Considering including some trail running? In this article, we look at why it’s an excellent way to improve your running.
Trail running can really benefit all runners. Whether you race on the road, track, cross-country, or trails, including regular trail running should form a key part of your run training formula.
From increased strength and stability, improved running efficiency, fewer injuries, improved balance and greater mind body connection — there are many reasons to hit the trails.
What is trail running?
Trail running is any run across either open country, or through woods/forests, normally involving running across undulating terrain. Essentially, it’s any run where we’re not running on a man-made running surface.
In this article, we’ll look at the 10 reasons it’s so beneficial. And then share some examples of how I use trail running in my training.
So, let’s take a closer look…
The Benefits of hitting the trails
As runners we know that trail running is less stressful on our joints, muscles and tendons.
But that’s not all. The benefits go far beyond that.
The actual benefit comes from the dynamic nature of trail running: the ascents, descents, winding trails, uneven and sometimes unpredictable terrain.
Taken together, this all makes for a great running training formula.
Over the years, this has formed an essential part of my own running training.
In this article, I’ll break down the ten primary reasons I always include trail running in my schedule. And why I always recommend it.
10 Reasons to Start Trail Running
#1. Every foot strike is different
So, why is every footstep different? And why is this important?
Here, there are many factors that come in to play. But at the most basic level we can break it down into three constantly changing variables:
- The undulations
- The uneven terrain
- The changing running surface
The first factor here is the undulating terrain.
The constant changing from flat terrain, to uphill, to downhill, alters our natural running style.
- When we run uphill, our foot strike shifts to a mid to forefoot strike.
- On the downhills, we shift to more of a heel strike.
- And on flat terrain, it is somewhere between a heel strike and mid-foot strike – depending on your running speed and natural running style.
In this way, our foot strike style changes throughout.
So why is this beneficial?…
This really comes down to one thing: when your foot strike changes, you shift the peak stress point — the point where the greatest bio-mechanical stress occurs.
When our foot always lands the same way, the peak stress point remains the same. And that’s where problems and overuse injuries arise.
But that’s not the only benefit. Every time our foot-strike changes, we work our muscles differently. We shift the emphasis from one muscle group to another. And ‘importantly’ we distribute the workload more evenly across different muscle groups.
The second factor is the uneven terrain.
This changes the amount of rotation that occurs in your feet (pronation or supination).
What is pronation and supination?… Simply put, pronation refers to a slight inward rotation of the foot, whereas supination is when your weight remains more on the outside of the foot.
With trail running, the terrain is more uneven. And this means that the amount of pronation, or supination, changes throughout the run.
Why is that important?… This spreads the load more evenly — sometimes we pronate more and sometimes less, but the key point is it’s always changing.
And so does the stress point.
The third factor is the changing nature of the terrain
Sometimes the terrain is soft, sometimes it’s more compact, or even stony. This adds more dynamics to trail running.
Here, it’s the impact forces that vary, depending on the terrain underfoot.
On stony terrain, the impact forces are higher, whereas on softer terrain they are much lower.
This combination of constantly changing foot-strike pattern, different levels of pronation and supination, and changing running surface makes for a very dynamic running surface. In this way, each running footstep is slightly different. And, as a result, the stress point of every running stride is different.
Compare this with running on a flat road surface, or around a running track — where every running step is similar, and you can appreciate how off-road running can really reduce the risk of overuse injuries.
It also strengthens the smaller muscles and tendons that rarely get worked sufficiently during road, track or treadmill running.
#2 Trail running works more muscle groups
In the same way that the undulations, uneven surface and changing terrain, alters our foot-strike patterns, they also affect the activation of different muscle groups.
Trail running causes a greater activation of different muscle groups, compared with road or track running. And many of the smaller stabilising muscles — such as those responsible for the stability of our feet, ankles, knees, hips and core muscles — have to increase their workload.
This helps to ensure you work muscle groups more evenly, making you a stronger and more balanced runner.
We also see a change in the type of muscle contractions.
#3 It works muscles differently
Another benefit relates to how the type of muscular contraction changes depending on whether you are running uphill, downhill, or on flatter terrain.
