Latest issue
Online newsletter
Product Knowledge
Off road running
February/March 2011

Providing the right

off-road running gear

Due to the growing popularity of adventure races, trail running (or off-road running) has seen major growth over the last couple of years. A sport practiced in the great outdoors requires better planning and specialised equipment to ensure the safety and comfort of the athlete. What should you, as a retailer, know to tap into this emerging market? NELLE DU TOIT spoke to trail experts on what equipment they recommend a retailer sell

The global boom in off-road racing activities and events saw many athletes preferring to take their sport into the wild. Multi-sport events attracted many mountain bike or rowing enthusiasts to the trail running scene.

Even some traditional road running events, like the Two Oceans Marathon, took to the trail by adding the Two Oceans Trail run over Devils Peak. Trail running poses an entirely new set of challenges to road running as the terrains and event set-up differs tremendously to the flat-surfaced road or track running arena. Runners should therefore be advised to take the right gear, food and liquids to protect themselves and keep them going.

“The first thing to understand is that your average trail run and events like the 100km SkyRun over mountainous terrains are two very different animals. And the equipment you would need is therefore much different,” says Leo Rust, a trail running fanatic at Adventure Inc.

“A common mistake first time trail runners make is to take too much gear, which makes their backpack too heavy,” says Salomon sponsored Ryan Sandes, winner of the 4 Desert Races.

Basic equipment like shoes, clothing, carrier packs and liquid holders will differ depending on the terrain, duration and weather conditions of the event.


“Your trail running shoe is very different to your road running shoe — you have better grip and traction and better protection underneath your shoe. Typically a trail shoe would have a harder section in the midsole to offer more protection against the uneven surface that you run over. You have more protection around the toe areas as one tends to stub your toe more during trail running than on the road and the uppers should be more resistant to abrasion,” says Rust.

Weight is very important to consider when looking at trail running shoes as you pick up every gram with every step you take, remarks Mark Collins, owner of adventure racing events production company, Magnetic South.

“As the terrain you run in has varying weather conditions, you would look for a shoe that provides better drainage than a road shoe,” adds Rust.

Some waterproof shoes do pose extra problems in that they have increased weight when wet and can cause overheating if they aren’t breathable and our experts recommend that you rather opt for the breathable water resistant option (that can expel water quickly) than heavier waterproof shoes.

Hi-Tec and Columbia use a waterproof technology to repel water from the surface of the shoe. The Hi-Tec Ion-mask and the new Columbia OutDry technology makes sure that water does not stick to the surface and keeps the shoe ultralight even when wet.

Trail running shoes are typically low to the ground in order to supply the best stability while running over uneven terrain and are not as cushioned as shoes designed for road running — because of the soft surfaces, such as dirt trails and grass, that trail runners are bound to encounter.

That being said, adventure racer Tatum Prins, from Ram Mountaineering and team Merrell Adventure Addicts, explains that “for shorter distances you can get away with lightweight shoes with thin uppers and thin soles, but for longer trail running events such as the SkyRun you’ll need thicker soles and uppers.”

“It’s difficult to select a shoe for a long distance event that gives you flexibility, cushioning and protection against the harsh off-road elements all in one. I would go for a durable trail shoe that not only has the outer sole to give you maximum cushioning, but also tackles that particular terrain well,” says Grattan Rippon, marketing director of New Balance and Cape Odyssey veteran.

Columbia sponsored Dirk Cloete says his shoes offered lots of support and cushioning when he ran and won the 2010 Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, an event that takes 7 days to complete over 250km in the hot Kalahari desert.

Runners who enjoy the trail and road may want to opt for shoes that handle both these conditions well. “Sometimes you find yourself having to run back through the road after a run on the trial and it is great to have shoes that perform well on both mountainous and tar terrain,” says Sandes.

To prevent sand and rocks getting into shoes and causing blisters, many off-road runners wear gaiters. Sandes warns that breathability is a major consideration for running with gaiters on hot days.

