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Why Trail Running is Beneficial and How to Get Started

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Trail running has huge benefits for triathletes including increased speed, strength plus it will put a big smile on your face!

The off-season is an interesting time for triathletes, and it’s tempting party and overindulge.  Rest and recuperation are a necessary part of your training cycle but it’s still important not to lose those hard-earned fitness gains completely.

Ultimately, there’s no ‘one rule fits all’, so you should feel free to experiment with how you spend the next few months. But there’s significant evidence to suggest that mixing up your training environments is beneficial for both the pure physical improvements, mental health benefits it can elicit and the variety of working out in different locations. It’s liberating to train over different environments. So maybe a time to hit the trails and don’t be afraid to get dirty!

The strength benefits from training off-road can’t be replicated in an indoor environment, nature gives us great terrain and we should use it. So, lace up your trail running shoes for this next phase of your training. 

Benefits of Trail Running

Hitting the trails, even a smooth gravel, dirt, or woodchip path, works your muscles, tendons, and ligaments (and more) differently than running on the road or treadmill. Running trails that head uphill or downhill not only build your cardiovascular system, but strengthen your quads, glutes, calves, and core, too.

The best runners in the world run hills all the time, both in their daily training and in specific hill workouts.

  • Hills can improve your running form by increasing knee lift, joint mobility, and neuromuscular fitness (how well your nervous system communicates with your muscles).
  • Hills improve muscular strength (your legs’ ability to produce force) and power (the ability to produce a lot of force quickly).
  • Hills provide added cardiovascular stimulus.
  • Learning how to run downhill efficiently can:
  • Improve your foot speed.
  • Increase your range of motion.
  • Make you a smoother, more efficient runner on any terrain.
  • Reduce your risk of injuries as you become adept at not dragging your feet crashing into the ground.

A 2006 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research discovered that sprinters who trained on uphills and downhills improved their speed and foot turnover more than workouts that only included uphills or flat surfaces. 

Running Downhill

You will more than likely be running uphill and downhill when you venture out on the trails. I live up a mountain (750 metres or 2460 feet) so when I go for a run there will always be some downhill and uphill running! Here’s what I have learnt from seven years of running downhill trails:

Perfecting the Forefoot Strike

Rather than striking your heels on the ground, focus on landing on your forefoot, to strike the ground at your centre of gravity. Never step in front of your body so that you’re leaning forward. Your body should be centred over your knees. This may find a bit strange, especially on steep downhills but with a little practice you will trust in your technique. What I found was that I needed to use a pair of trainers that fitted very well as there was some extra impact on my toes, this avoiding black toenails or them falling off completely.

Take Shorter Strides

You should take lots of small, quick steps to get down the hill. A quicker rhythm helps you land softly and spring off the ground more easily (if you hear your feet pounding the pavement, you’re doing it wrong). Your cadence and running form will improve and you’ll be getting your body used to taking more strides per minute which helps you become faster over time. As a triathlete we are aiming for 180 SPM which should be matched on the bike as 90 RPM.

Practice on a Soft Surface

Before you start to use this new technique, consider trying out your new running technique on more forgiving terrain. Since your body absorbs a big impact with each foot strike, start off on a softer terrain, like grass as you work on your downhill technique.

Running Uphill

For every downhill there is an uphill, so we do need to cover how to tackle the uphill sections of your trail run. Talk to any trail runner, and they will tell you “Pace goes out the window the second you hit dirt and vert”.

Walking during a run can feel a bit wrong but don’t stop your watch but embrace the “power hiking”. You are still moving it’s just that the hill or mountain is steep. It’s widely recognised that on any hill steeper than 15.8 degrees it’s more efficient to power hike than trying to run (i.e., reduce your energy expenditure). But everyone is different so you can gauge this yourself by how hard it feels to run versus walk a stretch of your race that is hilly.

“Power hiking” is about shifting your mindset from “I walk when I’m exhausted” to “I walk to run further.”

A lot of trail runners have effort-based goals rather than time or split based goals during training and racing. Using a scale like RPE effort level of 1-10 for a session may work better than distance, time, or Heart Rate goals.

Stay tall and lead with your chest to ensure it’s open for more oxygen intake and tap into your glutes as a powerhouse. To engage your glutes, you should be leading with your hips (or pushing them through), knees high and actively squeeze your butt!

Trail Running Plan

If reading this has got you fired up to venture out for some trail running this winter, then here’s a free trail running plan to put structure around your training.

The plan includes easy, long, Fartlek and Tempo runs plus strength work and cross training. You can test your progress with a 5k trail run (self supported or race) in week 4 and a 10k trail run or race in week 7. Week 8 is a recovery week and a good seugway into your next phase of training.

You can download the plan here.

Trail Running Equipment

You don’t need much extra kit to get out on the trails but it’s worth investing in a good pair of trail running shoes which will have a better tread, more support and wider toe box.

Depending on distance, we’d also recommend a waterproof jackethydration packfuel or gel, navigation tool (a top-end multisport watch can come in handy here), glovesheadgear and extra base layers.

Conclusion

Hitting the trails this winter will not only be great fun but also enable you to build strength, work on your running technique and make you a faster runner.

We have given you some tips on how to make the most out of every trail run, strength exercises specific to trail running plus a free structured 10k trail running plan.

Make sure you check the weather forecast before your run and dress appropriately.

Have fun mixing up your running on the trails!

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