Health Benefits of Trail Running

Health Benefits of Trail Running

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Medically reviewed by Amy Kwan, PT

When it comes to running, your options are endless. From running on the treadmill, the track, sidewalks, or asphalt—and even running in place—there are so many places where you can catch your stride. But recently, more and more people are gravitating toward trail running, which involves running off-road on trails, grassy areas, dirt paths, mountainsides, and more. Trail running has grown by 231% in the last 10 years.

Aside from the allure of something different and the beauty of the surrounding scenery, trail running is packed with health benefits. Not only does your body work harder to stay upright and focused, but it can also invigorate the mind and body. Plus, there are plenty of races to take part in during the spring and summer months. Here are some of the health benefits of trail running and tips on how to get started.

Improves Balance

Running—or walking—on an uneven surface like a trail challenges your balance and forces your core to work harder to keep you upright. These uneven surfaces also strengthen your legs, ankles, and feet.

Not only does your body have to continually adjust muscle activity to meet the demands of running on an uneven surface, but it also requires more control to maintain balance. The result is a stronger core and more stable ankles and feet—both of which offer improved stability.

Related: The 12 Best Running Shoes With Arch Support

Helps Prevent Falls

Your neuromuscular system is a combination of your nervous system and your muscles working together to move your body. When you run on a trail, this system is challenged more than it would be running on the road or on a treadmill.

Research has shown that trail running challenges your neuromuscular system especially with regard to muscle activation, coordination, and proprioception (your ability to sense your body's movement and position). This results in improved balance and leg strength compared to road running and could help prevent falls and fall-related injuries down the road.

More research is needed before trail running becomes a recommendation for future fall prevention.

Reduces the Likelihood of Repetitive Injuries

Repetitive or overuse injuries are a common issue among runners. About 70-80% of running disorders are due to overuse injuries that involve the knee, ankle, foot, or shin.

Not only is your movement always varied on a trail, but the dirt, grass, or wood chips on a trail also provide a softer landing than the repetitive striking that occurs on asphalt, a track, or even a treadmill. That said, you may be more vulnerable to other types of injuries such as sprains and strains, especially if you are going too fast and step wrong.

Supports Heart Health

Trail running typically includes long stretches of uphill and downhill running as well as technical sections on rocky and root-covered paths that often are not part of road running. To be considered trail running, no more than 20% of paths should be paved or asphalt. This means your body—and your heart—is naturally working harder when you run on a trail simply because of the terrain.

That said, research shows that you do not have to run a lot or for a long time to reap benefits for heart health. One study found that running of any type for as little as five to 10 minutes per day at slow speeds is associated with markedly reduced risks of death from all causes as well as lowering the risk for heart disease.

Improves Cognitive Function

Navigating complex trails and a constantly changing landscape requires you to concentrate, focus on what you are doing, and control your body all at once. This means that trail running makes a greater cognitive demand on your brain than running on a flat surface like a road or a treadmill.

Research shows that complex exercises like trail running increase your perception, working memory, and spatial awareness. This means your brain is being trained to remember more and have a better sense of your body in space. It may even learn to process information more quickly because you must make quick decisions about where your feet go as you are running.

Boosts Mood

It's well established that exercises like running can boost mood and reduce the symptoms of depression. In fact, some studies have found that depressive symptoms can be reduced by as much as 58% in people with major depressive disorder after eight weeks of aerobic exercise.

Combine that with the fact that spending time in nature also has a positive impact on mood, and trail running may be just what you need to reduce stress and boost your mood. In fact, studies have found that nature therapy can dramatically reduce stress.

Being in nature also provides a sense of escape from your everyday environment and encourages relaxation, and reduces anxiety. It may even reduce blood pressure, boost immunity, and promote cognitive function.

Encourages Joint Health

While research is limited on how trail running specifically impacts your joints, preliminary studies are promising. For instance, one study found that running on trails not only promotes joint health but also strengthens and preserves the joints.

Another study found similar results. Researchers noted that running in general may be better for those with osteoarthritis (OA) than swimming or cycling. However, they do note that those with this condition need to factor in longer recovery times than those without OA. They also recommend increasing your step rate frequency when running—which sometimes occurs naturally in trail running—because it decreases the cartilage contact area and the contact pressure.

The suitability of any activity depends on the severity of your symptoms. Engaging in high-intensity or high-impact activities may exacerbate cartilage changes. Consult with your healthcare provider before participating in new activities you've never tried before.

Tips To Get Started

If you're new to trail running, the first thing you want to do is select an appropriate route. You don't want to choose a trail that is extremely challenging or has difficult terrain your first time out. Doing so increases your risk for injury right out of the gate. Instead, select a relatively flat or rolling trail that is easy to navigate. Eventually, you can add more difficult terrain, steeper inclines, and more challenges.

Here are some other tips for getting started.

  • Know the route: Make sure you know the route or put it into your GPS and consider running with a friend. Getting lost in the woods is not a fun experience, so make sure someone knows where you are running and the route you plan to take. You can even leave a note in your car describing your plans.
  • Focus on time, not miles: It will take you longer to go three miles on a trail than on the road or a track. Think about how much running you can do at a time before you start a trail. You want to be sure you don't overextend yourself.
  • Choose the right shoes: Pick a comfortable pair with good support, stability, and gripping abilities. Running shoes that are not sturdy or supportive could increase your risk for injury.
  • Dress appropriately: Obviously, you want to dress for the weather, but you also should plan for the unexpected like rain. This means make sure you have a hat or light jacket in case the weather changes suddenly before you finish.
  • Stay focused: When you run, pay attention to the trail in front of you and where your feet are landing. Injuries like a sprained ankle, twisted knee, or broken wrist can happen if you stop paying attention to where you are going and fall or trip.
  • Limit your sightseeing: Avoid looking around or taking in the scenery when you run. Instead, use the times when you stop to enjoy the sights so you can stay as safe as possible.

A Quick Review

Trail running is a great way to add interest and variety to your run. Not only does the beauty of nature calm the mind, but the workout can benefit your body in many ways. From boosting heart health and promoting joint health to improving mood and balance, the benefits are endless. Plus, getting started is relatively easy.

Choose a route well-suited to your fitness level and keep your eyes on the trail to avoid injury.

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