“Some gaiters can trap heat at your feet, which counteracts all the breathable qualities your shoes have to offer. A gaiter that is open at the bottom of the shoe allows heat to escape,” he says. An alternative is to run in breathable shoes with built-in gaiters.

“When I was racing in the Sahara Desert, my gaiters covered my feet, it wasn’t breathable and it trapped heat inside the gaiters, keeping my feet warm, and therefore causing more sweat…

“When I was in Antarctica, however, my gaiters had added insulating qualities that helped keep the cold away from my bottom extremities.”


Garments with moisture wicking qualities help keep the athlete dry and therefore helps prevent chafing.

“A big mistake I’ve seen people make on trails is to wear cotton t-shirts, which is really inadvisable because the cotton absorbs your sweat and sticks to your body, heightening the risk of getting chafed. If there is a breeze it also makes the t-shirt very cold. It is much better to wear breathable t-shirts and shorts,” says Prins.

The same can be said for running socks. The type of sock worn is very important. Cotton gym socks absorb moisture and cause uncomfortable blisters. There are many moisture wicking sock types on the market and some specifically designed for trail running (see the August/September 2010 issue of Sports Trader for the article on technical socks).

As a general rule, the thicker the socks, the hotter and sweatier the feet, which causes moist skin and therefore blisters. Some runners suggest wearing a thin sock underneath a thicker sock to keep friction between the material of the socks, and not the runners foot and shoe.

Rippon advises, “Always have a warm jacket and long tights packed. During multi-stage races the weather in the morning will often differ greatly to that at the end of the day, so having clothes that are suitable for both hot or cold weather is a good idea,” he adds.

“Many inexperienced trail runners misjudge the unpredictability of the weather and are caught without a windbreaker or a waterproof jacket on the mountain. Once the sun sets, the weather drops at a fast rate and not having the proper gear means that they are much colder than they should be,” adds Prins.

Cold weather clothing

For cold weather running long sleeves, leggings or base layers work great to keep you warm and also wicks moisture away from you. “Over that I would wear a fleece or jacket to keep the cold out. Then a waterproof layer if you are going to run in conditions where it might rain,” advises Prins.

“A beanie is good to have,” adds Sandes. “When I was in Antarctica I used my Buff around my neck and a visor on my head to keep my head cool and if it got chilly, I would pull my Buff on top of my head to keep the cold out. I was scared to sweat because in that temperatures sweat freezes almost instantaneously. So I would rather be a little too cold than too hot and sweat,” adds Sandes.

“I find that once I am acclimatised, I can do training runs around my wife’s home town in the Pyrenees (in —6 degrees) with little more than a set of base layers and be quite comfortable,” says Collins.

“However, having to stop with low energy levels in the middle of a race will cause core body temperatures to plummet, even in mild conditions. The important thing is to maintain core body temperature and to be prepared for what you do when you stop moving. Much of the real threats to core body temperature are caused by the wet and the wind.”

Hot weather

“A cap shields the sun from the face and can also be used to keep your head cool by submerging it in water whenever possible,” says Ian Little, marketing manager for Hi-Tec and 2007 Trail Runner of the Year.

“When it is hot my head acts like a thermometer and I find if my head is warm I tend to feel warm too. I therefore prefer a visor so that the top of my head is not covered. I also throw water on my head regularly to keep cool. For warm weather compression shorts and t-shirts work great. Even better if they are designed to keep you cool,” remarks Sandes.

Once again, for warm weather, quick drying clothing works best to keep the sweat off your skin. “These days athletes run in suits that protect them from the UV rays of the sun, compress the body and keep your temperatures constant,” adds Rippon.


Carrier packs are also very event specific. The duration of the event will determine the capacity needed to fit food, clothes and hydration in. For longer distances more volume is needed and lightweight breathable qualities become even more important.

