A Trail Runner’s Guide to France

Tayte Pollmann’s articles are supported by American Trail Running Association corporate member Nike Trail Running. You can follow Tayte’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you liked this article, read even more of Tayte’s articles on our website. Photos by Tayte Pollmann. Above photo from Calabass’ Trail – a small, local race.

From early in December 2019 to mid-February, I was living and training in France. During my stay I also traveled to some of the most renowned trail running destinations in the world, including Chamonix, a French mountain town located at the base of Mont Blanc (Europe’s highest peak) and home of the iconic Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) race.

I also discovered Font Romeu, a trail running mecca situated on a high plateau in the French Pyrenees where legendary trail runner, Kilian Jornet, trained during the early part of his athletic career. During my trip, I learned that France is one of the best places to be a trail runner. For this article, I will explain my top reasons why trail running in France is so great, and why you should consider a trail running vacation in France.

Downtown Chamonix.

Racing Opportunities Galore
In France – the country with the highest percentage of trail runners – there are trail races organized throughout the country nearly every weekend. There’s a wide variety of races from small events organized by the community (less than 50 participants), to the world’s largest trail running races, such as the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) and Festival des Templiers, which each draw tens of thousands of participants, volunteers and spectators. For a list of trail running events in France, check out Trails Endurance MagazineGuide des Trails, BeTrail and of course on at the Event Calendar on this website.

Blandine L’hirondel (France) on her way to winning the 2019 Trail World Championships.

Trail Running is a Major Sport
Unlike in the US where trail running is known by only a small fraction of the population, trail running or “Le Trail” (as it is called in France), is a widely popular sport recognized by most of the French athletic community. During my 2-week stay at the European Center for Sports Rehabilitation in Capbreton, France, I connected with French athletes in a variety of sports including rugby, soccer, basketball, handball, and swimming. To my surprise, every athlete I encountered knew about trail running. It’s not uncommon to see French news networks mention results from major French trail running competitions. The French national trail and mountain running teams are also highly respected and competitive. In 2019, the French won sixteen medals and four world titles in trail and mountain running.

Curious how the French teams are so good? Check out my article: Inside Look into a French National Mountain Running Team Camp.

Refuge in the Pyrenees.

Enjoy Mountain Hut “Trail Vacations”
Taking a vacation in a French “mountain refuge” is one of the best ways to trail run and enjoy the mountains. These “refuges” are buildings, lodges, chalets, huts or yurts found in the mountains, which are used to house trail runners, hikers, skiers, snowshoers and other outdoor enthusiasts for their adventures. I learned that there are hundreds of mountain refuges in the French Pyrenees and Alps. I spent a night in the Pyrenees mountain hut, Refugi de la Feixa, which helped me realize why refuges are amazing places for trail runners to train and vacation.

American Trail Running Association’s corporate member, Run the Alps, organizes trail running tours through the French Alps, where clients run from refuge to refuge and spend nights in them along the way. Book a trip with Run the Alps on their website.

The GR10 trail which goes across the entire Pyrenees mountain range from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

Access Trails Anywhere
France has large and highly developed trail systems. There are over 111,800 miles (180,000km) of marked trails which are divided into three trail types: Grande Randonnée (GR®), Grande Randonnée de Pays (GRP®) and Promenade et Randonnée (PR®).

  • Grande Randonnée (GR®),: GR trails traverse long distances and can be traveled for days or even weeks at a time. They account for over 60,000 kilometres (37,000 mi) of trails in France. They are marked with white and red blazes.
  • Grande Randonnée de Pays (GRP®): These are regional trails (often forming loops) that can take several days to complete. They are marked with yellow over red blazes.
  • Promenade et Randonnée (PR®): Shorter trails, several hours to one day max, that allow you to discover a particular area. Perfect for short runs or family hikes. Marked with a single yellow blaze.

Take the train to all corners of France including Annecy – home of the Maxi-Race.

Easy Transportation
Public transportation in France is well organized and you can reach most major destinations by bus or train. SNCF is the national railway company; running high-speed TGV and local trains across France. Although there are times when public transportation may be “on strike” or running behind schedule, for the most part it runs smoothly. Blabla car, a French-based carpooling application, is another great way to get around without a car and reduce CO2 emissions.

Blueberry torte: (Tourte aux myrtilles) French dessert found in villages throughout the Pyrenees mountains.

Calorie Consumption
France has some of the world’s top chefs, Michelin-starred restaurants and a wide variety of great foods to enjoy. Fresh bread, artisan cheese, and fine wine are some of the major staples of French cuisine. Most towns in France have wonderful bakeries, restaurants, bars, meat and cheese shops, and easy access to fresh produce at grocery stores and weekly farmers markets. Be sure to make the most of your stay in France by trying the local foods.

Want to learn more about French cuisine? Check out my article: Top 10 French Mountain Themed Desserts for Trail Runners.

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