Trail running in Switzerland

A fabulous network of scenic running trails at a variety of altitudes makes Switzerland a paradise for trail runners

Switzerland is the top trail running destination in Europe, writes locally-based runner and International Mountain Leader Julia Tregaskis-Allen. Perfect running trails wind through lush meadows of flowers with views of the 'big three' peaks: Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and the Eiger.

A trip to Switzerland is sure to boost both body and mind. Escape into the mountain scenery to enjoy the clean Alpine air whilst gaining fitness and training benefits along the way. Reap the rewards of exercising at higher altitudes and build strength from the varied terrain. Enjoy 'non-run' time soaking up not just the sun but also the culture, cuisine and unusual Swiss history. Top it all off with a visit to one of the many thermal spas and you have one perfect trail running break.

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The following is a selection of places to get you started on your own Swiss trail adventures. Each of the regions described offers runners of all levels of fitness and experience a chance to explore the mountains, run with nature and discover some challenges.

The Swiss Jura
In the north, with easy access from Geneva, this traditional, quiet farming region offers literally hundreds of kilometres of well marked, linked trails. It's all here, from easy forest trails, lush meadows, farm trails and technical rocky single track giving access to lengthy point-to-point itineraries, circuits, summits and crêtes with fabulous views of the distant Alps. The high points of this French-speaking area are never an issue when it comes to altitude as the highest altitude is just 1,717m. So it's an ideal area for mileage - a perfect 'ultra' distance training venue.

First-time visitors should head for the Jura via St. Cergue to access the Mt Dole region, or further east to Neuchâtel/ Yverdon-les-Bain featuring the Vallée des Joux and the Val de Travers.

If preferred, join a guide on a point-to-point tour across the Jura. At Tracks and Trails, we plan the route and organise your bags to be moved from place to place - you just run!

Val d'Anniviers
In the heart of the Valais canton, it's possible to access up to 600 kilometres of hiking/running trails and view numerous 4,000m peaks. Although a destination on the famous Grand Randonnée high-level route, the Anniviers is less well known that some parts of the Swiss Alps, and is not overrun with visitors. This French speaking valley offers a variety of routes and 'real' Alpine experiences - wooden chalets, clanking cowbells, cheese and chocolate, it's all here!
On the Sierre-Zinal trail
For runners, the valley has become known for the Sierre-Zinal Sky Race, the oldest mountain race found in its category in Europe. This historic route starts in the town of Sierre, in the Rhone valley at 585m, and rises up to 2,425m along a high balcony trail offering breathtaking views. After 31km it reaches Zinal. Sections of this route make for perfect trail runs.

The good news is you don't have to be a experienced endurance runner to enjoy this area. The variety of run trails and itineraries is endless, all offering stunning views with different styles of terrain and altitude. On a good day consider taking one of the mountain cable cars or the St Luc funicular to access height, summits, superb vistas and option for easy angled trails where it's possible to see wildlife including ibex, chamois and marmots.

Our Swiss running week is based in the stunning Val d'Anniviers and is designed for regular trail runners wanting to enjoy guided trail runs, excellent cuisine and the opportunity to enter the Sierre-Zinal sky race.

Swiss 4000ers
Travel further along the Rhone and deeper into the Valais canton to enter a German-speaking area with access to yet more famous peaks and trails to explore. Take the spectacular Glacier Express train from Visp and climb gradually to reach Zermatt - right next to the iconic Matterhorn.

Zermatt lies at the upper end of the Mattertal valley and benefits from being a totally car-free zone. The busy town has amazing views of the Matterhorn and is a great base for mountaineers, runners and skiers. It lies on the Tour de Monte Rosa and Tour du Matterhorn, and is the start or finishing point for the famous Grand Randonnée high-level route.

Some sections of these routes, depending on your experience, make superb running itineraries. The trails are well marked and mapped many of which are easily reached from the town centre. Don't forget your camera. As soon as you leave the town centre you'll be passing pretty alpine chalets and wanting to stop to capture with the quintessential view of pastures, peaks and general all round Swiss perfection!

High-altitude benefits training
Zermatt is situated at 1,608m but has easy access to higher trails via the Glacier Paradise cable car or, better still, the delightful cog railway to Gornergrat at 2,883m. Runners then have access to more height or level trails, lakes, mountain restaurants and breathtaking views of up to 29 4,000m peaks! You can choose to then run or walk down some of the mountain, before re-joining the train at the Rotenboden or Riffelberg stops.

If you're new to exercise at higher altitudes then it's advisable to first run at lower elevations, such as a section of the Zermatt marathon, which involves taking the train down to St Niklaus at 1,120m. From here it's possible to run the length of the Mattertal valley or, for a change of scene, head along to the parallel valley of Saas Fee and Saas Grund (another car-free zone).

The Bernese Alps
In the southern part of the canton of Bern, the Bernese Oberland (or Highlands) is another German-speaking region of the Swiss Alps. Offering yet more jaw-dropping vistas and running potential, the Bernese Alps are home to the imposing rock face of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. The opening of the Jungfraujoch railway to the east of Jungfrau's summit gave access to visitors in the early 20th century, then making it one of the most visited places in the Alps.

