Trail Running in Devon
Throughout my career I have primarily been a track athlete but so much of my training has been on trails. My rationale was that the softer and more varied uneven surfaces would help protect me from impact and repetitive strain types injuries. However, there is so much more to my trail running than injury prevention! I have always loved trails and heading off into the countryside is when I really feel like I'm enjoying my run, it's so peaceful and such an escape from a busy day! Away from the roads you're not thinking about passing cars, you can really unwind and immerse yourself in the run and it also enables you to reach much more remote and beautiful places.
Living in Devon there's so much choice when it comes to trail running. Devon is a large county with lots of places for a runner to explore. Straddling a peninsula there are two stunning coastlines with dramatic sea cliffs, beautiful estuaries and some really wonderful beaches. If you venture inland you'll find rolling lush farmland, woodland and the wild open moorland of Dartmoor and western Exmoor. Hillsides are dotted with farms and quaint thatched cottages, and nestled in the valleys are pretty little villages. Devon has a rich history and heritage, especially on Dartmoor which has hundreds of archaeological sites dating back thousands of years. Travel off the beaten track to the more remote areas in the middle of Devon and you'll find yourself far away from our busy world. With crazily narrow country lanes and villages that seem almost deserted you can sense a slower pace of life calibrated to a more pleasant setting.
Devon has thousands of miles of footpaths to explore but you'll need to enjoy running up and down hills as it's a county of many deep valleys! In fact the name Devon comes from the former Celtic kingdom which refers to people living in deep valleys. There are a few tamer routes along waterways but otherwise flat runs can be tricky to find!
Running through nature has always been at the core of my enjoyment of running and so over the next few weeks I wanted to share some of my favourite spots to run off road in Devon. Perhaps if you're ever visiting the county you can check them out too. I'll kick things off with some runs close to my home and the nearby coast path.
East Devon's Pebblebed Heaths
If I run from my doorstep I can soon be running on the pebblebed heaths of East Devon. The landscape here is a mixture of heathland and woodland with far reaching views of the coast and lots of trails to choose from.
Negotiating a stream on Woodbury Common near my home in East Devon.
The running on Woodbury Common is quite demanding with lots of hills and a mix of pebbly and non pebbly trails traversing a landscape of gorse and heather. After prolonged heavy rain there is plenty of mud too and in the winter I often come home completely caked in it and looking forward to a nice hot shower! The first common starts at the edge of our village and so this is my most convenient off road run.
With distant views of the sea, Woodbury Common is a lovely scenic place to run right right from my doorstep.
Locals refer to the entire area as Woodbury Common although it's actually a collection of smaller commons with most named after a nearby village. These lowland heaths support over three thousand different species! Due to the rarity of these habitats and some endangered species found here it's an important conservation area. Along with the wildlife you might pass some of the common's archaeological sites including barrows, cairns and an Iron Age hill fort. It really is a lovely place to explore and run.
Woodbury Common is also the main training area for the Royal Marine Commandos and you often see troops out on exercise. Just keep an eye out for the red flags so you don't find yourself in the middle of a fire fight!
Strava route for Woodbury Common →
East Devon's Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
I live about five miles inland from the coast and between my home and the sea you are running through East Devon's designated area of outstanding natural beauty with its countless tracks that have a public right of way. I was born in East Devon and grew up not far from where I now live, yet I can still go for a run and explore new tracks. It's a maze of foot paths and if you know your way you have multiple routes to and from the coast that are all off road. Running through this pleasant rural scenery you'll enjoy a mix of rolling agricultural land, woodland and heathland. The tracks vary from well kept and good going underfoot to some that are much more difficult to run. The muddy and more rocky trails are best avoided for faster work but for slow relaxing rambling type runs they are wonderful.
Just inland there are some good running areas which are really great for linking up with a run on the coast path. These include the River Otter path, East Hill, Harpford Common, Harpford Woods, Mutter's Moor and Woodbury Common.
Strava route for East Devon AONB →
The above link is an off road marathon route that my husband Gav ran on the day of the London Marathon. We have altered the original marathon route by shortening it slightly so that it starts and finishes in the village of Tipton St. john, which has free parking and the bonus of a nice pub! 🏃🏻♀️🏃🏻🥟🍻 The run passes through a wide range of East Devon's landscapes including some areas of heathland, the banks of the River Otter, the coast path and lots of woodland. It's a long way with lots of hills but of course it can be broken into shorter runs.
