Trail running is often seen as a more extreme version of running. We picture technical mountain trails at altitude with stream crossings and insane vertical gain. But trails come in all shapes, sizes and flavors. Indeed, we should redefine “trail running” to be “off-road running” — if you’re not on a road or a sidewalk, I’ll count that as running trails!
Reclassifying trails as off-road surfaces allows city-dwellers and those without access to an intricate trail system to get all the positive benefits of trail running. And there are many!
For those runners who’ve never ventured off-road, starting a habit of trail running — even if only once or twice per week — can provide numerous advantages. Some of those benefits directly impact the injury risk of running. And since that risk is fairly high (some estimates put the annual injury rate at 70% among runners), runners should incorporate every injury prevention strategy possible to stay healthy and ensure as much consistency as possible in our training.
Let’s talk about the benefits of off-road running — and some of the difficulties, too — so you’re well prepared when you venture off the pavement.
Roads and sidewalks are some of the most uniform surfaces you can run on. They rarely change, fluctuate or present significant obstacles. Stepping up and down on curbs is the only variation you’ll get while road running.
Trails, on the other hand, are vastly different. They have more obstacles like roots, rocks, fallen trees and uneven terrain. You might think these pose an additional injury risk (only if you run into a tree …), but it’s actually the opposite: They help you build coordination, general athleticism and a higher cadence.
That additional coordination helps you stay healthy. It’s a form of strength that allows you to rebound from challenging workouts and experience less muscular damage from running.
Most road runners may want to consider shortening their stride to improve stability on these surfaces. Running coach Jeff Galloway thinks this is an important point. “For stability and to effectively navigate over rocks, sticks and holes it’s best to run with a short stride. With a longer stride, you’ll be less stable when landing. Shorter strides make it easier for the foot to land directly underneath the body, reducing instability as the feet sense how to adjust to the ground.”
The right trails — those that aren’t too technical — can help aid the recovery process. After a tough workout, long run or race, you should prioritize recovery and easy running.
One stressor is the hardness of the surface you’re running on; concrete sidewalks are the hardest and return more energy (in other words, there are stronger impact forces with harder surfaces). That’s great for sprinting but not for recovery!
Dirt trails, smooth grass or crushed cinder paths are ideal running surfaces for recovery. They return less energy, which makes them slower surfaces, but that’s just what you need when recovery is the goal.
Running is, by its very nature, incredibly repetitive so it behooves every runner to do as much as possible to reduce the repetitiveness of their training. The less repetition in your running, the less likely you are to experience an injury. Trails are an excellent way to vary this stress. That’s because nearly every foot strike is different than the one before it.
Navigating the uneven terrain of grass, trails or your local park requires different footfalls, thereby reducing your injury risk. The varying nature of off-road running — the obstacles, elevation changes, more frequent turns and uneven footing ensures that trails are less repetitive. And that’s a great thing when it comes to injury prevention because running injuries are technically repetitive stress injuries.
TRAILS HAVE PITFALLS, TOO
Trail running has the potential to be another powerful tool in your injury prevention toolkit. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no downside.
There’s always the risk of turning an ankle, tripping or falling on uneven off-road surfaces. Always remember to pay more attention to what’s in front of you and consider running without earphones if you’re new to trails.
It will also be helpful to start on an off-road surface that’s appropriate to your skill level. While it’s exciting to descend a technical, steep mountain trail, you might not be ready for that if you’ve only ever run on the roads.
Galloway agrees, saying, “Beginners should be careful choosing their first trail. At first, pick trails with a fairly stable surface — not too hilly and without too many cross-trail junctions (to avoid getting lost).”
READ MORE > YOUR TACTICAL GUIDE TO TRAIL RUNNING
Start where you’re comfortable, slow down and have fun! You’ll be a more resilient, injury-proof runner in no time.