Find your feet on the trails with SCMP's guide to Hong Kong's hikes

Thinking about going hiking or trail running? Before you begin, take some advice from the experts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 November, 2013, 11:58am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 1:39pm

Running may seem like a rather straightforward endeavour. But when you add rocks, roots, dirt, uneven terrain and stairs, your body gets challenged in many ways beyond road running.

"Trail running works on your strength, agility, co-ordination and balance," says Emma Drake, a physiotherapist at Sports and Spinal Physiotherapy Centres and a local trail runner.

"The glutes [or buttock muscles] and calves tend to work heavily when trail running. Because of the constant directional changes, the body's core muscles are constantly stimulated. Trail running or hiking is a good form of cross-training and a nice complement to increasing fitness."

Newbies to trail running or hiking - even if you're an experienced road runner - may find the terrain a shock to the system at first.

Video: Extreme workout - the art of trail running in Hong Kong

"It takes way more concentration than road running," says Eric LaHaie, a top local trail runner and managing director of Stack Asia Pacific. "The more focus and spatial awareness you have on the trails, the better trail runner you will become."

Physically, you'll find that five kilometres on a trail will take much more out of you than a Bowen Road trot of the same distance. Ascents don't get you far (in distance), but can send your heart rate skyrocketing. Descents may seem like a chance for a breather, but the increased impact on the legs could make thigh muscles quiver very quickly.

"You don't want to be counting kilometres with trail running," says Michael Maddess, director of race organising company Action Asia Events and a top local trail runner. "More experienced trail runners tend to see their training in terms of hours clocked or elevation gained."

It doesn't help that Hong Kong in general has more technical trails compared to Europe and North America, according to Maddess.

Instead of soft mountain trails and smooth switchbacks, Hong Kong trails tend to be built on the philosophy of the straightest line to the top (or bottom). Hence, there are lots of steep trails and, increasingly, cement staircases. The monsoon season also tends to erode the trails, creating more difficult terrain.

Although the undulating terrain may seem like an invitation for injury, Drake says trail running is actually kinder on your joints than paved roads. "To do trail running well, you have to run fairly light and take smaller steps - this style of running makes it easier on the joints," she says.

LaHaie advises to try to run with at least one buddy on the trails, as you don't want to find yourself caught out alone if you accidentally sprained your ankle or fell. Also, always bring your mobile phone and some money with you, as well as enough water.

"You don't have to be really fit to hike or trail run," says Drake. "You just have to choose your trail carefully."

Some ideal beginner trails are those named as "Family Walks" and "Nature Trails" in the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department's Enjoy Hiking website www.hkwalkers.net and phone app. The 50-kilometre Hong Kong Trail, stretching from The Peak to Big Wave Bay, is also suitable for newbies.

As for your first race, beginners are spoiled for choice with the expanding local race calendar. Stone Tsang Siu-keung, a top local trail runner with The North Face team, advises beginning with a race distance as short as possible. Also, beginners should consider picking a less difficult trail and with a good view, and getting some friends to join you.

"Shorter races mean less suffering. You'll enjoy it more, and will be more likely to take part in other races. If your first race is too tough, you'll quit. So aim to complete your first race comfortably," says Tsang.

Action Asia Events offers a number of shorter distance races with generous time limits. For example, next weekend's MSIG Lantau race, which starts and finishes at Auberge Hotel at Discovery Bay, offers distances of 14 kilometres, 27 kilometres and 50 kilometres.

"A 14 kilometre race is within reach for most hikers and runners," says Maddess. "You could very well walk the whole thing."

Once you get a few short distance races under your belt, you can slowly move up to longer distances and perhaps even that ultramarathon one day.

But if you're thinking of trying out some trails, it's best to be equipped with some basic skills. Here, a trio of top local runners - Maddess, Tsang, and Clement Dumont of the HOKA/2XU team - share their tips.

GOING UPHILL

Relax. The going might get tough, but always aim to have your body and shoulders as relaxed as possible, says Tsang.

