The Benefits of Trail Running and Why Road Runners Should Try It
Challenge yourself by taking your running off road and hitting the trails.
When most people talk about running, they likely don’t envision running through mountains, hillsides, parks, or trails. They tend to think about the more commonplace running locations, such as tracks, streets, sidewalks, treadmills, and roads. In doing so, they are essentially shutting themselves off from an entire world’s worth of running and are doing themselves a tremendous disservice in the process.
What many people don’t realize is that even if they consider themselves a road runner, someone who’s more inclined to go run the local turkey trot or half marathon and not up and down the side of a mountain, they still would stand to benefit from incorporating trail running into their routine pretty regularly.
You don’t need a literal mountain to go run on trails; in fact, if you have green space or parks anywhere near where you live, that’ll work. It’ll still confer the benefits to you. All it takes is glancing at a map; if you see green, that probably means there’s a trail there for you to explore.
Before you dismiss my idea that even road runners can benefit from running trails, hear me out. I used to be the same way. After running nearly my entire life exclusively on roads, I moved to a place that had an abundance of trail options available. I started to branch out - no pun intended. I found that as a result, I got stronger over time, and my road running performance improved, too.
Here are some of the major benefits you can gain from running trails.
A reprieve from the constant pounding.
Running trails can give your legs a nice break from the hard pounding that running on pavement yields. Experiment with different trail surfaces to see which gives your legs the best feeling.
Work your ancillary muscles.
When you constantly run on roads, it’s more likely that you’re always moving in one plane of motion and not doing much ascending or descending. When you run trails, you have the opportunity to run up and down steep ascents and gnarly descents and in the process, work your smaller ancillary muscles, like your hip flexors and your ankles, to become stronger.
Don’t be surprised if you find that you’re really sore after your first few trail runs because you’re not used to using your muscles in that way!
Get a mental reset.
Sometimes, when you’re used to running roads, you get really accustomed to chasing certain splits and going hard all the time. Running trails can be a great mental reset, a way for you to slow down and really enjoy the scenery. Doing so can help to prevent burnout and can help you stay in the sport, healthy and happy, for a long, long time.
Try something new.
Again, when you’ve been doing this stuff for a long time, you may get bored and no longer feel challenged like you once were. If you foray into trail running, you may find that interest reignited. While trail running is still the same sport as regular road running, in many ways, it feels like a different sport altogether. If you’re bored on the roads, give the trails a try, and see what you can do.
It will force you to slow down to get faster.
Finally, one of the best benefits about running trails for road runners is that it really does force you to slow down. When you run roads all the time, you likely run at about the same pace more or less all the time, without much variation.
When you run trails, though, your pace will be all over the place, depending on the terrain, and you may be in the upwards of several minutes per mile slower on trails than you are on roads. That’s good! Keeping your easy days easy, such as on the days when you run trails, can help you to get strong enough (and sufficiently well rested) so that you will be ready to roll on a hard day.
Trail Running Workout
Try this trail workout from Runner's World for a challenge.
Workout Purpose: VO2 max workout
Typical Workout: Longer track intervals (e.g., 6 x 1,000m or 5 x mile)
Trail Option: Smooth, rolling trails: On an out-and-back or loop run, execute a dozen or so 3-to 6-minute fartlek-style bursts of hard but controlled running, followed by a rest interval of the same duration. Recover by running easy on flat or downhill terrain for the same length as the previous hard effort.
These are just a handful of the many benefits that running trails can offer even the most hardcore of road runners among us. Do yourself a favor and go hit the trails next time you have the opportunity. You’ll be glad you did, and you may even find that your road running performance will improve as a result, too.