The Benefits of Trail Running: 8 Reasons to Hit the Trails

If trail running were a religion, I’d be absolutely guilty of being a zealot trying to fanatically convert everyone over to the dirt.  I’ve always loved the act of running, but it wasn’t until I moved to New England and regularly hit the trails that I discovered the primitive, addicting rush that is trail running.   Head into any highly populated area and it will feel like the majority of our country is paved.   It’s easy to understand why so many people take to running on the roads; it is convenient.  But there are a number of reasons why it may be worth taking the extra time to occasionally seek out a trail instead.   Whether it is a technical trail on a mountain side, or a wide, well groomed trail in a quiet park, here are 8 reasons why you should take your miles off of the pavement, at least some of the time, and reap the benefits of trail running.

8 Benefits of Trail Running

Increased Balance

 Trails are often uneven and covered in obstacles and hazards, such as rocks, tree roots, mud, and even the occasional wildlife.  Believe me, I’ve tripped over all of them many times.    In order to prevent stepping on or even falling over such hazards, a far greater level of bodily awareness is required than typically needed when running on paved roads. The greater bodily awareness combined with the constant shifting of your body weight to avoid such obstacles while running will help increase your overall balance and stability.

trail running fail

Don’t worry, I’m OK.

 Stronger Legs and Core

As mentioned above, trail running requires a greater sense of balance. To maintain that balance, more muscle groups are activated throughout your run to compensate for the constant shifting of your body weight, including smaller stabilizing muscles in your legs, ankles, feet, and even your core. Further, the ever changing terrain, constant shifting, and often rolling hills that accompany trails, require you to engage different muscle groups more frequently than you would simply running on flat roads.

Further, the softer terrain of trails acts as added resistance to your legs.   Because the trails have less rebound than pavement, the quadriceps, hip flexors and gluteus muscles are forced to engage more than they do on a pavement.

On a related note…

Less Impact

Trail surfaces are typically softer than that of pavement or concrete. As a result, less force is being applied to your body from the running surface, specifically your legs, resulting in lower impact and lower stress. Varying the surfaces that you run on throughout your training may help prevent injuries that occur due to overuse and impact.

Vermont Trail

An example of uneven terrain on a trail here in Vermont.

Ankle Strength & Stability

Oh if I had a dollar for every road running client that came to me with a history of ankle injuries!  A wrong step in a pothole or a leap off of the curb that landed them in an air cast, nursing an ankle sprain.  My first suggestion?  Bosu training.  Second? Hit the trails! (Assuming the injury has healed, of course.)  As mentioned above, the varying terrain combined with numerous obstacles forces greater proprioception and muscle engagement, specifically stabilizing muscles, such as those in the foot and ankle.   You can’t strengthen what you don’t work, and often times the monotonous, one direction movement of road running leaves these stabilizing muscles and ligaments underworked.

Hill Training in Disguise

Chances are no matter where you are, if you head to the trails, you are going to find hills.  For years I ran in flat-as-a-pancake Coastal Carolina, with nary a hill to be found, short of a man-made bridge or overpass.  Then some local triathletes went ahead and blazed a trail in an undeveloped area of Myrtle Beach.  Lo and behold, there were inclines!  Sure, they weren’t long, but they were steep enough to be considered a climb, and cause my heart rate to climb as well.

Point being, hill repeats on a long paved road can be boring and monotonous.  Hills on a trail run will typically vary in grade (steepness) and length, thus constantly challenging your legs and lungs with variety.

The Hulk Myrtle Beach

Sportymomme and I on a 100+ degree August day. If you ever find yourself in Myrtle Beach, SC…give the Hulk a test run. If you aren’t from the area, the hills won’t beat you up. But the humidity will!

Avoid Traffic

Sometimes I feel like I’m playing a dangerous game of “chicken” with vehicles.  While running on roads I’m so paranoid and on the lookout for cell phone distracted drivers that I can hardly enjoy my run.  On the secluded trails you will be able to avoid stoplights, busy intersections, distracted drivers, and other hazards that come with traffic. While there are still plenty of safety tips to keep in mind while on the trail, you are far less likely to encounter man made obstacles and dangers.

