If you live near the mountains, foot hills, beach or even a park chances are you’ve tried trail running. At a minimum you’ve heard of others who prefer trail running. And you might have even wondered what all the trail running hype is about. Besides the obvious, getting away from the cars, enjoying some truly fresh air and amazing vistas and forging a bond with nature, there are many benefits to trail running.
I’ll never forget my very first trail run. It was about 13 years ago and I’d only been a “runner” for about a year at that point in time. I was training for my second marathon and one of my long running buddies, Cliff, suggested that our next long run be on the trails. He promised it would be easy, fun and a great workout. I quickly learned that his idea of “easy and fun” were not the same as mine. We spent 3 hours hacking through overgrown brush and attempting to stay on a trail we couldn’t see. Wearied and dirty, we finally made it back to the cars. The entire time Cliff swore that trail was usually cleared and should have been much easier than it was. Apparently I’m a glutton for punishment because 2 weeks later I was back on a trail with the same group. This run was not much different from the first. At one point in time we were atop a mountain with glaciers freezing to death. Cliff had failed to mention that we might want to bring a jacket. My hands were so cold and frozen I could barely tighten my shoe laces for the decent. After 4 hours of running, we sent Cliff and his brother ahead to get the car and meet us at the trail head. We decided we didn’t need to run those extra 3 miles down the road to the car! After these two experiences I swore that trail running wasn’t for me.
Fast forward 9 years and time had erased all memory of the misery of those runs. When Rhielle suggested that we hit the trails for a run I agreed. Lucky for me, she understood where to take a newbie and this experience was completely different from the others. I had a great time and got in an amazing workout. And, thanks to Rhielle, I’ve been trail running ever since. We even plan an annual trip to spend 3 to 5 days camping and trail running.
Besides the obvious reasons (my commune with nature!) here are a few other reasons I choose to trail run:
There is far less impact on my body. Although the pounding of running makes me feel like I’m truly getting a workout, my body just can’t take it anymore. Trails are a much softer running surface and the impact to your feet, ankles, knees and joints just isn’t as great.
Trail running is actually twice the workout as a normal run. Although it feels easier because of the softer surface and the vistas to distract you, your body works twice as hard when running on a trail when compared to running on the roads. On the trails, your muscles have to fire twice—one to stabilize you and one to push off. When you run on the road, your muscles only fire once when you push off for your next step.
You get the same workout in fewer miles. Because your muscles are actually working harder (see above) you don’t have to run as many miles. So, a 6 mile trail run is the same as running 8 miles on the road. And, if you’re all about your mileage count at the end of the week, who doesn’t want bragging rights amongst their runner friends? You can count the higher mileage into your weekly total (I’ll never share your secret!).
There are no 'flat' sections in trail running so it's a great way to get in some hill work. Yes, there are some trails that are seemingly flat, but typically in trail running you’re either doing uphill, downhill or a false flat. A false flat will feel flat compared to the other uphill sections because it is a much more gradual climb, nevertheless, you are still climbing. For someone who is not a fan of hill repeats or other typical hill workouts, trails provide a fun and challenging way to trick myself into doing a hill workout.
Even though I've said it before, I'll say it again, the best part of trail running for me is the amazing views. I’ve seen some truly amazing scenery that I never would have encountered had it not been for trail running.
After you’ve finished your trail run it’s always fun to go grab coffee or breakfast. The looks you’ll get and mutterings behind your back are priceless! Everyone is curious what it is you’ve done to get so dirty and beat up and still have a smile on your face. There’s nothing like the admiration of others to make you feel truly hard core.
Regardless of your reasoning, trail running should definitely become a part of your training regimen. If you’re new to trail running, just ask around I’m certain you’ll find a veteran trail runner willing to take you out. And, hopefully, they’ll take you on a beginner friendly trail so you love trail running from the start!
Author, triathlete and avid runner Melissa Stratton lives in Provo, Utah where she enjoys good friends and muddy trails.