Why I Love Trail Running: World Champion Ricky Lightfoot

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Photography: Tom Joy/Northern Monk

Whatever surface you choose, be it road, trail or treadmill, running is an excellent way to look after your physical and mental health. However, many runners do themselves a disservice by never stepping off the beaten track, because there are unique benefits to be gained from trail running that you simply cannot get from city pavements.

For the inside track on what makes trail running great, we spoke to 2013 world champion and shining example of nominative determinism Ricky Lightfoot. The 32-year-old firefighter from Workington in Cumbria has been fell running since his teens and has won numerous prestigious trail races around the world including the Otter Trail Run, the Zegama-Aizkorri race and the Lakeland Classic Trophy series (twice).

How did you get into trail running?

I didn’t start running until I was about 15, at secondary school. Brian Taylor, the caretaker at the school, was a fell runner and he’d take kids out to the races as an after-school sport. I thought I’d give it go. I turned up in my football boots.

The race was only meant to be about two or three miles, but it was a horrible, wet, typical January day. I ended up getting lost and I was out for about an hour with a couple of the kids until we found our way back to the start.

There was something about being out in the mud and the rain – something in my brain clicked. Ever since then I’ve been hooked on the sport.

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When did you start getting serious with the sport?

Brian would invite us along to training sessions after school and during dinnertime. Over the following couple of years, it went from 30 of us down to about six lads who were running really well. I was never the best when I was a junior – I just had a lot more determination so I could push myself harder than they could. It progressed from then until I started racing.

What other sports have you done in the past and what makes trail running special?

My main sport before that was football – I was a right-back. It didn’t offer the same things. What I like about running is finding out how far you can push yourself and how far can your body can go without breaking.

Is trail running good for mental health as well as physical?

Yes, in a way I’ve come to rely on it. It’s something I need every day. It’s difficult at the minute, because I’ve picked an injury and had an operation so I haven’t run for over two weeks now.

I find it relaxing to get out. It’s like medicine. Getting out on the fells in the Lake District is something I can’t go without. The other day, once I could drive again, I just went out and sat for an hour on a rock and I felt a lot better for having done it.

Have you ever fallen out of love with it?

I’ve always been running. Every day since I can remember. You do have highs and lows but it’s just part of it. If I have a low point I try to change what I’m doing or go somewhere different. Quite often that fixes it.

Where are your favourite places to run in the UK?

The places I like to run and explore are 20 minutes away from my doorstep. There’s something special about the western Lake District. Even now, after 16 years, I discover new things, views I’ve never seen before. That’s what intrigues me about running in the lakes – there’s always something to find.

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What would you say to road runners to convince them to get on the trails?

Road running is good. You can run a lot faster, the surfaces are clean and you have no worries about slipping or tripping on rocks and tree roots. But I think trail running is something everybody should at least give a go.

Just getting up on a peak or a ridge, in the open space and the fresh air – no buildings, no roads – you can’t experience that anywhere else. Get off the beaten track and try something out of your comfort zone! I think getting out of your comfort zone is something everyone should do at least once a week.

Ricky Lightfoot is sponsored by Salomon

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.