When humans first started running, it was obviously not on pavement or a treadmill, it was on a dirt path, animal trail or in an open meadow. This type of running made them stronger and more balanced, and it can do the same for you!
While training running is as natural as it gets with running, it is awkward at first. The variability of terrain such as ascents, descents, uneven ground, changing consistency, roots, rocks and narrow twists and turns provide an interesting experience! The key is to understand how your body will adapt to and appreciate these unique demands of trail running!
While trail running, we rely more on collateral leg muscles (stabilize side-to-side motion) to stabilize the ankle and foot — helping to prevent shin splints and other running-related maladies. We will also need a strong and supple core (abdomen and back muscles) to provide lateral agility and responsiveness. This dynamic and powerful core becomes the foundation for balance and stability, also assisting in impact absorption on descents.
The physiological range of exertion is much broader. Heart rates typically range from 70 to 95% of HRmax (heart rate maximum) during a trail run. Similar to a “fartlek” run, the peaks in effort are unstructured with the intensities dictated by the demands of the terrain.
One of the most appealing aspects of trail running is the decreased impact on the joints and back as the foot strike takes place on softer surfaces. Many long-time road runners have found renewed enjoyment going off road, giving their knees and other joints a reprieve from the hard impact of pavement and concrete.
Although many fear the dreaded twisted ankle while trail running, the risks are not much higher for road running. It is easy enough to hit a curb or fall victim to a careless motorist while running on roads. The key to making a safe transition into trail running is to recognize that although it is running, it is not the same as road running. We should treat trail running as we would treat any new activity. There is a definite learning curve so take your time to become acquainted with the unique characteristics of trail running.
Here are some tips to consider if you’re planning and/or starting trail running:
- Start out with one (1) trail run per week, but make sure not to sacrifice an important road workout for a trail run as you are getting into it
- Start short and build up gradually as you become more comfortable and strong enough (think stabilizer muscles) to handle longer runs without extra soreness
- Slow down- trail running is slower than running on the road due to the nature of the trail and uneven surfaces and hills.
- Keep your eyes on the road, 2-3 feet ahead of you, looking for hazards
- Shorten your stride. This will give you more contact time, making it easier to move laterally if needed.
Trail running is a perfect way to spice up some of your training, especially as we transition into the fall and winter seasons. At a minimum, the change of scenery and comfort levels will spice up what should not be a bland fall and winter.