Lean forward slightly. "People tend to lean too far forward," says Maddess. "You'll find that if you stand tall while going uphill, you'll be able to lift your knee higher - and that's a big advantage." A simple test: stand straight and bring your knee up towards your chest, then do the same with your body leaning forward. You'll find that if you stand tall, your knee can go higher. Keep your head up too, to take in as much oxygen as you can.

Step with your forefoot. The most efficient way to run uphill is to strike the ground with your forefoot, says Dumont, founder of Asia Trail magazine and also race director of the TransLantau trail race. "However, the calves work harder and get tired more rapidly," he says. "It is therefore good to run as far as you can on a climb during training."

Beginners who don't yet have the calf strength, however, should step from heels to toes, Maddess says. "This gives you more leverage to push off in the calf," he says.

Don't strain yourself. During a race, Dumont alternates between running and power-walking uphill, even though he has the physical ability to run the whole climb. "Trail is a lot about saving energy for what is coming next," he says.

Train specifically. The only way you're going to get better on uphills is to practise. Tsang suggests mixing it up: sprint intervals, each of two to four minutes long, for six to nine reps; a long constant uphill effort of 20 to 60 minutes in length; and indoor strength training for the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteus muscles.

Video: Trail Running Tips - running uphill

 

GOING DOWNHILL

Work with gravity. It may be human instinct to lean back, especially on a steep downhill run and when you're afraid. "But as soon as your centre of gravity is back, there's a certain catch up motion that throws you off," says Maddess. "You'll be faster if you run with gravity."

For super steep downhill sections, however, there may be a need to lean back slightly to gain control. Maddess shares a tip from New Zealand's mountain running champion Jonathan Wyatt: "When you lose control on a downhill, jump as high as you can to regain control."

Look ahead. "Before trying to go fast downhill, you first need to learn how to anticipate the changing terrain," says Dumont. "For this, you must be able to see where to land far in advance, by looking three to five metres ahead."

Familiarity with the course always helps, so if you've signed up for your first race, it's best to head out to the race route for a couple of recce hikes.

Step suitably. On trail staircases, some people shuffle, others take two steps at a time, while some elite runners even triple-step. On steep hills, Tsang says side-stepping is a good technique. "When running downhill you must be comfortable and you must feel in control," says Tsang. Lowering your hips will improve your balance and control.

Dumont says double-stepping can be faster but it increases the stress on the muscles, so you need to train this technique. "For long distance events, it's better to do one step at a time," he says. "To improve your speed on stairs, the most important thing is to focus on the position of your foot on each step, then the pace will come naturally."

Use your arms. "Spread your arms out like wings and use them for balance," says Tsang.

Video: Trail Running Tips - running downhill

 

PACING

Start slowly. Maddess notes that many people tend to take off too fast at the gun and burn out far too early in a race. "There's nothing wrong in starting slowly," he says. "With some of my personal best results, I didn't think I was racing. I took it easy for the first half and didn't care who was ahead of me. I kept my heart rate below threshold. Then in the second half, I found that I started passing people."

Conserve your energy. Even elite runners walk some of the steep parts of a race, says Dumont. Pushing too hard on the climbs will leave you empty and unable to set a good pace on flat sections. "It is a matter of energy efficiency," he says. "When the trail becomes too steep, it is much more economical to power walk than keep running at a slow pace."

Downhills are a good opportunity to gain - or lose - significant time, Dumont adds. "It is hard on the legs and pushing too hard downhill will leave you without energy for the subsequent climb," he says.

Be flexible. You have to adapt your pace to the terrain and trail conditions, unlike in road running, where a constant pace is usually the goal. "I don't have a fixed pacing for trail running," says Tsang. "If the trail condition is good, you can run faster. If it's rocky, steep or technical, it's quite difficult to keep to a pace and you must move slower."

Maddess says that at the end of the day, common sense should prevail. "There's a lot of science about pacing and running, but sometimes you can just throw it out the window and listen to your own body," he says.

Video: Trail Running Tips - pacing