The Benefits of Trail Running

Off-road running is more than just a nice change of scenery. It can reduce injuries, improve your balance and lift your mood.

When I started training for my first marathon almost 10 years ago, I ran almost exclusively on the road. It was easy and convenient – all I had to do was step out my front door and I was off. Getting out to the trails seemed to be too much of a hassle. However, as my weekly mileage increased, so did my injuries. And my regular running routes started to become boring. Before I knew it, I couldn’t barely muster up the energy to run around the block.

Luckily, a friend dragged me out to the trails one sunny weekend to help get me out of my running rut. Getting lost in the trees among the sounds of wildlife was just what I needed to get my training back on track. Not only did my head feel better, but so did my legs. Now, as an avid trail runner and competitive ultrarunner, I’m stronger and faster than I ever thought would be possible. I attribute much of this to training on trails.

Could trail running help you too? Read on to discover some of the many benefits of running on trails versus the road.

Fewer injuries. Pounding the pavement day after day places damaging forces on your joints and bones. Give your body a break by training on softer ground. The increased shock absorption of trails provides better protection than the road, which can keep you running longer and healthier.

Trail running activates secondary muscle groups in our hips and core, which provide stabilization and improve balance.

Better balance. When you run on the road, you primarily rely on your major muscle groups for power, such as your quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. However, this means that the secondary muscles are often underused and are at risk of becoming weak. Running on unpredictable terrain like a trail engages and conditions these smaller “helper” muscle groups that allow you to better autocorrect your movements. “Trail running activates the secondary muscle groups in our hips and core, which provide stabilization and improve balance,” says Gretchen McLennan, a Vancouver-based physiotherapist. Even better, “trail runners are less likely to overwork the primary muscles,” she adds, “and thus prevent injury or poor running efficiency.”

Improved coordination and agility. Running on trails helps keep you on our toes – literally. In contrast to flat, hard road surfaces, the rugged and varied terrain you find on trails forces you to constantly make adjustments in stride, effort, and direction, which requires a much higher degree of coordination and responsiveness. The more you practice, the better you will get.

Fresher air. Do not underestimate the adverse effects that air pollution can have on your mind and body. Even minimal levels of air pollution from running in an urban setting can damage your lungs. A recent study has found that running in a polluted area can reduce the boost in cognitive performance that you would normally get from a workout. Research has also suggested that women’s running performance is more adversely affected by air pollution than men’s, making it particularly important for female runners to head out to the trails.

Better mood. Getting out of the city and into nature can help to clear the head, reduce stress and boost mood.  According to a 2011 study by the University of Essex, “exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy” as compared to exercising indoors.

With all of these benefits of trail running, is there any reason to ever run on the road? Yes. Road running can still provide an important part of your training as it allows you to do your interval training and speed work. The key is variety, so don’t throw out those road shoes just yet!

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