Road running is so convenient that for most runners, it’s the easiest thing to do. Waking up in the morning and heading out for a run around the block is way more convenient than driving to a destination to hit the trails. But trail running has a plethora of physical and mental benefits – everything from reducing anxiety to using more muscle groups. And to top it all, you get to trade congested, concrete roads for softer, quiet trails with spectacular views.
Let’s take a look at what makes trail running different from road running.
Most of your running gear works well for both road and trail running but the difference is the type of shoes you choose for a trail run. Road running shoes are designed to be lightweight and speedy when running on concrete, but to run on trails you need shoes that provide stability, traction, and durability to protect your foot across different terrains (mud, sand, rocks, roots). Terrains that are highly technical call for huge lugs on the soles but a good basic trail shoe should meet the requirements for most people.
Irrespective of the terrain you run on, every runner is expected to lift weights to prevent injury and to increase speed and mobility. With trail running, a lot of minor muscles are put to use as your trying to balance and stabilize yourself on uneven surfaces, bounce off rocks and having control over the quick changes in your cadence. Incorporating a strength routine to your workouts is recommended that focuses on upper body strength (push-ups target multiple muscles all at once), hip strength (dynamic warm-ups, bands, body weight, and plyometrics), and core strength (dead bugs, planks or any move that strengthens the lower back).
Slowing down and shorter strides.
In road running, it is recommended to use a stride that comes naturally to you. But if your goal is to achieve a safe and efficient trail run, spend less time on your feet on the ground by shortening your stride and controlling your speed. This significantly helps the risk of falling while particularly going downhill and prevents injury as well. A forefoot strike vs hitting your heel to the ground reduces the impact going downhill. Similarly slowing down on your way uphill can minimize injury (stress fractures) to your shinbone.
Engaging your arms and core.
With road running, while it’s important to maintain the correct running form, it’s quite easy to lose track in engaging your arm and core. Whereas in trail running, having a proper arm swing and cadence helps a runner get into the groove with the lower body cadence. The arms can be used to provide balance while getting through narrow trails or downhill. Also, utilizing your core more often is essential for a better reaction time so you act quickly to different obstacles and also slow down or speed up your stride when required.
The softer surfaces in trail running cause lesser damage to your body allowing you to stay healthier and have less downtime injury. The varied foot strike in trails reduces the repetitive motion or overuse of muscles. With road running, the breakdown of muscles is a lot faster and takes longer to recover if you rack up the miles and overuse of certain muscle groups often lead to injury.
Slower finish times.
With road running, you can achieve a much faster turnover or increased pace per km especially on flatter routes with faster finish times depending on the distance. In trail running, the unpredictable variables like the rocky terrain, steep gradients, altitude, weather, etc slows you down and the time taken to finish a race is much longer. It’s more efficient to power hike(a technique that can be used to get you to the top just as quickly as running) up the hill than to try and run it keeping your heart rate low.
Exhaustion on the mind and body.
Running on asphalt, concrete smooth roads to running on hilly terrains, less consistent surfaces, and narrow single track paths can be quite stressful on the body and mind. But the biggest change comes from the mental component as running on trails requires you to pay close attention to your footing, the terrain, and wildlife. You can’t zone out and repeat the same stride over and over but be mindful of the terrain and make changes in your stride as you go.
Trail running will result in a slightly slower per kilometre pace but it is no less fulfilling or satisfying as a road run.