The resort town of Interlaken gives access to either Grindelwald or the Wengen/Lauterbrunnen/Mürren valleys, where you find all the maps and guides you need for planning your routes: some are even free! The Jungfraujoch cog-railway can be joined in either valley and makes it's way on an incredible journey via the mountain crossroads of the Kleine Scheidegg, before climbing through the mountain past the Eiger North face making a stop at the Eigerwand station at 2,865m. The terminus is the highest railway station in Europe, at 3,454m. Here you can view Europe's longest glacier, the Aletsch (a World Heritage site) and a sea of jagged peaks.
Wengen
Between the Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen valleys, visitors can experience everything 'Swiss' from mountain activities, luxury hotels, local food, traditional dress, dances, folk music topped off by first class Alpine scenery. Both areas make ideal starting points for mountain running offering 300km of perfectly developed trails, including the beautiful Eiger Trail.

The impressive, deep glacial valley of Lauterbrunnen offers running trails with dramatic scenery, surrounded as it is by 72 waterfalls. Above at 1,257m is Wengen and, at the head of this valley, delightful Mürren, a traditional Valaisian mountain village and another car-free zone. Wengen and Mürren, like many other parts of Switzerland, have in place a fantastic network of way-marked and mapped 'nordic walking trails' with different distances and difficulties marked from 5-30km, which also make ideal running routes.

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES

1. Swiss Jura Marathon – July

The Swiss Jura Marathon runs along the spine of the Jura mountain range and consists of 7 stages covering 350km and 11,200m of ascent and descent over rolling terrain from Geneva to Basel. Although timed as a race, it can be thought of as an adventure: simply completing it the biggest challenge. The stages themselves offer plenty of ideas to base yourself for a trail running holiday.

2. Sierre-Zinal – August

Known as the Race of Five 4,000m Peaks, the Sierre to Zinal sky race is classed as one of the finest and oldest mountain races of its category in Europe. The course leaves the base of Rhone valley at Sierre then covers 31km with 2,200m ascent and 800m descent to reach the head of the Val d'Anniviers at Zinal. As course record holder Jonathan Wyatt once said, “as a mountain racer you must experience the tradition and history of this race”.

3. Zermatt Marathon - July

A mainly uphill marathon, offering a half or full marathon, relay and - more recently - an 'ultra' distance. From St. Niklaus, the route rises gradually along the Mattertal valley to reach Zermatt. The terrain then changes to alpine trails to 2,585m.

4. Tour du Mont Blanc – August

The North Face Ultra-Trail events UTMB, CCC and PTL all pass through the western Valais region, and take in three Alpine countrie: France, Italy and Switzerland. Each event requires qualifying points to enter and are a serious undertaking! We run the route of the UTMB at a more leisurely pace be it for fun or as a pre-race recce in July.

5. Jungfrau Marathon - September

The Jungfrau Marathon is another famous uphill challenge! Starting in Interlaken, the route is first flat then climbs steadily to Lauterbrunnen before taking a steep turn up to Wengen with dramatic views of the Jungfrau and Mönch. From here nearly all the way to the finish the route is in sight of the Eiger's North Wall. It's truly an amazing journey but plan in advance as it gets booked up very quickly.

WHEN TO VISIT

Best times to go:

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The conditions for snow-free trail running will depend on the particular elevation, the region, the slope angle and how harsh a winter it has been (as every year it can change). So it's certainly worth getting some local information, especially if considering a spring trip. Likewise in autumn a sudden early snowfall can easily put a stop to yours plans. Both these times of year are considered out of season, which means you'll often have the trails to yourself (or shared by a few locals) so more chance of seeing wildlife, plus the added bonus of spring flowers or the autumn colours. The main disadvantages are closed facilities including restaurants, cable cars and hotels. It's also worth noting that some footbridges are only put in place for the main summer months due to flash flooding after snowfall.

The main summer season for the Alps in terms of accommodation, transport, amenities and trail access is from mid-June through to mid-September. For lower elevations such as the Jura it's from about mid-May (but this can depend on the particular accommodation or attraction). The Alps offer long periods of good weather throughout the summer months, so don't forget your suncream - but there are some cooler, wet days too. It's also worth noting that higher passes or cols above about 2,500m may not be snow free until mid-July.

My recommended time to visit would be the shoulder season so end of June/early July (so not to miss the alpine flowers) or late August/early September when the trails are quiet, totally snow-free, temperatures are a bit cooler and the risk of thunderstorms low. It's for these reasons we run our Trail Running Camps at this time.

If you visit Switzerland in the winter then don't totally rule out bringing your trail shoes. Depending on where you are the paths can sometimes be clear at lower elevations or the snow can be pressed down leaving a hardened surface suitable enough to run on. Running or snowshoe events are also possible to find during the winter. You may also want to invest in some ice-grippers to strap onto your shoes to combat any icy sections!

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