Trail running is a form of running done on natural terrain, unpaved paths or trails that takes the runner through woods, forests or hills. It is distinctly different from road running and often involves navigating uneven terrain, elevation changes and other obstacles, which provide a challenging and immersive outdoor experience for runners.
When Divya Vidyadharan, a 42-year-old aptitude trainer from Chennai, attempted her first trail run of 25 kilometers in the beautiful valleys of Yercaud, a hill town in Tamil Nadu, the fresh air, the sound of birds chirping and the scent of plants and moist earth gave her the energy to reach the finishing point, despite struggling. She found trail running to be more relaxing and compeling compared to running on a road or track because it makes her feel refreshed while letting her connect with nature.
“I’m a person who enjoys nature and wilderness more than cities, and connecting with nature comes naturally to me,” says Vidyadharan. “Let’s say I am covering 20 kilometers through the road as well as the trail. On the road, after eight or nine kilometers, I will be exhausted. But the spirit of the woods gets me going on the trail, despite the rough path and getting mud all over my shoes. You keep going up the trail even if you are struggling, and that feeling makes me do it again and again.”
The psychology of trail running
Trail running allowed Vidyadharan to shed her stress and find inner peace. “I used to be a very short-tempered person. I was practicing meditation because I wanted to change it. Even though it helped me, trail running was even more effective. Now, I go for a run in the hills near my house if I am feeling down or irritated. After completing a round and sweating it out in nature, I feel incredibly rejuvenated and relaxed,” she elaborates.
A research paper published in the journal Extreme Physiology & Medicine claims that engaging in physical activity in outdoor natural environments offers overall health advantages by boosting physical activity levels with lower levels of perceived exertion. It also modifies physiological functioning, including stress reduction, restoring mental fatigue and enhancing mood, self-esteem and health. In essence, trail running provides a thorough workout with a reduced perception of fatigue or exertion while relaxing the mind as well.
Diverse benefits of trail running
While trail running is an adventure that mentally rejuvenates a person, it also provides other direct physiological benefits through a higher and more diverse range of muscle engagement and balance.
According to Delhi-based running coach Rohan Sharma, the diverse environment of the terrain (consisting of hills, forests, rocky paths and muddy trails) provides the primary advantage. “You use the same form and a certain set of muscle groups when running on the road,” explains Sharma, who’s also the founder of EnduroCo, an AI-based endurance training platform. “The diversity in the terrain increases the overall muscle engagement of the body. Your balance will naturally improve when you use more muscle groups. The nature of road running is rather unbalanced, which is why it engages fewer muscle groups; some muscles become stronger while the rest remain underutilized. This causes a muscular imbalance that affects the body’s overall balance.”
Trail running demands more lateral movements to navigate the challenges of the uneven terrain. The constantly changing trail conditions require agility to maintain balance. A combination of all these elements helps you develop better core and ankle strength.
The trail minimizes injury risk
IT band syndrome and plantar fasciitis are common injuries in runners that are caused by overuse and repetitive stress. Since you are not repetitively using or overusing the same muscle groups as often when you run on the road, the chances for those injuries are lower in trail running.
Knee issues are also common in people who have been running for years. While repetitive injuries might occur within the course of a month, chronic injuries occur over years. “Long-term ailments, such as damage to the knee cartilage, might occur when you run for many years,” says Sharma.
Trail running provides a gentler running surface despite the uneven terrain. “It relieves the joints of a great deal of strain, which aids in lowering the risk of long-term consequences and chronic injuries caused by running,” adds Sharma.
Trail running: Tips for a smooth experience
Experts list some tips for road or track runners looking to switch to trail running. Adhering to these points could help them improve their performance and avoid injuries:
♦ Strengthening the ankle: Ankle twists occur frequently during trail running. Engaging in exercises that strengthen and expand the muscle mass in your ankle will safeguard the ligament in the event of a twist or when navigating the trail.
♦ Hill repeats: Hill repeats [which involve sprinting up a hill and then jogging or walking back down] should certainly be incorporated into your initial set of exercises. “Trail running is always accompanied by unexpected steep climbs and descents, varied terrain and uneven patches. Hill repeats can help you power through them,” says Sharma.
♦ Balancing exercises: Exercises for balance improve your form when you run through a trail. Just trying to balance your body while standing on uneven surfaces, along with certain yoga poses, can help.
♦ Improving explosive power: Trail running could involve little bumps and imperfections along the path. “Explosive power is required to triumph over these challenges without losing momentum. Plyometric workouts can be used to enhance explosive power,” informs Sharma.
♦ Choosing appropriate footwear: Choosing the right footwear for trail running is crucial since it shields your feet from uneven terrain and lowers the chances of injury. “For stability and grip on uneven terrain, trail running shoes usually have aggressive traction patterns and strong outsoles,” says Vidyadharan. “To ensure comfort and safety when navigating varied trails, look for shoes with a sturdy, lightweight design and ample cushioning.”
- Trail running is done on natural terrain, usually unpaved trails through forests or hills. The diversity of the terrain improves the body’s overall muscle engagement and balance.
- Trail running reduces the risk of injuries like IT band syndrome and plantar fasciitis, as you’re not overusing the same muscle groups as you would on the road.
- Injuries during trail running can be prevented by strengthening the ankles, performing balancing exercises and hill repeats, working on explosive power and choosing the appropriate footwear.