Enjoy the Quiet

Leave your headphones at home and enjoy the peace and quiet out on the trail. Many people find the sounds of nature, such as birds chirping or the running water of a stream, to be very relaxing. Further, here are a number of health benefits associated with spending time outdoors, including increased happiness, improved concentration, and even improved healing. Appreciate the break from the stress and commotion of everyday life, and even of the crowds and traffic that can accompany road running.  For lack of better social media contrived terms: UNPLUG.

Avoid Monotony

You knew I was going to say this.  Trail running is akin to being a kid on a playground.  There are puddles to jump in, streams to jump over, logs to climb, and trees to duck under.   Forget the same old view of flat pavement and cookie cutter suburban homes.  Trails are a constant adventure.

7 Sisters Trail Race

Other tips to keep in mind:

  • Trail running is typically harder than road running.  Because of the varying terrain, inclines, and often times many curves in the trail, your average pace per mile will likely be slower than your pace on paved road.    Don’t stress about your pace.  In fact, if you can bear to part with it, leave your GPS at home.
  • Trail running brings up an entirely different set of etiquette rules, to help protect both the trail, the local wildlife, and even trail users.  Brush up on your trail etiquette before heading out.

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Are you a trail lover or do you stick to the pavement?  If you’ve never run on trails, what is holding you back?

 

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Comments

  1. says

    This post makes me want to go hit the trails!
    I haven’t done too much trail running, but I’m hoping to get off the roads a little more often once the weather warms up a little! Just trying to make make it through the winter right now. 😉 Great list!

  2. says

    Until last summer, I would have told you that I was *only* a road runner . . . but a friend convinced me to run on the Appalachian Trail with her, and I completely fell in love with the process. I still run on the roads – necessary for marathon training, but when I can run on a trail, I’m there.

  3. says

    My First Turkey Trot was essentially a trail run. Philadelphia has lots of picturesque trails within the city. I prefer to run on a track but when I want a change I hit the trails!

  4. says

    I have really been wanting to try trail running, but… we don’t really have a lot of trails around where I live, and i confess that I am terrified of the pygmy rattlers rumored to be on the one trail I know of. So… that’s kind of where I’m at LOL. One day. I will get there. :)

  5. Sue @ This Mama Runs For Cupcakes says

    So, I love this post. I typically hit the pavement. I’ve done 2 trail runs in my running career and they were both races. A 5 Miler and the North Face Endurance Challenge half marathon. I absolutely loved it but it was one of the harder things I’ve ever done. No one told me that distances were off when doing trails, lol. My half marathon was actually 15.5 miles :) Thanks for the reminder that I need to get back out there!

    • says

      Haha yeah distances are often a little more lax in trail running. Mainly because of logistics; it’s not always as easy to just “end” a race at a specific distance if there isn’t enough space, or a trail head, etc. North Face Endurance Challenge is on my to do list!!

  6. says

    There aren’t really any trails where I am in NYC and I wish that there were! I get a little taste of the trails when I visit my family in California but that’s not enough. I would love to run trails more regularly for all these reasons!

    • says

      That is definitely a common fear! I fall a lot, but I’ve yet to really hurt myself. Thankfully, trails are usually soft, and you hardly are able to “zone out” the way you do on the road, so you typically catch yourself as you are falling.

  7. says

    I should run on trails more but probably without a watch..bc I hate seeing my pace be 1-2 min. slower than usual! I also fell pretty hard this past summer on a trail and it kinda traumatized me lol but once it gets warmer I do want to do it again. That trail run was one of the hardest 5 miles I’ve ever ran…challenging and I know it will benefit me for road races.

  8. says

    Recently converted To trails. Love it! So peaceful. And you don’t ‘feel’ like you’ve ran as long as you actually have. Trail running is mentally stimulating. I always feel fab and refreshed when I get home !!

  9. says

    Great article. I also am an avid trail runner- the concept has been around years a concept I was to become familiar with due to the tried and tested conditioning that the military use to prepare soldiers.
    Why don’t more people run trails?? Perhaps it’s just easier or acceptable to run roads?
    Trail running does take a different mental approach and it tends require some serious grit on some of the tougher tracks – but to stand on the other side with a close friend makes those time more than just another fun run but a memory I will remember….