The Benefits of Trail Running – Even if you are training for a road race.

Benefits of trail running even if you are training for a road race. | happyfitmama.com

It may seem like all I ever want to do is run on trails…because that’s true. If I had my way, I’d love to run on the trails every single day. BUT, I can not so I mix it up with the road. Running is running and I’ll always love all forms of it but there’s just something about trail running that makes me extra happy.

I’m guessing it has something to do with feeling like a kid again, running through the woods, getting muddy/dirty, feeling the wind on my face and no other sounds other than birds singing or a river flowing.

And endless chatter if I’m running with friends but that happens everywhere.

The benefits of trail running | happyfitmama.com

As I’ve transitioned from the roads to the trails, one thing I’ve found is that a lot of people are afraid of going off road.  Number one concern is falling.  Yup.  You will trip and fall in trail running.  It happens to everyone.  Seriously. Even if you have been trail running for years on the most technical, rock and root laden trail, you probably still fall quite a bit.

And then there’s also the worry of getting lost or being afraid of what’s in the woods (ax murderers and wild animals).

Those are legitimate concerns but honestly, all of those things can happen on the road too. Right? There’s pros and cons to everything.

If you love road running and have zero interest in trail running, that’s cool. BUT, I think trail running could be a great benefit to you even if you do one off road run a week. Here’s why:

It Slows You Down

When you are running on the trails, you will go slower. Technical terrain and uneven footing, makes you be aware of each step. I’m not saying trail runners are slow because that’s the farthest thing from the truth. There’s some seriously fast runners on the trails who glide over rocks and roots.  I am not one of those people…yet.  You will run slower on trails than on the road. It’s completely normal.

I tend to run by feel instead of pace when on the trails. Effort, rather than a specific pace per mile, is what really counts when you’re trail running. Expect your pace to be at least 1-2 minutes slower (or more) than road running. It’s not uncommon for my trail pace to be 4 minutes slower than a road run because of all the obstacles or a big ass hill that needs to be power hiked. I wear my Suunto GPS watch but it’s just for time or mileage not pace. Besides, I can’t be bothered looking at my watch while trail running. I’ve got to pay attention to where my feet are going!

If it takes you 45 minutes to run 5 miles on the road, aim to run for 45 minutes on the trail.  You may not make it to 5 miles but the effort will probably be the same.

Softer Surface for Quicker Recovery

A harder surface like the road, breaks down muscles much quicker and it is tougher to recover from. I can run 20 miles on the trails and practically have zero soreness afterwards. But if I run 20 miles on the road, I’ll feel beat up especially in my feet and calves. A softer surface often feels better on the joints.  It also can also aid in recovery after a hard workout. Try running your recovery run on the trails after a long run. Your body will feel so much better for it.

It Makes You Pay Attention

I always chuckle when I tell someone I like to trail run. One of the first comments is, “Oh, it must be so pretty!” It is…when I’m not looking at the ground ahead of me. It’s very tempting to look around at all the beauty that’s around you while on the trails but once you do, you’ll probably end up doing a face plant. Look down at the ground and a few feet in front of you to pick your path of direction. And be sure to pick your feet up.  No shuffling!  If you do, you’ll be face planting non stop.

Get Faster

With trail running, there’s bound to be more hills. Hills are speed work in disguise, right? It’s the most efficient form of strength training for runners since it uses all the muscles you activate when running on flat surfaces, but builds greater strength due to the increased resistance. You also will be working on cadence with trail running while you take shorter, quicker steps over rocks and roots.

Works More Muscles

Road running usually involves moving in one plane. Forward motion in a mostly straight line. However, with trail running you are stepping over tree roots, rocks and hopping across muddy spots. This will make you use more muscles than road running. You’re also working on bal­ance as you run over and around these obsta­cles, caus­ing you to use smaller, lesser-used mus­cles in your legs, core and arms.

