down footwear, helping develop your feel for the ground and meaning you’re more likely to run with a mid-foot or forefoot strike. Steep off-road descents also help develop high leg turnover and quick ground contact time, both useful traits to take back onto the roads.

Off-road running is very different to road running and you need to make sure that you adapt your technique accordingly. Here are our top tips:

  • Learn to fight uphill battles

Off-road hills tend to be steeper than road based ones – and you don’t get much steeper than Ben Nevis so you really need to make sure that you nail this technique if you want to make it to the summit on race day. Run as upright as possible to keep your diaphragm open – if you run too hunched over, it’s difficult to breathe deeply – and shorten your stride length. Think about activating your glutes as much as possible to give your run more power and lift your body up the gradient as quickly as possible.

  • Control your descents

Running downhill is a tricky skill to master and takes a lot of practise; there is a fine line between running fast and being out of control. Depending on the conditions, changing direction too quickly can result in falling over, so it’s essential to look ahead and plan your steps 10 or 15 footfalls in advance. Use your arms to balance yourself; it doesn’t matter if you are flailing them around, do what feels natural in order to keep your feet on the ground. The more off-road running you do, the more confidence you’ll have in your foot placement, and a better feeling of whether your foot is going to stay where it is or not – and with 17km descent to tackle at the end of Rat Race City to Summit you really need to make sure that you feel confident with this section of the race. Lean into the hill, and try to land on the mid part of your foot. This will help your shoe grip the ground with the largest surface area possible.

  • Deal with technical sections

Similar to running downhill fast, you’ll need to look ahead and quickly assess any particularly tricky technical sections. These could come in the form of rocks or roots, steps, or even fallen trees or river crossings. The first thing to do is not panic over or rush; the gains made are far outweighed by the risk of falling over or, even worse, getting stuck for the sake of a few seconds – you’re here to complete one of the toughest events in the country don’t let a rash decision ruin your chances. You’ll more than likely have to adjust your stride length; rather inconveniently, fallen trees don’t happen at even intervals. Do this gently and pre-empt it to avoid cramping from putting yourself in an awkward position.

  • Cope with mud

In the UK, a fair helping of mud is inevitable – especially on Ben Nevis. Find a deep enough puddle and it will take the shoes straight off your feet! To avoid this happening, ensure your shoelaces are done up tight, and that you are using regular laces rather than the elastic ones used for racing in the summer. Try to reduce your contact time with the mud. Practise fast feet: as soon as you’ve placed your foot on the ground, think more about lifting it up and driving it forwards rather than pushing off with the opposite leg. The less time your foot is in contact with the ground the less time it has to get stuck.

  • Perfect your proprioception

Use the force! The constantly changing conditions that off-road running presents means that no path will ever be exactly the same as last time you ran it. Proprioception is your brain’s ability to read where your body is – it’s what helps you find your way through awkward gaps and tricky terrain. You can improve it using specific exercises, but the best way is to run off road more. The more off-road running you do, the more you will be able to feel the terrain, it sounds silly but you’ll start to pre-empt the changes, and implement all of the other skills highlighted above. Whatever you do, once you’ve made a decision on an action, commit yourself to it.

  • Free your mind

You need a different mindset for running off road. The changes in terrain mean constant changes in pace so you can’t daydream, and you shouldn’t panic when you’re not on schedule. Take your first off-road runs as they come, leaving your watch at home, so you can learn to race by feel rather than by a set pace. It’ll make the training much more fun, too and help you be much more relaxed come race day in June.


What kit do you need for off-road running?

  • Shoes:  Any running shoe can be used to run off road, but if you’re serious about doing so you’ll need a trail shoe. Gait problems such as overpronation are not such an issue when running off road thanks to the uneven surfaces, so concentrate on finding a shoe with a good, comfortable fit. A thin sole will help to lower your centre of gravity and to prevent you from rolling your ankles. The sole will vary depending on the brand you buy; a well-spaced taller tread will be grippier in the mud, while tighter packed shorter studs will provide more grip on rocks and roots. Trail shoes vary from well-cushioned, bulky shoes – often ‘winterised’ versions of popular on-road models – to stripped down racing slippers that offer more feel for the trail. Your best choice depends on the kind of running you’ll be doing. Race organisers can offer advice on the right shoes for their event.
  • Clothing: Usually off-road runners take a less-is-more approach – witness the old-timers in vest and shorts at any fell race. The thinking here is that anything you do wear is likely to pick up mud, sweat and rain and just weigh you down. However, the Rat Race City to Summit is a different affair. You will have been racing for a long time and could already be cooling down. You also need to be prepared for prospective changes in weather conditions, which can come fast on a mountain. Make sure you’ve got all the kit on the mandatory kit list and practise running with it a few times before the big day in June. is the online home of Triathlon Plus – the best source of triathlon training advice, triathlon gear reviews and triathlon news.

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