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The Benefits of Trail Running

Run the Wild's Simon James explains all you need to know about Trail Running and it's incredible benefits for your physical and mental wellbeing. 

 


When most people start running, they start running on the roads or maybe in non-pandemic times on a treadmill. Running is a great form of exercise, it lowers our levels of stress, increases our sense of well-being and we all know how good being active is for our physical health. However, if you want to elevate your sense of freedom and well-being then you really need to try trail running!

What is Trail Running?

Trail running covers a wide variety of running terrain from fells to mountains, each with their niche community and kit demands. Essentially, for those new to the trails, it basically means stepping off the pavement and running on a footpath made up of dirt and grass rather than concrete or asphalt.

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Why Trail Running?

There are several key reasons why trail running trumps road running when it comes to health benefits and many of them tick those boxes which health professionals advise in order to live a healthier life.

 

Firstly, physiological benefits. It’s less likely to induce repetitive strain injuries that come from running on road as every footfall on a trail is different. It requires stronger muscles and engages the full body (arms, legs and torso). It’s less impacting on joints through softer surfaces. Finally, it takes you away from those more polluted road sides with their hazards of fast-moving vehicles.

 

Secondly, psychological benefits. It requires mindfulness. Unlike road running, you have to be present in the moment (so you don’t fall over!), the trail is constantly changing direction and combined with undulations, it requires complete concentration, a sense of meditation. Add to that the health benefits of being in green spaces, you have the ultimate form of headspace.

 

Thirdly, freedom. Your options for running different routes suddenly moves from being limited to just a few to almost limitless options!

What are the benefits of exercising in greenspaces?

Trail running truly is the ultimate freedom of movement in the form of running. Our ancestral routes lie in the wild and something magical happens inside our brains when we move through green spaces. Deep down in all of us there is a connection to the wild. Whether it’s a feeling of adventure and nervous excitement that come from stepping onto a new footpath, watching the sunrise over the mountains or staring up at the stars, it’s something that resonates deeply inside all of us. Connecting with nature is something that scientists are just starting to understand much more about, particularly in regards to its benefit to mental health. Individuals who are highly connected to nature report a higher psychological well-being, being happier with who they are as a person, their social well-being, emotional well-being and also life satisfaction and personal growth.

 

Simply walking in nature for fifteen minutes (in comparison to walking in an urban environment) increases measurably our ability to concentrate, our mental and physical energy. It can even increase our intrinsic aspirations and goals, such as how we perceive personal growth, community etc and decrease extrinsic aspirations such as money, image and fame, and even boost our immune system. That’s amazing!! 

 

Putting all of these three elements together and you have the ultimate running experience.

Where should I start?

Whatever your level of experience you can start somewhere. Don’t forget all trail runners started as non-trail runners at some point! Running is not an elite sport, it really is for EVERYONE! Do not be put off by some of the additional preparation required, just adjust your plans accordingly. Start with running in a park or on canal paths and pick days when the weather is reasonable. Run routes that are short and close to home. As you get more comfortable with running footpaths, you’ll naturally want to try more varied terrain and become more prepared for varied weather. Be mindful that you need to slow your pace down and start off steady. Tripping and falling over is one of the most common hazards on a trail, and it only happens when people either are moving too fast, are not thinking about where they are going or don’t have the right shoes on their feet! 

How do I keep safe on the trails?

Trails by their very nature are often more remote than roads or pavements, so getting help if you get lost or injured is more of a challenge. It’s also likely that there will be fewer people using them (a good thing!) so some pre-trail run planning is always necessary, be it looking at the weather forecast or plotting your intended route. When out on the trail go prepared. Most of us have lost our “outdoor sense” that our ancestors took for granted, so it’s important to always take some extra kit that ideally you won’t have to use, but ensures some self-sufficiency be it changes in weather, being out on the trail for longer, losing your way or getting injured. Manage your own expectations of your ability and sign-up to an outdoor skills course like those offered at Run the Wild.

What technique do I need?

Getting into trail running is easier than you may think but there is more to technique than you realise. A relatively straightforward countryside path is a good place to start, but if you want to head into the mountains or more remote areas then building up your strength and technique will make sure you stay injury free for longer. 

 

A trail is 3 dimensional. Watching out for loose or slippery ground, trip hazards such as tree roots, steep up and downs all add to an experience that is both mentally but also physically engaging. A strong core, good posture and foot placement as well as quick reactions require training and practise whilst a steady build-up of difficulty will help avoid muscle or tendon damage.

 

Running downhill is probably the most technically challenging with a delicate balance of trying to control but not fight the effects of gravity. If you get it right, the health benefits of running trails are significant, not only will you be using more of your core and in some cases your whole body, but also you will get stronger and build endurance by the variation in terrain. Your joints will also thank you for moving more away from the harder road surface. A word of caution though, injuries can still occur and I have definitely taken a few tumbles in my time, misjudging the viscosity of the mud or even some good old-fashioned trail furniture can wipe you out in seconds.

Do I need specialist kit?

Trail running though is quite different to road running, the boundaries are gone, and you’re free to explore a lot more of the world as a result. With this though, handy road signs, street lights and all the things we take for granted are gone and you need to now provide these on your own to create some level of security. Depending on the conditions under foot and also the weather, you’ll need some trail shoes, even if you love barefoot, skin is not always the most friction inducing compound and highly unfavourable if you want to get out in winter. 

 

Trail shoes provide better heal support, strong soles to prevent stones breaking through and large lugs to provide friction in the slipperiest mud, just some of a long list of features available. You might also want to check out a map and compass (work out how to use them!) if you are unfamiliar with the area, or an app on your phone. Carry a head torch for evening runs, as street lights don’t come as standard with footpaths! 

 

Preparing for the weather and not getting cold or wet is key. The kit list increases with distance and remoteness but starting out on short close to home runs require essentially trail shoes and a lightweight waterproof jacket.

Jen & Sim Benson are trail running.

How do I pace myself and what objectives do I set?

Running on trails is by its very nature more difficult than on a road, so throw away those PBs and minute mile expectations! The trail will dictate the pace so go with the flow. Roads will never produce the steepness trails can, nor the rocks and tree routes. Some areas of trails are completely unrunnable, especially in bad weather! So set your objectives based on the trail and leave your pacing expectations at home. 

What are the rewards of Trail Running?

The rewards though are amazing. What could have been a dull training run, becomes something that engages all your senses and is a healthy distraction from the usual weekend plod. Some of my best memories are running along mountain paths, feeling a total sense of freedom. Not only do you get to break away from the confines of the road but you have the ability to leave the stop watch at home. It’s not always about pace, as this will often be dictated by the trail. Even though you may live in a city it’s possible to find trails, be it in parks or alongside a canal. Escaping the urban though is healthy and even in the sprawling mass of London you can get out into the countryside in less than 20 minutes. Over 80% of the UK is considered rural and you’ll be surprised at how near you are to finding some trails. The rewards are great and it’s much easier to get involved than you may have at first thought. So, take a step on the wild side, you might like it!   

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