When you run uphill, you need to generate additional force to overcome gravity. You also get less energy return with each foot strike, compared with horizontal, or downhill running.
Because of this, uphill running causes a greater level of concentric muscular contractions — this is where a muscle contracts to generate movement. Here, the muscles have to work harder to overcome the force of gravity and power you up the hill.
With downhill running something different happens… there’s increased levels of ‘eccentric’ muscle contractions.
This is where a muscle lengthens whilst it’s contracting.
A good example is the lowering phase of weight training (lowering a dumbbell etc). Essentially, this is where a muscle applies a braking force in order to control a movement.
When we run downhill, the quadriceps do this to stabilise, and protect your knee joint.
Why eccentric muscle contractions are important…
We know from research that eccentric muscle contractions, play a key role in the development of maximal muscular strength and power. They also help to strengthen individual muscle fibres, making them more resilient, and providing protection against delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
In particular, downhill running increases the strength of the quadriceps. Here, research has shown that downhill running can significantly increase knee extensor strength — a key factor for knee joint stability. This also plays a role in improved running economy.
It’s also very effective for strengthening tendons. Which helps to protect you against the risk of injury.
In fact, we often use specific eccentric exercises during injury rehabilitation — such as using eccentric calf lowering exercises to treat Achilles Tendinopathy.
So, with the undulating nature of trail running, we get the combined benefits of training our muscles using both concentric and eccentric muscular contractions.
For these reasons, running across undulating terrain can be extremely beneficial for improving the strength of key muscles and tendons. It can help to protect against the negative effects of DOMS. And improve muscular endurance, joint stability and running efficiency.
We also experience an increase in another type of muscle contraction — called Isometric contractions — which leads us onto the next point…
#4 Trail running increases core muscle engagement
When we run, our core and stabilising muscles contract isometrically to hold our body in position and maintain stability.
Compared with running on the road, trail running requires a much greater level of activation and engagement of these core and stabilising muscles.
So why is that?… It all comes down to the complex and dynamic nature of off-road running (ascents, descents, soft unstable running surfaces, winding trails and uneven terrain).
This increases the workload of your core and stabilising muscles.
Too much road running will make these key muscles lazy and weaker, increasing our risk of overuse injuries and reducing running economy. Sure, you can (and should) include some core stability exercises to keep these muscles activated — but why not get more running specific and add in some trails!
#5 A softer running surface = less impact + more work
For me, the softer, more forgiving off-road surface is a welcome change from the high impact of running on surfaces like pavements, or concrete. This reduces the jolt and the stress on our joints and reduces the risk of overuse injuries. In fact, this was the major reason I originally increased the amount of trail running in my training schedule, following a painful episode of shin splints, over 20years ago.
But that’s not the only benefit… it actually increases the work rate of your running muscles.
The softer running surface means your muscles and tendons won’t get the same level of energy return. Forcing your muscles to work harder with each stride to drive you forward.
Overtime this leads to a strengthening of all your key running muscles and tendons. It’s also a great way to improve muscular endurance.
#6 Trail running reduces injury risk
Ok, so I’ve mentioned reduced injury risk a few times already, but this really is worth emphasising. Here, there are several factors that reduce your injury risk:
- The more forgiving running surface reduces impact and lowers the risk of impact related running injuries.
- The continually changing gradients and irregular running surfaces affect both the foot-strike pattern (heel, mid-foot and forefoot) and the level of pronation. In this way, the much more dynamic nature of trail running affects the peak stress point. This means the stress point shifts with every footstep, cutting down the risk of overuse injuries.
- The greater activation of different muscle groups — particularly stabilising muscle groups — conditions and strengthens key muscle groups and tendons. Helping to make you a more balanced runner and reduces the risk of muscle imbalances.
- The increased eccentric loading, strengthens muscles and tendons, protects against DOMS and improves joint stability — especially around the knee. Increasing resilience in muscles and tendons and improving joint stability.
- Greater core engagement, improves core stability — making us stronger and more stable runners.
