Rules of Off Road Running


Running on the roads is fab. You’ve got a proper surface underfoot, street lights and can stop at a Subway if you misjudge your fuelling. But, recently, I’ve found myself running off road more frequently and have even got a few races under my waist pack. Here are some of the things that I’ve learnt…

  • Accurate course measurements are for wimps.  Do a road race and there’s a good chance that someone has been around the route with a trundle wheel or calibrated bike. There is an accepted level of tolerance apparently but, any significant deviation and the Garmin-wearing mafia will be in up arms. Organisers of off-road races use the terms “marathon” and “half-marathon” lightly. When entering a race off road, the distance advertised will bear absolutely no resemblance to what you will actually run.


  • Effort x 2. Every mile you run will require twice as much effort as those on the road. This is in no way mitigated by the fact that you are running past trees and green stuff instead of bus stops and civilisation.


  • Time x 1.5. You will be slower than you reasonably want to be however hard you try. Any conceivable attempts at pacing are abandoned at the queue for the first stile.


  • The course has been designed by the devil himself.  Race organisers seem to think that people enjoy running through bogs and up vertical climbs. After all why take the gradual, pleasant route when there’s a slippery wall of clay and tumbling boulders to scale?


  • You will become obsessed with your trainers. For road running pretty much any decent pair of trainers will do. Yes, you can go down the route of gait analysis and purchase according to pronation or level of cushioning, but, if you want to get some miles in spontaneously, you can pretty much grab any old pair of shoes and make do. Not so for the off road runner! You basically need a full soil analysis before setting out. What is the ratio of rockiness to muddiness? How many millimetres of grip will I need?


  • You will never become a foot model. Whichever shoes you opt for, your feet will look like gnarled, distorted lumps of wood when you remove them. They will be the colour of mushrooms and be wrinkled and soggy whilst having tough, craggy bits that jut from various parts. You will find yourself hacking off large chunks of skin at regular intervals with the nail scissors.


  • You will become a horticulturalist.  Apparently there are about 160 species of grass in Britain. I know this because I Googled it. When off road running these previously unremarkable tufts are the clues to whether your next step will be unhindered, or whether you are about to sink into a Neolithic bog to be recovered fully-preserved in 1000 years time. You will pick your way across a sodden quagmire using only that spongy, bouncy grass or that spiky, reedy  grass as your safety net and rejoice when you finally hit some of that yellow, crunchy grass that indicates firmer footing.


  • Eau de Excrement.  After each run you will smell like you have rolled in the faeces of a variety of farmyard animals. After a very short time you will stop running around horse muck, sheep droppings and cow pats and plough right on through.


  • The fell runners dictionary.  Your vocabulary will expand exponentially with each off road mile. You will regularly start using words like “clag,” and “tussocky.”


  • No brakes; no fear. There is always someone who loves their knees and their life a lot less than you when it comes to descending.


  • A buffet lunch. Water stops are called checkpoints in off road running; it is unlikely that a scout group will pass you a bottle of isotonic drink as you run past. Checkpoints are mainly the domain of a pensioner with a clipboard who will make an un-rushed note of your number before trying to feed you crisps, cake or jam sandwiches. These volunteers are sourced from the elderly who ‘don’t get out much’ and you are very much obliged to stay and talk a bit as you may be the only human contact they have had in months. Like all OAPs, they will try and force feed you custard creams if you make eye contact.


  • Nav off. Off road races are generally marked by the odd sign, chalked arrows and scrappy bits of plastic tape flapping from bushes. If you are in the middle of the pack this is more than acceptable and enhanced by a well-stomped line across the fields. Only the race leader needs to know where he’s going. If you end up isolated, fiddle with the map that they make you carry for a bit until someone who’s had the foresight to go on a recce comes along that you can follow.


  • What you save on race entries you will spend thrice over on kit. With no expensive road closures or mile marking balloon arches to pay for, off road races are generally much cheaper to enter. It can cost a little as a fiver to run to the top of a hill, often including a hot meal at the end (another service often provided by little old ladies.) However, don’t expect a goody bag, tech t-shirt or bang-tidy-bit-of-bling medal these are very much viewed as fripperies.  Instead, off road runners spend their cash on super expensive, mountain expedition quality kit and head torches with billions of lumens.


  • Full kit. Full kit is the paraphernalia you are required to carry so that you don’t look a dick if Mountain Rescue have to come and get you. You will put more thought into packing this than you did your whole family’s luggage for your last summer holiday. Ideally, everything should weigh less than a postage stamp and fold down to a similar size. You will wear at least 5 different layers with one of these being merino wool and another that is windproof/waterproof and having taped seams. No-one actually knows what a taped seam looks like.


  • Childish behaviour. Inevitably, all this sloshing around in mud, careering down hills and falling over, getting scabby knees will catch up on you. Always pack either toys to throw out of your pram or a dummy to spit and have a good stock of lively swear words in your repertoire.


  • Eventually, you WILL grow a beard and start drinking real ale.  FACT






54 thoughts on “Rules of Off Road Running

  1. I haven’t quite ticked all the boxes on this list (my Pac-A-Mac c.1993 definitely doesn’t have taped seems) but I have recently developed an obsession with shoes sporting huge lugs and although I’ve not yet identified all 160 grasses I do know that tufty clump over there only grows in foot-deep clag.

    Very enjoyable read. I’m off to peruse the rest of your blog whilst I sort and re-pack my Inov-8 Race Elite 3 Waistpack to see if I can squeeze in an extra dozen Fox’s Glacier Fruits for my next run… πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Brilliant post but please – the checkpoint staff and those at the finish providing your hot food and drinks – we are not all OAP s – some of us give up our time willingly so you guys can go run or walk and not have to worry about that part of the day –

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know that really. I was trying to convey the perception we often have and was obviously being tongue in cheek. Race marshals are the heroes in any type of volunteer-supported event but I’m never ceased to be amazed to find someone on a camping stool, in the drizzle at the top of a hill. I always make a point of thanking them profusely at the time and after the event! Similarly the food I’ve been fed after events has been some of the best I’ve eaten (as I’m ravenous!) and not always produced by elderly cooks. I don’t mean to offend, rather to celebrate the madness. (I’ve had my turn at marshalling events too.)

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I’m almost on OAP (62) and give up my time mostly at Endurancelife events. What I love, and what the young guns taking part don’t know when they come through my checkpoint, is that I’ve run the course the day before to check it and will run it again, when the last person leaves my checkpoint, to clear away the course markers. Might explain why this old guy on checkpoints looks smug πŸ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Yes! I ran a muddy 10k called something off roader on Sunday and used that very term (well, actually “claggy”) And pretty much the only overtaking I did was downhill! As for the smell of cowpats, I’m saying nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great blog but two things I’d say:
    Beards aren’t mandatory- except on female runners… and
    After doing an off-road/Fell run, any positive elevation on a road run should be referred to as an β€˜incline’ not a hill. Are you forced to walk with your hands on your thighs/scramble on all fours to get up it? No! Then it’s not a hill!

    Liked by 1 person

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