How Trail Running Can Help Prevent Injuries

Running on variable surfaces helps strengthen smaller muscles and reduce overuse injuries

Trail running has continued to grow in popularity over the last few decades, and with good reason. Aside from the fresh air, scenic views and variety in terrain, trail running can help runners avoid more injuries.

This may sound counterintuitive given the preconceived notions some have about the challenging nature of trail running, but adding trails to your training is one of the best things a runner can do to stay healthy.

Whether you are a new or seasoned road runner, trail running can appear daunting. It may conjure up images of mountainous trails with steep inclines, treacherous declines and highly technical terrain. While that can be the case, “trails” can also be loosely defined as any running surface that’s not a road. That means your local parks, grassy fields and converted rail trails all count.

No matter what type of trail you decide to tackle, they can help you become a healthier, stronger runner. And you don’t need to run trails exclusively to get these benefits – adding a weekly trail run to your schedule, or even running a portion of your long run on a trail can be useful. Here are some of the ways that trail running can be beneficial:

1. Decrease Repetitive Stress & Increase Athleticism

Stress followed by recovery is what allows us to get faster and stronger. Think of a weight lifter who stresses their muscles while lifting heavy weights. After the appropriate stress is applied, the muscles repair themselves in a way that allows them to become stronger and more durable. But overload that stress, or apply it too frequently, and they will end up injured.

The same is true for runners. A slow, consistent progression of volume and intensity allows us to get faster. Since running is repetitive by nature, running entirely on the roads will cause you to use the same muscle groups over and over again. While this varies to some degree by changing your pace and adding hill work, the muscles and connective tissue in your feet and legs are mostly going through the same repetitive motion.

Trails add a whole new dimension to your running because of their variety. Softer surfaces decrease the impact on your joints, and the variable terrain works a much larger group of stabilizer muscles. If you’re in doubt, try going out on a trail run for 30-60 minutes. You will likely end up fatigued in body parts you never even knew existed!

Running trails forces your feet, legs and even your core and upper body to make constant adjustments.  You may find yourself hopping over roots and rocks, running a windy path through the woods, and hiking up a steep hill all in the same mile. Adding trail running to your training repertoire on a regular basis will make you a more balanced, athletic runner and reduce the risk of overuse injuries.

READ MORE: Hit the Trails to Improve Your Running

2. Hills Are Your Friend!

Not only will trails make you a more well-rounded athlete, but they can also build strength, speed and a better sense of pace. While not every trail will have massive amounts of elevation gain, the more you start to explore the more likely you are to find that trails and hills go hand in hand.

Hills–whether short and steep or a long, steady climb—will help you build strength and endurance that will benefit your road running. This is equally true for both the uphills and the downhills.

Because pace can be so variable on the trails due to the changing elevation and terrain, trail running can also help you become better at running by effort. This translates well to workouts like tempo runs and even rolling road races, where it’s essential to maintain an even effort that matches the changes in course.

Trail running teaches you to find your rhythm by effort instead of numbers on your watch, which can develop your intuitive sense of pace and help you run by feel more accurately.

3. Slow Down to Run Fast

In addition to repetitive stress injuries, many runners also end up with injuries from running too hard, too often. Ideally your training should have a balanced combination of challenging efforts and easy runs.

Trail running will force you to slow down, and that’s a good thing! Don’t expect to match your road pace—depending on the route and surface you choose, your pace can easily be 2-3 minutes slower per mile. Especially if you are new to trails, slow down, take your time and enjoy the experience.

The injury prevention benefit of running slower is that you’ll better prioritize recovery on your easy days. Even though you’re running slower though, you’ll likely need to increase your cadence to cover the terrain well. And a higher cadence almost always means higher efficiency!

READ MORE: Elevate Your Trail Running with These Tips

Get Started!

Despite all the benefits, you may still feel apprehensive about getting started as a trail runner.  A running friend or local running group can be a great resource to get out on the trails. No matter what trail you decide to tackle first, keep in mind the following:

Start slow! Take your time and don’t try to go out too far or too fast.

Run for time, not distance. If you usually run 5 miles on the road in 45 minutes, plan to run the same amount of time on the trail rather than trying to match your exact distance.

Adjust your stride. Take shorter steps, and tune in to the trail surface and surroundings.

Don’t obsess over shoes and gear. Unless you start to specialize in long, technical trail runs or ultras, your road running gear will be just fine on most trails to get you started.

Integrate road and trail. Mix it up, even within the same run!  Don’t feel like you need to go from the roads to all trails, all the time, to gain the benefits.

Be safe! Run with a friend or let someone know where you are going, and carry your phone, especially when exploring a new route.

Above all, remember to have fun! The variety of terrain, interaction with nature and scenic surroundings can make your running even more satisfying. Get out there and enjoy yourself!

Jason Fitzgerald

Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and the USATF-certified coach behind Strength Running, an award-winning blog and podcast that helps runners set personal bests. His work has appeared in Runner’s World, The Washington Post, Health Magazine and many other major media publications. Follow his work on Twitter at @JasonFitz1 and at StrengthRunning.com.