If you are reading this then I make the assumption that you are already a runner – never assume anything I hear you say “It’ makes an ASS out of U and ME. But I will make that assumption any way and will gleen from that that you are therefore also aware of the many benefits of running. However you may be less aware of the benefits that trail running in particular brings. I have been running off road for many years and I believe that trail running is better for both my physical and mental wellbeing. I am not suggesting that everyone should avoid any form of running on anything remotely tarmac-like for the rest of their lives. Not at all. I run on the road and enjoy it too. However for some, the thought of leaping over a gnarly tree stump or two on their next running jaunt, is very off putting and daunting. And it needn’t be. So with that in mind I want to give a few points to consider when you are next thinking about heading out the front door for a run. The dictionary definition of a trail is a follows: “a path or track made across a wild region, over rough country, or the like, by the passage of people or animals”.
Muscle development To that end the surface is vastly more uneven, rutty, and likely to be dotted with tree stumps, fallen branches, rocks, boulders, and the occasional small “darting in front of you” wild animal. This therefore makes the trail a lot more technically challenging than a nice solid chunk of flat road. The result of negotiating your way over and around these obstacles is that you balance your body as you do so ,utilising the smaller and lesser-used muscles in your legs, core and arms. More often than not the surface of the trail is also much softer than tarmac or concrete,and very often highly muddy too.This causes your step to depresses into the surface each time, requiring you to use more muscles each time you take a stride. The undulating nature of the trail also makes you use stabilising muscles that are engaged in side to side movements as opposed to relying purely on muscle groups for forward propullsion. All of this will help you become stronger in every muscle group needed for both forward and sideways movement equating to a more complete runner.
Hills and hidden Intervals The terrain of the trail will make you conduct sets of intervals that are not unlike a fartlek session because your tempo will rise and fall in line with the topography. Running up the hills increases your heart rate in the same way a hard interval session on the road will. And easing up when cresting a ridge or along the bottom of a valley gives a period of recovery before you encounter the next hill. The undulating terrain of the trail offers the same benefits as targeted hill sessions on the road. The repetitive nature of engaging, your glutes, quads, calves, and hamstrings further develops those muscles.The constantly undulating terrain coupled with the accumulation of intervals on hills will to help to make running hard sessions on the roads easier
Less joint stress/improved ankle strength Because the surface is much more giving than concrete, then some of the force that is normally transmitted back up from the pavement and through the ankles, knees, shins, and hips, is reduced when your foot hits the ground on the trails. The varying terrain combined with fleet footedly overcoming physical obstacles will force greater muscle engagement in the foot and ankle, that the constant one direction movement of road running leaves underworked.
Green Exercise Fresh air, running streams, quiet, calm, green spaces. No traffic (perhaps the odd cyclist, horse rider or another runner aside), no waiting at traffic lights or road junctions,no negotiating past gaggles of pedestrians oblivious to you behind them. As opposed to loud motorcycles tearing past me I much prefer the wind rusling the leaves on the trees. Trail running can take us up the mountain, down the valley, over the river, through the woods, and along the plain. Without question this presents us, not only with a vastly more scenic view, but also with the additional benefits in terms of mental wellbeing, than we could ever dream for on an urban saunter along the road. Not convinced? I will explain Green exercise in a little more detail (just a little bit) and see if I can change your mind. Green exercise refers to physical exercise undertaken in natural enviroments. As we, as runners are only too aware, physical exercise is well known to provide physical and physcological health benefits. There is also good evidence that viewing, being in, and interacting with natural environments has positive effects, reducing stress and increasing the ability to cope with stress, as well as reducing mental fatigue and improving concentration and cognitive function. Researchers at the University of Essex are advancing the notion that exercising in the presence of nature has added benefit, particularly for mental health. Their investigations into green exercise, dovetails with research showing benefits from living in proximity to green, open spaces. In 2010 scientists reported results from a meta-analysis of their own studies that showed just five minutes of green exercise resulted in improvements in self-esteem and mood.” Fancy hitting the trail yet? 🙂