The South West Coast Path
This is one of the highlights of any visit to the Westcountry. This 630 mile long trail runs between Minehead and Poole and is the UK's longest national trail. It has some of the best coastal running in the UK and I absolutely love running here. Although it's stunning on a warm sunny day I think it's equally as beautiful on a cold, wet and stormy day when the raging seas and bracing winds make it feel very wild. The path has some serious climbs and some of the toughest are near where I live. Try running in and out of Salcombe Mouth with its adjacent 500 foot cliffs and you'll know what I mean. If you want a slightly easier run there are some workarounds where you can detour inland to reduce some of the climbing. For really high cliffs you can head to Hangman Cliffs in North Devon. Great Hangman has an elevation of 1043 feet and a shear cliff face of over 800 feet making it the highest sea cliff in England and Southern Britain.
The section of coast near my home is a World Heritage Site called the Jurassic Coast, which is famous for its fossils, rock forms and landforms. One of my favourite runs is to run to High Peak near Sidmouth which passes through green rolling fields, woodland and heathland before you are greeted by the wide open expanse of the sea. This is a particularly lovely early morning run as you are running towards the rising sun.
The last few miles of my run before I emerge onto the coast path.
Sometimes it's good to stop and enjoy the view!
The trig point at the top of High Peak to the west of Sidmouth.
Further afield the coast path has so many amazing runs. I have run many sections of it over the years and I still have so much of it to explore! During half term we headed off in our van to stay a few nights in the South Hams in South Devon. The coast here is absolutely stunning between Wembury and Dartmouth and one of my favourite areas of Devon. There are so many little coves with sandy beaches that are only accessible after a hike or run along the coast path. The scenery can be wild and remote in places with high cliffs, jagged rocky outcrops and lots of gorse and heather. I love this coastal landscape, running here is such a joy. One thing you'll notice clinging to the hillsides are the windswept Hawthorn trees that lean over providing a good clue as to which way the prevailing wind must blow! The trails here are a mix of good going to very challenging and so be prepared for a slower paced run. This doesn't bother me at all, as whenever I'm on the coast I mostly settle for a more relaxed run to take in all the beauty.
The jagged headland of Start Point. The coastal running here is absolutely fabulous!
South Devon is home to another of Devon's Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and this southern part of the coast has lots of wonderful estuaries that snake their way far inland with many small creeks. This means that any long distance run, for ultra running types, would require a ferry crossing to avoid running a long way inland to find a bridge! Devon has around thirteen estuaries and some of the prettiest include Kingsbridge (Salcombe), Dartmouth, Avon, Yealm and Erme. In South Devon you'll discover drowned river valleys formed after the last ice age with pretty tidal creeks and wooded valleys which make this some of the most picturesque scenery in Devon. Quaint villages and towns cling to the hillsides and in the estuaries and harbours there are hundreds of fishing boats, pleasure craft and in more recent years lots of paddle boarders!
The sections of path between Hope Cove and Salcombe and from Torcross to East Portlemouth are beautiful for running. The South Hams coast really is a stunning area and to combine a coastal run with some family time on a sandy beach before seeking out a country pub for a bite to eat makes for a lovely day out.
The north coast, known for its surfing, has some very high sea cliffs, large expansive sandy beaches but fewer estuaries. A lovely shorter run is from Croyde to Woolacombe. For a longer effort I recommend heading over to the Exmoor coast to enjoy some truly spectacular rugged scenery.
I have many happy childhood memories of days spent on Woolacombe Beach, which was my families favourite beach. I loved running in bare feet at the waters edge and this huge expanse of sand is where I truly fell in love with the absolute freedom you experience from running through nature. I was so carefree and ran with so much enthusiasm. Whenever I'm back in Woolacombe I always try to make time for a run at the surfs edge. With the fresh sea air, noisy tumbling surf and wind in my face it's truly magical and just how I remember it as an 11 year old! This type of running is pure bliss and it left a lifelong impression on me. It's both mentally and physically invigorating and leaves you filled to the brim with positivity. As a young school girl I was so eager to try and make the Olympics and my passion came not just from the running but from where I ran. It's always been important to me to really embrace and truly enjoy my running and my surroundings play a huge role in this.
The following link describes some of my favourite coastal runs in Devon and Cornwall →
Strava route for South Hams coastal run →
Strava route for North Devon coastal run →
If you're ever in Devon I hope you enjoy exploring some of these running areas and perhaps experiencing some of the same joy that I feel running through these wonderful landscapes. Over the next few weeks I'll post a few more areas of Devon that are great for running.
Throughout the British Isles we have some truly lovely scenery and running has really enriched my travels during our active outdoor family holidays in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. When you're away finding new routes is good fun but it can be tricky and that's why I wanted to share some ideas from my neck of the woods here in Devon. A few things that have been really helpful for finding new trails has been Strava and the Ordinance Survey App and I used both quite a lot during our recent summer holiday in the Highlands of Scotland.