Sandes describes his choice of backpack depends on the type of race he needs it for. “Backpacks with built-in dry-bags are great for running in the jungle to give you that extra waterproof protection. I actually found that front packs become hotter than backpacks as it prohibits heat from escaping from your chest.”

“On one day races/training sessions the weight of the pack is not as essential as it would be on multi-day races. I like to use the hip-belt with a waist and chest strap secured around my body for one day races/training,” remarks Prins.

One advantage of hip-belts are that they keep the heat off your back but also allows for less to be carried, explains Rust.

“In order to keep the backpack lightweight, you need to find the most lightweight equipment that also has multiple functions,” he adds.

“I find that bladders in your pack work better for short races as they are quick to get to whereas bottles work better for long races, like the desert race, as you can see how much water you are consuming and how much you have left in the bottle.” adds Sandes.

Seasons also affect the type of pack that needs to be carried. “Winter races in the mountains require a racer to carry far more gear whereas in summer desert races you virtually have to carry nothing,” explains Collins.

A pack that fits well is also a prerequisite for a good experience during the run.

“I would look for something that sits tremendously comfortable and suits the body — as everyone comes in different sizes (some very tall and others quite short) it is very important to find a pack that suits your body,” says Prins.

“Having a bag that is well sorted and light helped me to be quick and confident over technical terrain during the Kalahari Augrabies marathon,” explains Cloete.


For night time running a headlamp or torch is a must. Experts advise on the lightest/smallest headlamp with the brightest beams. Some runners prefer torches over headlamps, “A handheld torch allows the beam to be held lower,” says Rust. Whether using a headlamp or torch extra batteries are also needed for longer races.

“A Buff is one of my top products to use while trail running; it keeps the sun off of your head and neck and splashing water on it helps it to keep you cool,” says Rust. Many events list a technical scarf as one of their recommended packing items.

Hats with brims protect your head and face from the glaring sun and sunglasses protect your eyes from the sun’s damaging rays.

“Eyewear is of extreme importance as it helps with glare — some manufacturers have transition sunglasses that work well for trail running as you might find yourself running in extreme glare and harsh sunlight one minute and in a dark forest the next minute,” says Sandes.

Anti-insect spray (if the environment requires it) and sunblock is also a must-have on the trail. “Make sure it’s the dry type that does not run into your eyes during the course of the day,” advises Rippon.

To keep the pack compact and light, “we normally decant block-out and insect repellent in small containers before we pack it into our carrier packs,” says Prins.

Maps and compasses are especially essential on multi-day runs and trips through the mountains.

A heart-rate monitor equipped with a GPS is a nice accessory to have, but not all off-road runners feel the need to use it. “I don’t use heart-rate monitors, because it gets in the way. I feel it is much better to listen to your own body and know what to do when you exert yourself,” says Sandes.

Keeping hydrated

“Many road racers who switch to trail running don’t bring enough water as they are used to the event supplying water every few kilometres. On the trail you are self-supported and not bringing enough water means that you have to go without. On trails you definitely need to have a good strategy for nutrition, food, lightweight equipment and deciding what you absolutely need and what you can go without,” says Prins.

“The longer the race gets the more important it becomes to focus on hydration and nutrition,” Rust explains. “For a short 2 hour run, you will hydrate for the first half of the run and then push through to the end, whereas during longer runs it becomes more important to maintain that hydration for the upcoming hours. On shorter runs I would deem it more important to cut down on weight and thus bring less water per duration of the event.”

“I drink about 750ml of water every hour, but one should always listen to your body and drink when your body needs it,” advises Sandes. But on long distance runs it’s not enough to just drink water — normally a sodium mixture is taken with to replenish lost salt, Prins advises.

“For hydration the rule is when you’re thirsty it’s often too late. I learnt the hard way to mix my hydration the way it is recommended on the pack. The mix is usually determined for optimum absorption,” says Collins.

