There are lots of very good reasons for changing your running environment. The physiological benefits of ditching the tarmac and hitting the trails are well documented, but the boredom factor is a huge motivator for so many runners who fancy a change of scenery as well as the chance to strengthen their body and possibly burn even more calories. Record numbers of people are leaving the pavement behind them and heading out to run trails instead, so if you do feel like a run in the big outdoors, here are some of the things you should know.
When you mention trail running, romantic visions of a 10 mile (16km) run in Yosemite National Park spring easily to mind, but the reality doesn’t have to be quite that dramatic. Trail running is defined as anything that constitutes off road running. In other words you really don’t have to head to a national park or even the great outdoors necessarily, although that would be wonderful, because a trail covers everything from a mountain path to a beach, to a dirt path in a park or even a field.
Trail running gear
If your primary desire is to get some softer surface running under your belt and see how it goes from there, then you really don’t need to get anything specific in terms of new running gear. That said a lifelong love of trails could lie in store. After a while you might want to graduate to steeper and more challenging terrain or who knows, you may even go on to become an ultra runner where new kit and lots of it would become essential. However for the time being just be prepared to come home a little dirtier than usual and maybe a little wetter too, depending on where you run.
There are various ways of doing this. Look for a local trail running club in your area or talk to other runners who might be interested in joining you. If you can run trails in parks or hills near where you live, then that would be the ideal place to start. But even if you do have to drive/travel to find them, it is definitely worth the effort. It’s a good idea if you can to start your trail running on a flat surface, before graduating to hills and mountains. A gradual progression is, as always, the best way to proceed in running and your legs need to get used to a different less true surface which necessitates a slightly different way of running.
As and when you do start running up hill trails don’t worry if you have to walk at times. Again your body will need to adjust. Hill running and the fitness required for it, is not something that can be learned overnight. Take your time and progress steadily. And if you go out running on your own, always tell someone where you’re going, just in case you do get lost or take a tumble over a rock. And with that in mind, it is always useful to carry a phone with you.
Benefits of trail running
The biggest benefit of trail running is that it gives your bones and body a break. More specifically it gives yours knees, ankles, hips and back a rest bite from the enhanced impact forces generated when you run repeatedly on a hard surface like road tarmac or pavements. It’s the reason why so many elite athletes clock up the training miles on trails. When you’re running upwards of 100 miles (160km) a week, you really want to protect the body and make sure injuries are prevented and the softer landing of trails certainly helps towards that.
Bio-mechanics of trail running
The bio-mechanics and science behind why trail running strengthens the body is fairly straightforward. Trail surfaces are generally uneven so ankles and associated muscles need to work much harder to stabilise the body and maintain balance. Muscle strengthening plus enhanced balance and agility are significant benefits of off-road running, which again all feeds in to injury prevention. As you weave up and down a trail the increased lateral movement means you will also burn more calories, so happy, healthy days. However it is worth pointing out that those uneven surfaces will at times present a trip hazard, so do be careful. You’re much more likely to sprain an ankle on a trail than on the road or the track.
From a technical point of view when you run trails your stride pattern has to be more varied because you might have to avoid hazards along the way or simply be more cautious about your foot plant. This can translate into increased speed when you run on the flat because your turnover will be greater, your running style more efficient and you are more likely to extend your stride on a level surface.
Another huge benefit of running away from the towns and cities in green space or parks, hills, mountains etc, is the psychological boost. No one trail is the same as another so boredom won’t be a factor and it is hugely uplifting to look at nature in all its beauty as you run. Feeling good about your running environment will help you feel good in your exercise and a happy runner will enjoy their workout more and be motivated to return. Having said that, keep an eye on the trail in front of you. You don’t want to be falling head first over a tree root because you were staring at the mountains. Keep your head up and looking around 4-6 feet in front of you so you can see what’s coming. Enjoy the views when you have a drinks break.
Info via WorldRunning.com