Get off the road: why trail running may be better for you than dodging traffic

Posted on 30 August 2017

Running is a simple sport with complex benefits: do it regularly, and the act of turning your legs over (and over, and over) will help you drop weight, build muscle and strengthen your heart health.

It’s also great for your mind. According to the Mayo Clinic cardiovascular exercise is ‘meditation in motion’ – as the physical activity of running can boost your body’s production of endorphins, your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters.

But a boost in endorphins only goes so far. If you’ve spent some time running through your city only to feel like a hamster on an unchangingly urbanised wheel, new research shows there’s a simple way to take the mental benefits of running a few steps further: get off the road.

Why is trail running better than pounding the pavement?

  1. Brain Benefits

Researchers at Stanford University have found that running in nature puts an end to what they call ruminating – the habit runners often fall into of settling into a cycle of negative thinking or worrying about anxiety-inducing aspects of everyday life.

The study’s results are remarkable: participants who spent time in nature showed a lot less activity in a part of the brain associated with the development of depression. And the changes were visible, too: after spending time in a leafy, green part of the university campus, they were happier and more alert, researchers said.

This is good news for the billions of people across the world who live in cities – more than half the global population – and who are 40% more likely to develop some form of mood disorder in the course of their lives.

  1. Fewer Injuries

Trail running is harder than road running, so that means more injuries, right? Wrong, says Gerrie Berner, a biokineticist at Mediclinic Cape Town. ‘Trail running has the effect of reducing impact on your body. Even a smooth gravel or dirt road works your muscles, tendons and ligaments differently from running on the road or treadmill.’

Highly technical trails will force you to work even harder. ‘You’ll work a wide range of different muscles when doing trail running. So you have to give your body time to get stronger, and accustomed to the movements.’

These variations in pace and direction may save a trail runner from injury, says Chris Lippstreu, owner and trainer at Race Fit, a Cape Town-based gym designed for endurance athletes. ‘A road runner will use the same group of muscles over and over, while a trail runner has to incorporate more muscle groups in multiple directions. Plus, the terrain and elevation you endure while trail running slows your pace down, and often forces you to walk or hike. All of this lessens the likelihood of injury.’

  1. Stronger All Over

Running straight up a mountain will boost your heart rate and challenge your mind. But it will also build strength. ‘When running off-road, you are not only improving your lung function and fitness, you are strengthening quads, glutes and calf muscles, too’ says Gerrie. ‘Because of the uneven surface, you will be improving your core, balance and proprioception (your body`s ability to know where it is in space). Running on trails also helps you clear your mind.’

Hill training might be the most effective form of strength training for runners, especially those new to the sport. Sprinting uphill activates all the muscles you’ll use in running along a flat surface, but adds resistance which accelerates the strength gains.

Flat mountain stretches can be challenging, too. Winding single-track paths are filled with stones, roots and sand, so you’ll spend most of the run taking short strides, skipping and leaping. This activates a range of smaller, less-used muscles and leads to a more well-rounded workout.

Mental benefits, fewer injuries, built-In strength training: what could go wrong?

Well, quite a lot. Mountains are steep and remote, which means it can be easy to get lost or badly hurt. Some handy advice to avoid either of these is to start slow – and aim low!

Chris recommends that runners who are new to trail set their sights on a jeep track to begin with. ‘These wide gravel paths minimise the technical aspects of trail running – thus preventing injury from tripping over rocks and roots.’

Trail runners can also get themselves into trouble by going too fast, either uphill or down, or signing up for a distance that’s beyond them, says Chris. ‘While the likelihood of overuse injuries is less than with road running, trail running is still hard on the body. Going too fast or too far can cause wear and tear.’

Gerrie agrees. For a dedicated road runner, trail running may play an important role in active recovery – an integral part of any training programme. ‘When you run on trails, the terrain will force you to slow down and take your time. This will put a lighter training load on the body. Trail running in-between your normal road running will help you build even more muscle, and will improve your balance and core. All of this will help you with injury prevention when doing your normal road running.’

Published in Exercise

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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