“Gels are the easiest and most efficient way of getting your energy levels up quickly. One energy gel an hour, fluid for thirst and drinking little but very often helps to keep hydrated,” advises Little.

Even when looking at water carriers, the weather conditions of the run should be taken into account. “In hot weather you can need as much as 5 times more hydration than you would in cooler temperatures and you’ll therefor need a larger carrier capacity,” says Collins.


“We normally require 2000 calories of food per day, though I am not a nutritionist and can’t speak for everyone. Your body does need to stay fuelled at all times to avoid hyperglycaemia and dehydration,” advises Rippon.

For multi-day races it becomes even more important to plan nutrition as regular meals are often replaced by dry, lightweight food. “In the longer races beginners often underestimate their nutritional requirements,” remarks Collins.

“I personally like the shorter release carbohydrate nutritional supplements, such as the meal bars that contain fruit — it tastes more natural and it feels as if you are getting something more substantial than the fast releasing sugar-filled snacks,” adds Rust.

“I use perpetuem mixed in pancake batter,” says Sandes. Perpetuem is a slow release carbohydrate specially developed for multi-day endurance racing. “When it is a short run or close to the end of the race I drink a high energy supplement to give me that extra boost. High sugar drinks do give you an extra boost of energy, but the come down is faster than with slow release carbohydrates.”

When packing food weigh up what you get out of the food compared to the weight of the product, advises Prins. “We always pack dry ProNutro mixed with energy supplements in a Ziploc bag then add water and bite a hole in it and drink it as a meal. Some people also like to take oats and eat them on the run.”

First aid

Apart from food and hydration, first aid has to be one of the top priorities when packing for an endurance race.

Plasters, blister plasters, gauze dressing, bandages, petroleum jelly, anti-inflammatory tablets, a space blanket, anti-diarrhoea, antihistamine, mercurochrome, a muscle rub and a cell phone are some of the important items to pack in a first aid kit.

Some events make it mandatory that you carry a cell phone with you in case of emergency — if the area has cell phone reception. “Should something happen that makes it impossible for you to get yourself out of the situation, you can call for help,” explains Rust.

“Recently after a mountain bike crash during a multi-sport event I was saved from potential disaster by one of the other competitors who was carrying dressing in his backpack. This stopped the blood flow and undoubtedly lessened the chances of infection. It was literally a life saver,” says Little.

A snake bite kit is also an important thing to have in areas where snakes are known to be. “I make sure I never run in high grass and keep to the trail as a puff adder won’t move until you step on it and it is too late,” warns Sandes.

Preventing blisters

Multi-day events, like the Kalahari Augrabies and Salomon SkyRun, are becoming more popular and when running for days at a time preventing blisters become paramount.

“Make sure to wear clean dry socks and shoes that you are used to running in. However, if you have blisters, strap them to the nines to prevent further injury. Blister plasters do a good job with further strapping on top of the other straps,” says Little.

Rippon also suggests having a back-up pair of worn-in shoes with you on your run.

“To prevent chafing around your feet you should consider pre-foot management. For long runs I would suggest using a petroleum jelly — putting it on your feet before you put your socks on,” advises Prins.

“Though I use petroleum jelly to help with chafing, I have heard of athletes that use methylated spirits to harden the soles of their feet a few months before a big run. If I do get blisters, however, I use mercurochrome to keep it clean,” says Sandes.

Some websites suggest keeping a small container of foot powder, alcohol swabs, lubricant, gauze, tape, plasters and blister patches in the backpack when running multi-stage events.

Even though the gear items needed to run off-road is minimal (shoes, clothing, carrier, water, food and first-aid), the trick comes in taking the environment and event type into consideration when preparing for the run.

As Mark Collins puts it, “Adventure racing in many ways emulates life. It’s about doing something big by doing all the little things properly. Ignoring a little problem seldom sees it disappear. You have to pay attention to the details.”

*Read our copyright notice before making use of this article

© SA Sports Trader