Curious about trail running?
Not everyone is lucky enough to live in a trail running mecca; The Scandinavian Mountains, along the US’s Appalachian Trail, or along New Zealand’s rugged coastline.
But do not fret! Trail running is more accessible than you may think.
But what exactly is trail running?
Trail running is essentially off-road running, be it in the mountains, through fields and farmland, along the beach, or in your local park. Any time you run on an unpaved surface-you are in fact trail running!
Outdoor sports brand, Salomon, has a more romanticised definition of trail running. They say that it is a “run at the heart of nature”.
I’m personally a fan of the simple way in which ultra-endurance athlete, coach, and GB medalist Robbie Britton contrasted trail running to road running:
‘Basically, it’s a lot more fun in the mud, jumping in puddles and running fast in the woods.’
So, you can do it anywhere that’s not paved, and it’s lots of fun!
Ready to get stuck into the ins and outs of trail running?
In this article, we will explore:
- Six benefits of trail running,
- And how to get started with trail running.
Let’s jump in!
The Benefits of Trail Running
1) Trail running will improve your balance
The natural twists and turns of the track, the rocks, and branches that you will have to dodge and jump over, all mean that as you run, you will simultaneously be working on your balance and agility.
You may find yourself flinging your arms in the air to counter a sudden twist in the trail!
Due to the type of surface which you will tackle, the unevenness of your running cadence, as well as the leaping and dodging- your core and your smaller stabilizing muscles will kick into action.
This will in time increase your spatial awareness, better your balance, and tone up those abs.
2) Trail running is an adventure!
Trail running really takes you back to being a kid.
Heading out into nature is a great way to bring out your adventurous side.
Dare yourself to head out to the trails without a clear plan, and explore the local area! When it comes to trail running, there is no such thing as a wrong turn.
Go ahead and get lost – you may discover a hidden gem.
Related: What Is Skyrunning?
3) Trail running keeps your brain engaged
It is all too common to get bored on a road run. (Road runners don’t come for me!)
With little change in scenery, the monotony of the terrain, and a steady, uniform cadence- road running is far from being mentally engaging.
Although having a wandering mind can often be a good thing, road running often lends itself to focusing on that niggle in your calf, or lets your mind drift towards focusing on the daily stresses of life.
In contrast, hitting the trails means constant brain engagement.
There is no time to zone out and fixate on your work deadline when there are tree roots and muddy puddles to leap over, and branches to duck under.
This constant external stimulus means that you are forced to be present and to really be in the moment-or else, you’ll be on your arse and covered in mud.
Being present, or ‘mindful’, has been shown to have many psychological benefits.
Certified Psychiatrist Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios MD spoke to Marathon Handbook and told us that practicing mindfulness by trail running “can improve your cognitive faculties such as attention, focus, memory, and problem-solving. It can help connect us with reality, keep stress at bay, increase clarity in thinking, perception, and decision making…”
…the list goes on.
4) Trail running improves your overall fitness
In an interview for Red Bull Andy Brooks, a professional coach at Peak Running listed some of the physical benefits of trail running:
“The resistance of running uphill improves leg strength. Uneven ground improves ankle strength, flexibility and balance. Having to vary stride length to deal with roots and rocks improves agility and coordination. Running down steep hills improves leg speed and conditions muscles against impact…”
A pretty sizable list if you ask me.
5) Trail running is easier on your joints
On trail running’s reduced joint impact, certified personal trainer Tyler Read says:
“Your joints feel less strain and impact when you run on trails than they normally would on pavements and roads. When your feet hit the ground, the softer ground absorbs a lot of the force that would have travelled through your leg and into your knees”.
6) Spending time in nature is good for your mental health
Even if you’re in your local park, trail running means that you immerse yourself in nature.
Licenced Mental Health Counselor, Melissa Bailey, spoke to us on the benefits of spending time in nature. She often recommends that her clients spend more time outside and says that,
“Being in nature reduces stress levels and can help you to disconnect from your stressors and from technology”.
How To Get Started With Trail Running
Runners will often boast about how running shoes are the only thing you really need to run.
This may be true for a short run around the block, but heading out for a trail run takes a little more gear, planning, and preparation.
So here is a short checklist of what to consider before hitting the trails…
1) Research the Trail
Before you head out on your trail running debut, it is wise to do a bit of research into what the trail will be like.
Consider things such as the type of running surface, the weather, the elevation gain, and potentially even if there will be bears or other dangers en route.
The trail running mindset is one that looks at these factors not as impediments, but as a part of the adventure!
You can mitigate these factors with the right shoes, suncream or a jacket, a more measured view of elevation gain (it is fine to walk or take a shorter route!), or, in some cases, by bringing along a canister of bear spray.
2) Get The Right Shoes
Having a good pair of running shoes is essential for any runner, however casual they may be.
The shoe should first and foremost be suited to you-the runner- but equally, it should fit the type of surface you are running on.
Trail running shoes are made especially to handle uneven, rugged terrain. They are built to take on soft earth, loose rocks, and pretty much anything in between.
Trail running shoes typically have larger lugs (those raised threads under the shoe), which lend themselves to gripping onto whichever terrain you throw at them.
As a general rule, opt for larger lugs for more slippery surfaces- such as wet grass. Smaller lugs tend to work well enough on harder-packed soil.
3) Tell someone where you are going
Unlike city running, you can’t always pop into a local cafe or jump onto a bus or train if the going gets tough whilst on a trail run.
Make sure your phone is charged before heading out, and let someone know where you are going and how long you are likely to be.
If you are lucky enough to have Strava premium, there is a feature called ‘Strava Beacon’ which lets you send a text to a person of your choosing. They are then able to track your position in real-time as you are out and about on the trails.
Take these simple precautions and don’t let the fear of the unknown dissuade you from going out there and making the most of nature!
4) Expect to be slower
With more challenging terrain comes inevitably slower times.
And for all those newbie trail runners: you are allowed to walk up hills! In fact, it is almost encouraged!
Maybe even take a little break when you find an epic view, a peaceful stream, or an impressive tree.
Trail running is about enjoying the ride, if you keep at it, your fitness will increase regardless.
It is important to mentally prepare for the slower times. Easy not to beat yourself up when you check in on your running stats, only to see that they are much slower than anticipated.
5) Bring water and snacks
As a consequence of trail running often taking longer than expected, it’s always better to be prepared.
Bring water and snacks. In fact, bring more water and more snacks than you think you may need.
Bringing a trail running vest is the easiest way to bring your stuff along with you.
As for hydration, consider bringing some sort of electrolyte sports drink, particularly if it is a hot day.
Good trail running snacks are essentially any snack that you may bring on a road run! Think simple carbs, So gels, a banana, maybe a flapjack, or sweets.
What you bring along to eat while running can be highly individualised, so experiment and find what works for you.
And if you don’t end up eating your snacks on the trails, you can always munch on them post-run!
Most importantly of all, have fun!
Head out there with an open mind and go on your own mini-adventure. So soak up the sights, and you never know what you might learn about your surroundings, or yourself!
In the mood to learn more about trail running? Check out this article for more trail running tips and gear essentials!