Off-road running types and characteristics

We continue with our recap of the main off-road running varieties. For a summary check the summary image that accompanies this post.


Hill running (or fell running)

This discipline is off-road, and usually including difficult climbs. It has common features with trail, mountain, and cross country running.

It is mainly practiced in the UK, being the governing body the FRA (Fell Running Association), with links with British Athletics but not recognised by World Athletics. The oldest event is the Ben Nevis race, taking place since 1937.

The races are classified in different ways:

  • By duration: from minutes to 24h, and even multi-day events in wild mountainous environments.
  • By distance: categories “S” (short) <10k; “M” (medium) >10k but <20k; “L” (long) >20k.
  • By ascent: from 50m climb/km to 20m climb/km, and categories A to C.

Navigation skills and survival equipment are often required (category G if electronic devices are allowed, or NG if they are not). For multi-day events participants usually carry all the equipment and sustenance for overnight camping.



Orienteering has four varieties: foot, trail, ski and mountain bike.

The international governing body is the IOF (International Orienteering Federation), recognised by the Olympic Committee, but not World Athletics.

The course is unmarked, with participants using their navigation skills. Depending on the distance events can be sprint, middle or long-distance ones. Competition may be individual, teams or relay.


Obstacle Course Racing (OCR)

This discipline involves athletes on foot overcoming different obstacles. The FISO (Fédération Internationale de Sports d’Obstacles) founded in 2018 is the international governing body.

Events are many with very different obstacles and distances. They can take place in the wilderness, stadium, urban, beach or indoor venues. Adventure racing is an OCR disciplines with events going from hours to expeditions of 1000k.


Cross country running

This discipline takes place off-road, and usually involves loops on a course covered by grass, earth or mats, marked and 5m wide. Distances range between 4 and 12k, but international competitions are held on a 10k course.

Participants are fully supported and is governed by World Athletics.


Ultramarathon running

This discipline is defined uniquely by distance and governed by the IAU (International Association of Ultrarunners), recognised by World Athletics.

Most races are run in natural environments and fall also in the trail running category. Timed ultra-endurance events such as 6, 12 or 24h events, and multi-day events are also often categorised as ultramarathons.

The longest ultramarathon is the “Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race” that takes place in Queens, New York and gives 52 days for completion.


Recommendations by the Ultra Sports Science Foundation

There should be a clear reference to distance, surface, elevation change and altitude. Additionally, the information should include also if the event is continuous or staged, type of support, name, year and governing body.

Terms such “ultramarathon”, “ultra-running” and “ultra-endurance” are vague by themselves. Extra information should be provided. Similar can be said of “trail” and “off-road” terms:  surface information should be given too.

Giving the most detailed information of an event to athletes will ensure that they can choose the most appropriate event according to their abilities. Doing so will ensure successful completion and avoid undesired incidents.



Defining Off-road Running: A Position Statement from the Ultra Sports Science Foundation.

Scheer V, Basset P, Giovanelli N, Vernillo G, Millet GP, Costa RJS

Int J Sports Med. 2020 Feb 14. doi: 10.1055/a-1096-0980.

Photo by Marc Rafanell López (Unsplash)

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