Better Ankle Strength

As the queen of ankle issues, I can say that my feet and ankles are in better shape thanks to trail running. When your feet and ankles are moving in different directions for the duration of your run, you are building strength and stability. When I mostly ran on the roads, I was forever having feet and ankle issues. That’s not to say I still don’t have ankle issues. I’ve sprained my ankle numerous times on the trails. It happens! But my ankle sprains have been relatively minor thanks to the strength and stability I’ve built up.

No Traffic to Worry About

Road running can feel like a game of Frogger at times. For those of you who didn’t grow up in the 80s and 90s, that’s a video game of a frog trying to cross the road without getting smucked. Distracted drivers are a common occurrence even with cell phone bans while driving. With trail running, you don’t have to worry about vehicles swerving at you. Unless, you are my friend Jess who has been running into bulldozers on the trails.

Good for the Soul

Fresh air, babbling brooks, quiet, calm, green spaces. Being out in nature is just what the soul needs to be refreshed and rejuvenated. What’s more relaxing – loud motorcycles zooming by you or the wind through the trees? I’ll take the wind any day!

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21 comments on “The Benefits of Trail Running – Even if you are training for a road race.

    1. You are always welcome to come visit NH! I’m always open to taking newbies out on the trails to see the beauty on the dirt ribbons.

  1. I wasn’t surprised that trail running is tougher but I didn’t realize HOW much more effort I was putting forth! I’m pretty tired after a trail run. But I love it. I grew up in rural Illinois, playing the woods and trail running just takes me back to that carefree time. No pressure. It’s pretty sweet!

  2. I really want to trail run more often when I train for my next marathon. Like you said the softer surface makes it easier to handle mileage and trail running makes you strong!

    1. I have a few friends who are training for spring marathons but still hit the trails up at least a couple of days per week. They are faster and stronger than ever thanks to changing up the surface and of course, hills!

  3. I love all the points you’ve written here! I’ve had a love-hate relationship with trail running. I tend to focus a lot on pace and road makes me feel like my efforts are rewarded. But on the trail I’m always so frustrated. But I did a 20K Trail Race on Saturday and really enjoyed myself. And the biggest difference this time was that I just let go. I hardly looked at my watch. I just ran. And where I needed to I walked. I came out of that smiling. So I’m looking forward to keeping this more positive, less fearful attitude for the next trail runs I do.

    1. The pace thing can really mess with your head. I feel like I’m working a lot harder on the trails but my pace is so much slower than the roads. You just gotta let it go. And walking is highly encouraged and anticipated in trail running. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my first trail race was going out with a road runner attitude. Power hike the hills and you’ll be good to go!

    1. I’ve only seen one HUGE snake on a trail run but little garter snakes are normal. The bear thing…that only happened once and I’m ok with never seeing another. #eeekkkk!

  4. I’m totally with you for everything except softer surfaces equaling faster recovery. The downhills get my knees. What limits the amount of trail running that I do is that it actually takes me longer to recover.

    1. Very true! The downhill can be brutal for quads and knees. But the good news is that the more often you do it, the better it gets.

  5. I wish we had some of those views here. Our trails are a little more packed and flat, so a bit of a different experience. I love it, though.

  6. If we had trails like yours I think I would be more likely to run on them! I think the biggest reason for me if they are not convenient. I would have to drive somewhere so its easier to step out my door and run. But I definitely agree there are benefits to it!

    1. The convenience part is a little rough. One of my fave things about running is that I can walk out my front door and get it done. But with trails I have to get in my car and drive. Thankfully, we have some really great trails within 15-30 minutes of us. Still a hike but worth it.

  7. I love trail running. And I love road running. But I’m one of those people who cannot mix trail and road. If I’m training for a road race and decide to hit the trails, I inevitably get injured! It’s such a racket.

  8. Injuries are the bane of every committed runner. There’s nothing worse for a runner (or anybody who lives with that runner) than being injured and unable to indulge in their favorite pastime. Trail running surfaces are much softer than the asphalt or concrete you’ll find when running around town. Softer surfaces mean fewer injuries, not only due to lower impact forces but also because you’ll build more strength in the muscles that help stabilize your lower leg.
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