The other day I attended a meeting for a running club that is predominately made up of road runners. One of the main discussions of the evening was surrounding an upcoming race that would be run cross country style; in other words…not on pavement. People were nervous and intimidated. Many referred to a local beginner running trail and asked if this race would be as difficult as that particular (did I mention, beginner?) trail. As an avid trail runner myself, I was surprised at how much trepidation surrounded this very large crowd of runners, all over the thought of simply taking their running off road (we’re not talking super technical, mountain running here).
But in the running world, this is nothing new.
So many road runners find reason to shy away from trail running, because let’s face it: trail running is indeed harder. I won’t sugarcoat that fact or try to deny it; the twists, turns, technical footing, softer terrain, and of course, hills, all demand much more of a runner’s body.
But the greater demand is the exact reason why you SHOULD incorporate trail running into your training routine, at least occasionally.
If I had to sum up all of the benefits of trail running into one sentence, it would simply be this: you’ll get stronger and faster, all while reducing the risk of running related injuries. Do I have your attention now? Are you slightly more interested in trail running, or at least want to hear my side of this trail running argument? Let me explain further.
Trails are typically softer than the road.
This is great for your training for two reasons. One, the softer terrain (typically dirt or sand) offers less impact on your body compared to the constant pounding on pavement, which can help reduce the risk of overuse injuries.
Two, the softer terrain has more give to it, meaning you are going to have to work harder to run on it. This is especially the case when running on soft sand or mud. This benefit is likely the one most road runners grumble at. No one likes to see their pace drastically drop while effort increases. But the added effort translates over to stronger legs, which will result in (hopefully) faster paces on the road.
Variety is key.
A lot of running injuries are caused by muscular weaknesses and imbalances from the same, repetitive, forward motion that is required in road or treadmill running. How many times have you heard of a runner who “stepped the wrong way” off of a curb or into a pothole, resulting in an ankle sprain? Sure, some injuries are unavoidable, but many certainly could be avoided if the body was better prepared for quick changes in movement and direction.
Now, trail terrain is more variable than that of the road. Of course, there are expectations of long, straight, flat, fire road type trails, but for the more part you will likely encounter rocks, roots, divots, and trail that quickly and sharply changes direction. With the frequent terrain changes on a trail, runners are constantly forced to vary their running stride. Long strides, short strides, lateral movement (something you hardly ever see in road running), up hills, down hills, even leaps over a small stream or puddle, a trail runners movement is constantly changing. This varying running pattern forces runners to use different muscle groups, as well as challenge ligaments in the knees and especially in the ankles. And when you challenge muscles, you become stronger, and risk of injury decreases.
A fancy science term that essentially means having awareness of where your body is, while in movement, in comparison to the environment around it. In order to prevent stepping on or even falling over trail hazards (rocks, roots, etc.), a far greater level of bodily awareness is required than typically needed when running on paved roads. The greater bodily awareness combined with the constant shifting of your body weight to avoid such obstacles while running will help increase your overall balance and stability. Balance and stability are not only essential skills that are needed in day to day life, but are both skills that are lost over time without practice. (Just picture your Grandmother trying to stand on her tippy toes trying to reach a box of cereal on the top shelf at the grocery store. )
Trails are more fun.
Sure, this one is more of a subjective opinion, but I doubt any regular trail runner would disagree with me. While you have to be on alert for things like rocks, roots, and grizzly bears (I’m only sort of kidding about that last one), you can leave behind the fear of traffic and completely zone out. The ever changing terrain and environment can help you avoid the monotony often felt running down the same paved road past the same cookie cutter houses. Avoiding monotony = avoiding mental burnout. Avoiding mental burnout = running more miles. Running more miles = stronger runner.
Plus, I doubt anyone will disagree with me when I say that breath taking forest views and fresh air are FAR more enjoyable than bland, industrial views and inhaling exhaust.
Now, I promise not trying to convert the most die hard road runners into trail lovers; you can keep your pavement, I’ll keep my dirt, and we’ll still be one big happy running family. But I do want to point out the benefits of trail running to any of you who may be intimidated or hesitant to leave the roads behind. For the reasons listed above and more, trail running can help you become a better runner. I know that access to trails isn’t available to everyone, and we work with what we’ve got. But…the next time the opportunity strikes, give trail running a try. You may find it to be a fun, positive training tool you never knew you were missing out on.
Happy trails to you!