Perhaps you’ve been running for a while and you’ve already made the transition from treadmill to outdoor running but the pavement is either boring or hurting you. Or maybe you’re a new runner that already knows the gym and/or busy paved paths aren’t for you. If you’re looking for more exposure to nature or a soft surface for less wear and tear on your body while you exercise, trail running is a solid option but there are some things to consider before lacing up your new high-traction shoes.
The Benefits of Trail Running
Just like any form of exercise, there are many benefits to trail running but the jury is in – the experience of spending time, one-on-one with nature takes the top spot for most experienced trail runners. “I think one thing that may pleasantly surprise some people is how absorbing and meditative it is to focus on where you are putting your feet and what is coming up next on the trail,” says Eric Bone, route designer and course marker for the Seattle-based Northwest Trail Runs series, “This really can take one away from the obsessive thought patterns and anxieties of everyday life.” but he adds that “the extent to which this happens depends upon the person and the nature of the trail being run.”
Krissy Moehl, Ultrarunner, coach, author, public speaker and race director says “The places your two legs can take you, (high alpine fields, grand vistas & beautiful canopies) is the best benefit” she has found from trail running.
Weight Loss and Fat Burning Potential
Just like any style of running, trail running is a “form of aerobic exercise, which is great for fat burning,” says Bone, “in conjunction with managing diet and eating habits.” He adds that one reason why trail running can make for such great calorie-burning cardio is because, at a leisurely pace, it can resemble a power hike or an easy jog so “it can be quite easy to stay out for hours.
Running, in general, will build muscles in the legs and burn fat throughout the body but the extra effort required to climb and balance on the trail pays off. On average, due to the incline and unsteady terrain, trail running will help you burn 10 percent more calories per minute than running on pavement.
Toning and Muscle Building Potential
Trail running (or any running) is primarily a cardiovascular activity but trail running includes more strength-building and balance than running on a treadmill or on pavement so expect to work your legs and core more than usual.
“Lateral movements involved in going around turns or darting to the side to avoid a mud puddle or rock involve muscles that you may not use much when running on pavement or a treadmill,” says Bone, “Hills are a common aspect of trail running that provide additional challenge and accompanying strength gains for your thighs, calves, and glutes. Also, going around twists and turns and up and down hills engages your core muscles in a way that pavement and treadmill running may not.”
Just like any other activity or form of exercise, you’re most likely to stick with something you enjoy. Moehl’s biggest tip? “SMILE!” she says, “That was the first lesson I learned. Enjoy the experience and even when it’s tough a smile can change the experience.” Once you can appreciate the journey, here are a few more tips from Bone:
Take it slow in transitioning from pavement or the treadmill to the trails. Plan to do shorter runs on easier trails to start with, so that your muscles and reflexes have a chance to adapt without getting overloaded.
Watch Your Feet
Get used to watching your feet, especially if you have sensitive ankles or knees that sprain easily. Hopping and prancing around rocks and roots can be quite mentally absorbing and even meditative.
You will be Slower & GPS Might be Inaccurate
Remember that hills, twists and turns and rugged footing all make trail running slower than running on pavement or a treadmill. Adjust your expectations and ambitions accordingly. Used to going for a 6-mile cruise on the roads? You might get a similar workout going 3-5 miles on trails. If you are competitive or someone who focuses on their watch, try not to beat yourself up about the pace when you run trails. GPS watches are not very accurate under tree cover or when there are many bends in the trail, so what your watch is telling you about the pace and distance are probably wrong, anyway. If you want to get a workout of a certain intensity, use your heart rate as a guide.
Cross-Train to Improve & Prevent Injury
Consider doing specific strengthening exercises for your ankles (balance) and knees (squats & lunges). If you discover that you love the trails and want to do longer and more rugged routes, some supplementary strength training could help you feel stronger and more confident in your footing, not to mention avoiding time out due to sprains. Balancing on one foot on a plush carpet or rug, a rolled up towel, or an exercise/balance disc is a good exercise to start with. Increase the challenge and relevance by hopping sideways from one foot to the other and catching your balance each time you land. Doing squats on a balance board or BOSU ball while being mindful to keep your knees from going together or apart is good for the stability of your knees.
Measure Workload vs Mileage
For trail running, measuring your workload using time and intensity (as measured by heart rate, for example) is better than using mileage.
If you are brand new to running in general, Bone adds that you should only increase mileage by 10 percent or less each week or your risk of injury, fatigue and burnout will all increase.
Take it to the Next Level: Getting Ready for Your First Race
When you’ve fallen in love with trail running, “There are lots of ways to take your trail running to the next level,” says Bone, and he suggests the following:
- Complete longer distance runs.
- Try out runs with more elevation.
- Set new time goals for your familiar route.
- Plan a weekend trip around a trail running expedition.
- Compete against your age group in a trail running race.
Bone’s Tips for your First Trail Running Race:
- Pick a race at the shorter end of your ability since trail running is slower and more physically demanding than a pavement or treadmill run of the same distance.
- Set a modest performance goal. It could even be to simply finish the course. Once you have your first race under your belt, you’ll know what to expect and you’ll be in a better position to think about what further goals might be interesting and fun for you.
Clothes and Proper Attire
You could spend all day (and all of your paycheck) at your favorite outdoor store stocking up on every gadget and piece of apparel guaranteed to make you run faster and keep you protected from the elements but, to get started, you really only need a few basics. If trail running becomes your new passion, then start collecting gear that fits your particular goals and needs. Moehl says “The best gear is the gear you don’t have to think about and are not reminded of while running” and suggests the following (note her favorite brands):
- Shoes: Obviously, you will need shoes with a little more grip than your typical street running shoes. Make sure they fit properly, just like you would with any high-mileage shoe. (Moehl’s favorite: Vasque)
- Clothing: Moehl suggests “functional clothing that doesn’t chafe.” (Moehl’s favorite: Patagonia)
- A hydration pack for longer runs. (Moehl’s favorite: Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta)
- A bright Headlamp for night running. (Moehl’s favorite: Black Diamond Icon polar)