#7 Trail running improves running economy
There are several ways this can improve running economy:
First, the uneven nature of the trails improves your strength and core stability.
Second, the eccentric loading from downhill running strengthens key muscle groups and improves joint stability.
In particular, downhill running increases the strength of the knee extensor muscles.
Not only does this reduce injury risk, but it increases knee extensor strength and increases stability around your knee joint. Which is vital for improved running economy.
Third, the reduced levels of impact, allow you to run larger training volumes — an important factor in long-term improvement of running economy.
#8 Work rate changes throughout
With trail running, our work rate varies throughout the run: with every ascent, decent, twist and turn. And compared with road running, there’s much more power variability with every footstep.
Even if heart rate remains stable, running power can vary significantly throughout. And this variation in work rate can be really beneficial for overall improvements in your running.
#9 A greater mind body connection
The varied nature, the uneven and often unpredictable running surfaces, the obstacles to traverse, and the winding trails, all bring about a much greater mind body connection. Forcing us to be more aware of our surroundings (run more mindfully) and more connected to the present moment.
In this way trail running leads to a greater level of balance and proprioception – awareness of body position and body movement.
#10 Escape the monotony of road running
Who wants to be running the same route day after day? When I’m struggling for the motivation to get out for a run, the easiest remedy is to head out on the trails. Here, every run seems different — even if you’re running the same route.
It also takes you away from the pressure of hitting a precise pace target. Allowing you to just get out there and enjoy the run.
It also keeps you more focussed in the present moment, less likely to get caught in negative thought patterns, and is more beneficial for mental health than road running.
So next time you’re struggling for motivation, why not give trail running a try?
How to include trail runs within your training:
In most cases, you can just substitute this for a normal running session — I now run over 50% of my training off-road.
Below is my approach to trail running…
Recovery trail runs
Ideally, run on terrain that’s not too undulating. And use either heart rate, running power, or perceived effort to control intensity.
Easy / moderate intensity runs
This is an excellent opportunity to include undulating terrain, but keep a check on intensity during steeper gradients.
Longer trail runs
Aim to include plenty of undulations and varied terrain. Again, keep a check on intensity during steeper or prolonged uphill sections.
Threshold pace runs
Both flat and undulating loops work well.
Flatter terrain allows a more consistent effort, whereas undulating terrain creates more varied work rates and greater muscle activation.
An example would be: 2-3 x 10minutes around an undulating route/loop – this could be a small or longer undulating loop.
Running shorter aerobic intervals
An example could be: 6 x 5minutes at 10km intensity around an undulating loop, with 1:30-2:00 recoveries. Again, this can either be a flatter or more undulating loop.
Here, using a smaller loop with one or two undulations works well.
Examples include: 5 x 3mins at VO2max intensity (not pace!), 3mins recovery at 50% VO2max intensity.
Alternatively, you can run these as long hill VO2max intervals — 3mins uphill at VO2max intensity, 3:30-4min downhill recovery at 50% of the V)2max intensity.
Short anaerobic sprint intervals
A combined anaerobic/lactate threshold session works well around a trail running loop (ideally free of obstacles), with moderate undulations.
An example session that I often run involves 10-15minutes of 10sec sprint, 20 sec easy/moderate. We can easily break this into smaller sets, e.g. 2-3 x (5mins of 10sec sprints, 20secs easy), 2-3minutes recovery between sets.
Another example is 20-25minutes of 10 second sprint, 30 secs moderate. Again, we can break this into smaller sets, e.g. 4-5 x (5mins of 10sec sprints, 30secs easy), 2-3minutes recovery between sets.
They are challenging session, but mentally more enjoyable when running off-road — just be careful of your footing during faster efforts.
Combined anaerobic hills with tempo run
An example session I use is a 500m loop with a 100m uphill (6% gradient) – here I run continuously, running at a supramaximal (above VO2max) effort on the hill, and then just below threshold/tempo intensity for the rest of the loop. Repeating this for 25-30minutes continuous running. Alternatively, we can split this into smaller, 5 or 10-minute intervals.