Hit the Trails to Improve Your Running

6 ways regular trail running can make you a better, stronger and healthier runner

Do you only run and race on the road? Even if you spend a majority of your time pounding the pavement, there are myriad benefits to taking some of your runs to the trails. Here are six ways incorporating some off-road running into your training routine will make you a better, happier, more well-rounded runner.

1. Trail running will help you become more in tune with your body.

Running on trails requires increased awareness of not only where you’re stepping but how you’re feeling at any given moment. Learn to be more mindful of how your feet are hitting the ground and tune in with your inner stopwatch to better gauge effort levels since your pace-per-mile hardly matters on the trail (more on this in a bit!).

2. Trail running will make you stronger!

Unlike a well-paved road or revolving treadmill belt, running on trails requires that you use a wider range of muscle groups to stay upright and propel yourself forward. On the trails, rarely will your feet ever come in contact with the ground in the same manner over the course of the run, which means you’ll strengthen many of the small stabilizing muscles in your feet that road running doesn’t recruit. Also, your lower legs will get a better workout. Why? It requires more power to push off of a softer surface.

3. Trail running will soften the blow.

Asphalt isn’t a very forgiving surface on the body. I like to use a golf ball as an example. Throw a golf ball at your driveway and what happens? It rebounds very quickly and comes back to you with a lot of energy from the ground. Now throw that same golf ball at a patch of dirt or the grass in your front yard. What happens? It doesn’t come back as quickly because the softer surface absorbs all of that energy, thus softening the blow. Now imagine that this is your body coming in contact with the ground over the course of a 3- or 5-mile run. Yes, trails will slow you down a bit, but they’ll also absorb the impact forces on your body much better than the roads. Striking a healthy balance is key.

4. Trail running provides a nice mental break.

When you’re racing regularly on the roads, running intervals on the track or logging a lot of miles on the treadmill, it’s hard to escape the pressure of checking your pace or hitting a mileage target. On the trails, mileage and pace hardly matter—focus instead on the amount of time you’re out running and the perceived effort you’re putting out, whether it’s an easy run or challenging workout.

5. Trail running will make you a better athlete.

A good trail will throw a lot of variables your way: steep hills (both up and down), varying surfaces and unpredictable obstacles. Running on trails will help you improve your footwork and proprioception, strengthen your core and develop lateral movement skills that road and treadmill running don’t require.

6. Trail running will challenge you in new and different ways.

There’s an element of unpredictability involved in trail running that keeps many runners away, but the lessons learned from embracing and overcoming these challenges—i.e., conquering a monstrously steep hill, navigating a tricky stretch of rocky terrain, finishing a tough 10K route—will translate to your off-trail running, helping you realize that you’re capable of more than you thought you were.

Mario Fraioli
Mario Fraioli is a Bay Area-based running coach who works with a number of Olympic Trials-level marathoners and internationally ranked ultrarunners. He also writes and publishes The Morning Shakeout, a weekly email newsletter that covers running and other topics that interest him. Follow his work at @mariofraioli and themorningshakeout.com