When running shoe experts, Saucony, invited me to test their new Koa off-road running shoe range and learn more about running trails and fells in the Lake District, I jumped at the chance. Here’s what I learned (and rediscovered) as I got reacquainted with off-road running in the Lakes…

Living on the edge of the Peak District in Sheffield, I’m pretty fortunate to have a serious mix of trail and fell running routes within easy reach. A few years back, when I was training for a particularly lengthy obstacle course race, my runs would take me on a 14-mile mix of stony trails, mud, bogs and road. But that was a long time ago, and with a 7-month absence of running in my life (following an 8-month long injury and rehab that demanded I only ran on the flat), my running skills – and trail running skills in particular – are seriously rusty.

Luckily, during the two days we spent putting the Saucony Koa ST and Koa TR to the test in the spectacular surroundings of Nether Wasdale in the Lake District, our group was led by Saucony Tech rep and #runanywhere expert, Nick Hardy, who I quizzed for trail and fell running tips.

The vast beauty of the Lake District. Can you spot us?  Photo: Dave MacFarlane

#1. Run for time, not distance
Our first Lake District run took us on one of Nick’s favourite boggy running routes, near Scarfell Pike, straight into a one-mile climb which took us to the peak elevation of our run – a definite baptism of fire for my first run in seven months!

Across boggy and muddy terrain the 4.5-mile run was naturally more challenging and slower than being on track or road. As the change in pace can come as a shock to trail and fell running newbies, Nick suggests running to time instead of distance when off-road. “Pace can vary so much depending on weather, underfoot conditions, elevation etc. By running to time it takes the pressure off the run, so you can just enjoy it but still get a good workout in.” In other words, if you normally run a 50-minute 10km on the road, don’t aim for the same 10km distance off-road; instead try running for the equivalent amount of time (in this case, 50-minutes) instead.

#2. Run straight to maximise your momentum
During our fell run I was darting from side to side initially, changing direction to avoid bogs and muddy puddles (and large streams!) when Nick yelled at me to ‘Just run straight, Katie!’ This was partly because the Koa ST has a water-resistant upper and the whole point was I could happily run through muddy puddles without getting wet feet, but also because I was wasting my energy and momentum. “There isn’t really a ‘good’ line when it’s boggy and muddy,” Nick explained. “It’s all about your momentum. By running straight you keep your momentum heading in a constant direction and can therefore keep your balance easier. This also alleviates some of the stress on your ankles.”

#3. Lean forwards slightly on downhill sections
Descending on technical trail can feel like an acquired skill, but it’s also just as much about confidence. The key is to lean forward slightly and ignore any cautious instinct to put the brakes on. “The most common mistake is to lean back and fight the descent,” agrees Hardy. “Leaning back, you immediately hit the brakes and this creates more loading in your quads. But with the correct footwear you can be confident in placing your foot anywhere and flowing with the decent.”

The 8.5mm lugs of the Koa ST are designed specifically for wet and mud, so the seasoned trail runners amongst the group had no qualms about speedy descents. I, however, needed a bit more reassurance. “If your feet are underneath your centre of mass, you’re more balanced,” Nick tells me. “This gives you more control of yourself and helps you get down the hill safely.”

The bottom line when it comes to descending? “It’s free speed,” says Nick. “Stop fighting it.”

The Saucony Koa ST. Perfect for bogs and mud!   Photo: Dave MacFarlane

#4. Shorten your stride on soft terrain
Although Nick believes that you shouldn’t need to adjust your stride pattern coming from road to trail if you have good running form, he does agree that softer terrain can demand a few running tweaks. “A long, ranging stride can work against you on muddy, marshy terrain. Instead, keep nice and tall, aiming for a shorter stride and quicker cadence (steps per minute) to avoid slipping and losing momentum.”

#5. Different terrain demands different grip
As anyone who’s ever worn standard trainers on mud will attest, having the right grip for your chosen terrain matters. “Grip works in two ways; friction and traction,” explains Nick. “Grip from friction requires a lot of surface area and this is more similar to your road shoe, where friction from surface-on-surface contact stops you from slipping.”

Softer, muddier conditions on the other hand demand grip from traction. “Think of a tractor tyre: those big lugs dig into the softer mud and interlock, stopping it from slipping,” says Nick. “Likewise, the deeper and more spaced out lugs will allow the shoe to dig further into the mud while the extra space between them stops the mud accumulating there.’

As an example, the Saucony Koa TR is designed to take you from hard-packed terrain to roads, therefore it has lots of surface area for increased grip along with 3.5mm lugs for traction grip off-road. In contrast, the Saucony Koa ST is made for the wettest and muddiest conditions with an 8.5mm lug and studded outsole to provide great traction across soft, wet terrain.

Happy to have made it to the top of the climb.   Photo: Dave MacFarlane

#6. Better balance = better trail running. And vice-versa
It’s been a few years since I ran on soft, boggy and waterlogged terrain – and it showed. I was all over the place and my ankle stability was poor. Nick told me that running trails more frequently would help (trail running helps improve balance and strength), but in the meantime he suggested I try the simple balance drill below.

Single leg drill
“Whilst running, we’re only ever on one leg so we need to be able to stand upright whilst on one foot. This exercise not only focuses on improving your balance at the ankle, but also helps with glute activation,” explains Nick.

Stand on one leg with your knee out in front at 90-degrees. Make sure your hips are level. Hold the position. To make it slightly harder, try it with your arms reaching up as high as you can go.

Taking the Saucony Koa TR out for an early morning spin

#7. Trail running = better road running results
Our final (early morning) run, which put the Saucony Koa TR through its paces on a mix of hard-packed trails and road around Wast Water, was a reminder that you don’t have to take on seriously challenging terrain to benefit from off-road running. “By changing the surfaces that you run on, you change the effects this has on your body,” says Nick. “Adding in different stimuli creates different responses and we become stronger as a result. It makes running on the roads seem effortless. Add trail running to your weekly training and watch the road PBs tumble.”

Photo Credit: Dave MacFarlane

Roll on winter for some fun on the fells and trails!