10 Fantastic Benefits of Trail Running
Are you intimidated at the thought of running on trails? Does it generate images of running up mountains and climbing over big boulders?
While it certainly can be those things, trail running is really much more broad than that. Technically, we could call it “off-roading” instead of trail running. Depending on where you live (or vacation), you can find all different types of trails going over all different types of terrains.
But whatever type of trails you choose – with difficulty levels ranging from easy to hard – you can reap benefits from running on these surfaces.
So, without further ado, here are 10 great reasons to try trail running today!
1. Banish Boredom (because it’s fun!)
I certainly mean no disrespect to road running (because you can make that fun too), but trail running is a great way to change things up. New scenery. Different terrain. Challenging obstacles.
Running, at times, can feel ho-hum. But trails take the monotony out of running and make it interesting and exciting again. They can make a run feel more like playtime than work time. I mean, when was the last time you heard a road runner squealing out loud with delight as she ran down a fast hill?
2. Gentler on the Joints
Running on “softer” surfaces like dirt, gravel, grass, and sand has been thought to reduce the force of impact on the body, thereby making it gentler on the joints. The jury is still out on whether or not the long-term effects of the softer surfaces play a part in decreasing injury, but it’s still something to consider.
Personally, I’ve experienced less joint pain (especially in my knees) when putting in more miles on the trail than on the road. Whether or not it’s only in my head, I do notice less “pounding” during longer trail runs compared to road runs of a similar distance.
There are, of course, other challenges that come with running on these softer, but often uneven, surfaces.
3. Connect with Nature
After a long day, a run in the woods can be a fabulous way to “get away from it all.” The sights and sounds of nature are typically more peaceful and soothing than city noises. Research has found that spending time in a natural setting (i.e., nature) is effective in reducing both physical and psychological stress.
According to a research study entitled Restorative qualities of indoor and outdoor exercise settings as predictors of exercise frequency, “Exercise in outdoor settings has been reported to be more restorative and stress-reductive than indoor exercise.” Running on the trails – in the woods or in the mountains – is an ideal way to get this stress-reducing “green exercise.”
4. Improve Balance and Coordination
Enhanced balance and coordination will depend on the technicality of the trails you run. While you may notice tiny improvements over time from running on wide, dirt trails, technical trails with rocks, roots, and obstacles will train your mind to focus on the terrain.
As you continue to practice on these kinds of trails, your body will become more adept at navigating over and around different technical components.
But if you’re new to trail running, start with the easier trails first. The more roots, rocks, and uneven terrain – the more likely you’ll be to roll an ankle or trip and fall. Strength-building exercises that focus on one leg at a time (one-legged/pistol squats, curtsey squats, various standing Pilates moves, etc.) are a great way to speed up your rate of progress.
As you begin to see your balance and coordination improve, then start trying out the more technical trails.
5. Increase Ankle Stability
Strong ankles play a key role in healthy trail running. Along with the feet, the ankles stabilize the body and absorb force from the ground as you run. As you consistently run more on uneven terrain, you’ll naturally build some strength and stability in your ankles.
HOWEVER – you also put yourself at a greater risk for ankle twists and sprains when you run on uneven and technical surfaces.
That being said, it’s important to complement your running with exercises that strengthen the feet and ankles. Try these moves from Doug Hay at Rock Creek Runner.
Doug uses a TheraBand like these in his ankle stability video.
6. Makes You a Stronger Road Runner
Trail running increases your overall athleticism. It builds endurance and cardiovascular strength. It works your core. And if you’re blessed enough to live near the mountains, you’ll notice this exponentially so. Running up hills strengthens the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves, as well as the ligaments that surround them.
Trail running also helps you to strengthen and tend to smaller underutilized muscles that just don’t get much love on the road.
Even replacing just one or two of your weekly road runs with a jaunt on the trail is likely to make a difference in your road performance.
7. Helps to Prevent Overuse Injuries
How can more running prevent overuse injuries? Well, first of all, I’m not suggesting that you add trail running to your regular routine but, rather, that you replace some of your road miles with trail miles.
How does this help?
Running is, by nature, a repetitive activity. By changing up the terrain, you’re varying the training stress each run places on your body. The more small changes, or “micro-variations” you can add to your training, the more you reduce the repetition that occurs as you put one foot in front of the other in a single plane of motion.
Frequent twists and turns, climbing, and navigating obstacles can also increase strength in your stabilizing muscles. This can help to minimize injury by improving your overall running form.
8. Allows You to Slow Down and Enjoy Your Run
This could possibly be one of my favorite things about running trails. On the road, it’s so easy to focus on the pace. And while that’s necessary at times, it sure is nice to take your eyes off the watch (or whatever device you use) and put ‘em on the trail. Your pace will almost always be slower on trails (thanks to a number of factors), so why not just forget about it for a bit? Allow your body to slow down, and enjoy the run and the scenery for what it is.
9. Trail Races Offer a More Laid-back Vibe
This is something I’ve observed when comparing trail races to the road races I’ve run in. I know it can be a much different scene out West, where trail and Ultra running are BIG. In general though, trail races (especially ones with Ultra distances) usually carry a different breed of runners. At longer distance events, you’ll often find a relaxed camp-like feel, encouraging spectators, and runners who are conversational and supportive of one another.
10. Explore New Places
If you love running like I do, I can’t think of a better way to see the world! Whether you’re traveling for a race, or for some other reason, you can probably find a new place to explore within an hour or two of your destination.
Or, if your budget allows, how about going on a “trail running adventure vacation” – specifically for the purpose of enjoying being active and discovering new places?
There’s so much natural beauty to see – it would take a lifetime to experience all of it! And, as my sweet photographer friend Katie suggests, it’s a great excuse to take incredible photos!
I’ve only traveled to a small number of locations since I’ve been trail running, but there’s always something unique and beautiful to see if you look for it.
Well, have I inspired you to try trail running? I sure hope I have!
If you’re going to try it out for the first time, find a friend to go with. Preferably, one who knows your local trail system. 😉
And don’t forget to be gracious with yourself. The softer surfaces on trails absorb a lot of energy from your footfall, making for a harder workout – especially when you’re just starting out. Don’t be discouraged if your pace is much slower than what you run on the road. That’s totally normal. And acceptable!
Be safe, enjoy yourself, and tell us about it in the comments!
Happy Trails! 😀🏃🏻♀️