The Power of a Trail Run (Even in the Snow!)

The Power of a Trail Run (Even in the Snow!)

snowy trail

We are at the point in the winter season when running on the roads or sidewalks has become dangerous in some areas. Icy patches combined with narrow shoulders and high banks of snow on the corners that obstruct the vision of drivers can cause many runners to head inside to the treadmill. With more snow in the forecast and a few more weeks of winter left, we might as well embrace the snow and hit the trails for some winter running!

No matter what time of year, running on trails has a lot of physical and mental benefits. Road runners can mix up their routine to help prevent injury, get stronger, and improve their running. Being out on the trails is fun, peaceful and while you should take some precautions before hitting the trails, it is often safer than running amongst the cars, especially in the winter!

The benefits of trail running became very obvious to me when I read the book “Running with the Kenyans,” which I have discussed in a previous Sports Medicine Corner article. The Kenyans, while they run almost everywhere, will actually walk the portions of the road that they must take to reach the trails. They don’t even bother running on the road because they don’t like the way it feels compared to trails!

Here are a few reasons why running on trails is beneficial:

Decrease Injuries

The surface of trails is much softer and more forgiving than asphalt and cement. With each step we take while running, we absorb force at 3 – 5 times our body weight. Having a little bit of give in the surface that we are pounding on makes a big difference over time. Trail running might help to decrease overuse injuries that can occur from running on harder surfaces.

Trail running helps to strengthen different muscles than road running. When we run straight forward without much variation in our stride, muscle imbalances can occur. Typically, the larger muscles that are responsible for forward motion become strong and developed. The muscles in the back and side of the body get weak and tight. This combination can contribute to compensation, poor movement patterns, overuse injuries, and decreased level of performance. Running on trails requires lateral movement and variation in our stride to adjust to the changing surface beneath us, whether it’s rocks, roots, or streams! Muscles that normally wouldn’t be worked during a road run are given a workout during trail running, which can decrease the likelihood of muscle imbalances.

Proprioception, our body’s awareness of itself in space, is improved with trail running. Each step taken on a trail requires the body to react to stabilize itself. The gravel might be loose, the grass might be slippery, or that rock you thought was stable isn’t! Muscular contractions within the foot, ankle, and lower leg will occur to keep us balanced and stabilized. The more you run on a trail, the better your proprioception will be.  Next time you step off the curb the wrong way on a road run….no problem!

Core activation, the ability of our core muscles to contract slightly before a movement occurs, will be improved with trail running. Often times, if a runner (or other athlete) makes a sudden movement, the core is often the last thing to contract, if at all. This can lead to injuries to the back, hips, ankles, and everything in between. With trail running, the core will learn to activate prior to stepping down as it will anticipate an unstable landing. I ran a trail race in about 2 inches of mud a couple of years ago. Each step was a challenge to balance myself. The part of me that was absolutely the most sore the next day were the small muscles along my spine and my obliques, though I didn’t even feel them working during the run!

Improved Strength & Efficiency

Running on trails is like a good cross training workout, it will make you stronger. There are very few road hills that can compare to the intensity of hills found out on the trails. Hill training will improve your technique and make you stronger. Not to mention that the grade of some of the hills will bring your heart rate up to the point that you are working in an anaerobic state, which will make your heart stronger and bring you to a new level of fitness. Side stepping over obstacles and varying stride length can be compared to doing lunges and plyometrics in the gym, it will improve strength and power.

Form and technique should also improve with trail running. The uneven terrain causes us to shorten our stride and turn over our feet quicker (increase cadence). This will relate to improved efficiency that will carry over nicely to the road.

Before You Hit The Trails

Before you venture out onto the trails, there are a few things you should take into consideration:

1)     Your pace will be slower than on the road! Relax, forget about pace. An easy trail run is harder than an easy road run. You are going to have to work harder to run at the same pace as you would on the road, so run effort based rather than time / pace based, you’ll enjoy it more!

2)     Work on some single leg balance exercises. What makes trail running so great and beneficial is that it occurs on uneven terrain, but you want to make sure you are prepared for it so you don’t sprain an ankle on that first unsteady step! Check out the dot drill for a good exercise to prepare you for the trails.

3)     Bring water / nutrition. Even if you don’t think you are going to be out long. You will be working harder and will need more water / nutrition than a road run. Plus, if you take a wrong turn, an hour run can turn into a two hour run. Be prepared!

4)     Wear a road ID / bring your cell phone. One of the nice things about trails is that they are remote and peaceful. Not so nice if something happens and you need help.

5)     You can benefit from wearing a trail running shoe that has better traction and more protection for your foot than a road shoe. If it’s icy or snowy, you might want to consider putting some spikes on your shoes.

As you can see, there are a lot of great things that can come from trail running. Even if you want to remain a road runner, but just dabble in trail running, it’s worth it! If you are interested, but unsure, stay tuned for our new Intro to Trail Running program coming in March!


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