“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” John Muir, a Scottish-American naturalist and author
Thinking about taking your runs off the beaten track? Any type of running can be incredibly liberating, but heading out onto trails can make the experience ‘next level’. Running on a soft forest bed or a mountain contour path inhaling crisp, unpolluted air, hearing the rustle of leaves and birdsong, and perhaps a waterfall while absorbing breathtaking views, is at the same time soothing and invigorating.
In this blog, I will chat about how trail running gives you a real bang for your buck with its plethora of physical and mental benefits, and will highlight 5 of these.
1. Mental health and practicing mindfulness: With dare we mention the ‘C’ word, aspects of our lives have changed, there’s been times of uncertainty and heightened our stress levels – we would do well to find avenues to release tension and better arm ourselves to tackle future challenges. ‘Green’ exercise or training outdoors offers additional benefits to working out in a gym. In our wired world full of electronic devices – where we are connected and ‘available’ 24-7, running in a beautiful natural environment epitomises mindfulness. It is more of a meditative form of running than road running, offering us a chance to get in tune with nature physically and spiritually. This reduces mental stress and rumination – which is defined as an “unrelenting cycle of negative thoughts associated with increased risk of depression and other mental illnesses”. You can simply focus on putting one foot in front of the other in an environment that refreshes both the mind and soul. In research conducted by the University of Essex’s Green Exercise Research Centre has found that exercising in green spaces is beneficial for self-esteem and mood and it reduces feelings of anger, confusion, depression and tension and while all green environments afford these benefits, the greatest improvements were experienced where water was present.
2. Range of muscles worked: By mixing up the terrain on which you run, be it jeep track, slippery mud, soft sand or hilly mountain passes – it’s not just your leg muscles that are recruited – but also the stabilising muscles in your core, feet and ankles. The obstacles in the terrain make trail running both an agility exercise and a reactive drill because you have to be alert to react to whatever the trail dishes out. This requires real focus and attention to your running technique, as your gait and your stride length adapt to an ever-changing course. Downhill running also involves eccentric loading of the leg muscles especially your quadriceps (front thigh muscles). With eccentric contractions – the muscle is actually in a lengthened position as it contracts and there is some resultant damage. However, after recovering, these muscles are in fact stronger than before the workout.
Therefore, trail running makes you stronger both on trails and on the road, as well as improving your overall balance.
3. Reduced injury risk: While muscle recruitment patterns vary in road running depending on whether you are running on a hilly or flat course – it’s still pretty monotonous with the same muscles being repeatedly recruited in a similar way, meaning that your injury risk can be greater. When trail running, whether it be side-stepping roots, crossing streams, negotiating steep hills or scaling rocks as you head up a mountain, or bounding down switchbacks- your foot strike and landing pattern is continuously changing, so there is less repetitive stress. This results in a greater variety of muscle groups being recruited than in road running. Also, the soft surfaces of most trails are better for your joints, as it absorbs some of the impact. As expressed by Dr Scott Levine, world renowned sports medicine expert and orthopaedic surgeon “Some of the forces that would normally be transmitted from the pavement up the ankles, knees, shins and hips are dissipated when the foot hits the ground on the trails because there is more give there. Trails are going to take away a lot of the stress from the impact you’d normally get running on harder surfaces”.
So there is both less chance of an overuse injury and a significant gain in strength, agility and co-ordination. These skills, which take some practice, should help you to avoid sustaining an acute injury such as falling or slipping, especially if you run at a moderate pace. It’s also important to note that specific conditioning for the trails is recommended, so that you have the strength and agility to adjust your stride with short notice.
4. Decreased risk of mortality: A 2016 study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal found that living in a green space was associated with a 12% lower rate of death compared to living in an urban environment. Needless to say – this was due to the appealing surrounds and opportunities to be active- so imagine what regular trail running in beautiful green environments can do for your health!
In an analysis of 14 studies with a combined total of 232 149 participants, published in British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2020- showed that running even once a week, is associated with a 27 per cent lower risk of death from all causes. Runners also had a 30 per cent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 23 per cent lower risk of death from cancer.
5. Something for everyone: Whether you want to zone out and seek the solitude of trail running or meet like-minded friends – trail running makes this possible. Plus with trail-running becoming increasingly popular – there are a vast range of trail running stand-alone events, as well as trail series in Perth, in Western Australia and further afield enabling you to experience many beautiful areas you might otherwise not visit. Many of these events offer a range of distances and include entertainment at the finish -so creating an inclusive environment and positive experience for the whole family. So lace up those trail running shoes and start reaping the abundant benefits.
By Kathleen Mc Quaide
DOSE Running, (Sports Scientist and keen runner with over 100 marathons including 40 ultra-marathons under the belt, many on them on trails!)