10 Benefits of Trail Running

Trail Running Benefits

Considering including some trail running? Here’s why trail running will 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’s many reasons to hit the trails.

So, 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 take a look at the 10 reasons why you should include trail running. And then look at some examples of how I use trail running in my own 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 training benefits of the trail running go far beyond that.

The real 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, trail running has been an important part of my own running training.

In this article I’ll break down the ten main reasons why I always include trail running in my schedule. And why I always recommend including trail running.

10 Reasons to Start Trail Running

#1. Every foot strike is different

So, why is every footstep different? And, why is this important?

With trail running there’s many factors that come in to play. But at the most basic level we can break it down into three constantly changing variables:

  1. The undulations
  2. The uneven terrain
  3. 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 tends to shift to a mid to fore-foot strike.
  • On the downhills, we shift to more of a heel strike.
  • And on flat terrain, it tends to be 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 an undulating trail run.

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 occur.

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 share the work load more evenly across different muscle groups.

The second factor is the uneven terrain.

The uneven terrain changes the amount of rotation that occurs in your feet (pronation or supination). Simply put, pronation refers to a slight inward rotation of the foot, whereas supination occurs when your weight sits more on the outside of the foot.

With trail running, the terrain is more uneven. This means that the amount of pronation, or supination, changes throughout the run. 

Why is that important? Well, it spreads the load more evenly – sometimes we pronate more and sometimes less, but the key point is it’s always changing.

And as such, 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. And, this adds more dynamics to trail running.

Here, it’s the impact forces that vary, depending on the terrain underfoot. On stony terrain 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 consequence 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 trail running can really reduce the risk of overuse injuries.

Trail running, also strengthens the small muscles and tendons that often don’t 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 significantly up their work load. 

This helps to ensure you work muscle groups more evenly, making you a stronger and more balanced runner.

As well as increased activation of muscle groups we also see a change in the type of muscle contractions.

#3 It works muscles differently

Another benefit of trail running, relates to how the the type of muscular contraction changes depending on whether you are running uphill, downhill, or on flatter terrain.

When you run uphill, you have 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. Simply put, 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 we see increased levels of a different type of muscle contraction – called ‘eccentric’ muscle contractions. This occurs when a muscle lengthens at the same time that it’s contracting – such as during the lowering phase of weight training. Essentially, this is where a muscle applies a braking force in order to control a movement – the quadriceps do this to stabilise, and protect the knee joint, during downhill running.

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. Helping 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. In fact, research has shown that downhill running can significantly increase knee extensor strength – a key factor for knee joint stability. Which also happens to play a role in improved running efficiency.

Eccentric muscle contractions are also very effective for strengthening tendons. Which will help to protect you against the risk of injury. In fact, specific eccentric exercises are often used during rehabilitation from injuries – 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. In this way, running across undulating terrain can be 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 see an increase in another type of muscle contraction – called Isometric contractions – which brings us onto the next point.

#4 Trail running increases core muscle engagement

When we run, our core and stabilising muscles, contract isometrically in order 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 trail running (ascents, descents, soft unstable running surfaces, winding trails and uneven terrain). Which increases the workload of all 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 efficiency. 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 trail running!

#5 A softer running surface = less impact + more work

For me, the softer more forgiving trail running surface is a welcome change from the high impact of running on surfaces like pavements, or concrete. Significantly, reducing the impact and the stress on our joints and reducing the risk of overuse injuries. In fact, this was the main reason why 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, not only does a softer running surface reduces the level of impact, it actually increases the workrate of your running muscles.

The softer running surface means your muscles and tendons can’t get the same level of energy return. Forcing your muscles to work harder with each step to drive you forwards.

Overtime this leads to a strengthening of all your key running muscles and tendons. It’s also a great way to develop 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. With trail running, there’s a number of factors that all come together to reduce injury risk:

  1. The more forgiving running surface reduces impact and lowers the risk of impact related running injuries.
  2. The constantly changing gradients and uneven running surfaces, affect both the foot-strike pattern (heel, midfoot and forefoot) and the level of pronation. In this way, the much more dynamic nature of trail running, affects the peak stress point. Which means the stress point is different with every footstep, reducing the risk of overuse injuries.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Greater core engagement, improves core stability – making us stronger and more stable runners.

#7 Trail running improves running efficiency

There’s a number of ways that trail running can improve running efficiency:

Firstly, the uneven nature of the trails improves your strength and core stability.

Secondly, the eccentric loading from downhill running strengthens key muscle groups and improves joint stability. In particular, downhill running improves the strength of the knee extensor muscles. Not only does this reduce injury risk, but increased knee extensor strength improves stability around your knee joint. Which is considered important for improved running efficiency.

Thirdly, the reduced levels of impact from trail running, allow you to run larger training volumes – an important factor in long term development of running efficiency.

#8 Work rate changes throughout a trail run

With trail running our work rate changes throughout the run: with every ascent, decent, twist and turn. In fact, compared with road running there’s much more power variability with every footstep.

Even if heart rate appears to remain fairly stable, running power fluctuates significantly throughout trail runs. 

This fluctuation in work rate can be really beneficial for overall improvements in your running.

#9 A greater mind body connection

The varied nature of trail running, 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 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 motivation to get out the door to head out for a run, the easiest remedy is to head out on the trails instead. Every trail run seems different, even if you’re running the same route.

Trail runs also take you away from the pressure of hitting a specific pace target – allowing you to just get out there and enjoy the run.

Trail running also keeps you more focussed on the present moment, less likely to get caught in negative thought patterns, and is known to be significantly 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:

Trail running is really easy to add into your weekly training. In most cases you can easily substitute a normal running training session for a trail session. Typically, more than 50% of my training is run off road. Below is my approach to trail running.

Recovery trail runs

Ideally run on terrain that’s not to undulating. Either using heart rate, running power, or perceived effort to control intensity.

Easy/moderate intensity trail runs

This is a good 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 either 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.

VO2max intervals

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 recently ran involved 15minutes of 10sec sprint, 20 sec easy/moderate. A tough challenging session, but mentally more enjoyable in a trail running setting – just be careful of your footing during faster efforts. This can easily be broken into smaller sets e.g. 2-3 x (5mins of 10sec sprints, 20secs easy).

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 up the hill and then just below threshold/tempo intensity for the rest of the loop. Repeating this for 25-30minutes continuous running. Alternatively, this can be split into smaller, 5 or 10 minute intervals.

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