Running has been part of my life since I was 12 years old. I’ve always done it. Now, if you therefore assume that I find it exciting or that it comes particularly easy to me (“he must be one of those runner types!”), the answer is surprisingly no.
I had always started my runs where I live. Why would I get into the car and drive somewhere? That would be a waste of time, right!? For that reason, my runs had been on pavement. No big deal. As I was getting older, I realized that my particular running style wasn’t good for my knees, so I made adjustments and switched to mid-foot strike and zero-drop shoes and things were going pretty well.
When COVID-19 hit, a number of my usual exercise options evaporated and I was on the lookout for something new. So I got in the car and drove to local trails that I knew from hiking and tried running them instead.
Ever since then, I’ve made trail running a weekly habit and I really enjoy it. Once I got the hang of it, it turned out that there are several advantages of running off the road and in nature:
The surface is easier on your joints – No big surprises here: It doesn’t matter if you run on sand, gravel, grass, or leaves: These surfaces give to your impact. That little compression makes running on trail better for your joints.
You run slower and pay more attention to your running surface – Pavement is quite “predictable”, so you can run faster and don’t need to pay close attention. Running outdoors is slower and your eyes are constantly scanning the trail ahead of your next step, looking for the best way to place your foot.
The motion is less monotonous and repetitive – Due to the ever-changing running surface, you constantly adjust the placement of your feet and your stride length. This continuously varies your motion, which makes it less repetitive, prevents over-use, and works different muscles.
You might get a better workout – The magic word is hills. When running on trails, you’re more likely to end up running up and down hills. It’s quite surprising how much extra effort it takes to run up even a not overly steep hill for a few hundred yards. So if the area where you run is even just somewhat hilly, chances are you’re getting a better workout than on the flatter road surface.
You develop and strengthen your stabilizer muscles – It takes all kinds of muscles in your feet, along your ankles and into your calf to stabilize your feet on uneven ground. Those muscles typically don’t get used much on flat surfaces, but on trails, they’re vital. As you run more on uneven surfaces, these muscles will be strengthened and will help protect your joints from injury. That makes trail running also a great way to condition yourself for hikes.
Running in nature is good for your mental health and more entertaining – Being outside in nature has been proven to be helpful for one’s mental health and makes for a good stress relief. With the scenery frequently changing, it also provides more visual stimulation and is more entertaining and mentally engaging.
There is a lot to like about trail running. So if you’re looking for something new to do or a way to reduce the impact on your joints, give it a try!
A few things to keep in mind:
- You’ll want to bring water and need a way to store your car keys. A handheld water bottle will do the trick.
- Depending on the trails you’ll be running, the shoes you use on the street may not work too well and not give you the traction and protection you need, so shop for some trail runners. (I personally love the rugged Altra Lone Peak; your mileage may vary.)
- If you go further off the beaten path, you might need to bring a few more items (e.g. your phone, first aid, energy bars, etc.) as well as more water. For those purposes, a hydration vest works well.
- Navigation will be more important on trails, especially if you’re in unfamiliar territory. Some phone or even watch apps can help stay oriented. Some trails also offer paper maps that you can store in your pocket.
- Tell people where you’re going, so if you get lost or don’t return, someone knows where to look for you. For really remote locations, I bring a personal locator beacon which I happen to have from hiking, just in case.
- Be aware of dangerous wildlife in your area. Running with a friend or group might help and it’s fun too.
Hopefully, this article has inspired you to give trail running a go. If you’re a road runner, it can add variety and ease impact on your joints. If you’re not a runner yet, it could be a fun way to explore if running is for you in a different kind of environment.