Picture heading outside for a run and never having to stop for street lights or slow your pace to maneuver around strollers on the sidewalk. Better yet, imagine if your workout could not only score you a fitter heart, but also net you side effects similar to a meditation session or a walk in the woods.
Trail running, the most popular sport in America according to a 2017 report by the Outdoor Foundation, boasts an impressive roster of benefits to both your mental, physical, and perhaps even spiritual health. Here’s why you should consider trading in the treadmill or pavement for greener routes, and how to stay safe while doing it.
To learn more about trail running, we consulted fitness coach and ultrarunner Crystal Seaver on what keeps her coming back to the trails as her main form of training. For Seaver, the biggest win is the opportunity to escape the fast pace of life and get connected to the peace of the forest. “Trails are not tied to your watch,” she says. “And going through varied terrain forces you to keep attentive and engaged in your surroundings, making exercise become a getaway instead of a workout.”
But you don’t have to take her word for it: science shows our bodies love the increased oxygen levels and lack of wi-fi that come with engaging in “green exercise.” A study published in the Journal of Extreme Physiology found that being in nature reduced heart rate and blood pressure while increasing mood and self-esteem when compared to a rural landscape. The study also concluded that time spent outdoors led to faster walking at a greater physiological effort (verified by heart rate and blood lactate), suggesting that people perceive exercise to be less demanding when performed in the natural environment.
Compared to pounding the pavement or trodding on a treadmill, trail running may also offer a more effective workout. The benefits of jogging on uneven surfaces often come in the form of improved balance, greater muscle engagement, and less impact on joints, which experts note is ideal for those who deal with knee pain, IT band pain, or shin splints as the soft trail surface promotes tendinitis prevention—as well as increased agility and lateral movement.
In addition to stronger stabilizers, trail running can elicit greater glute and hamstring engagement if you train on a route with hills.
Before jumping onto your first big trail, it’s wise to get your feet wet (or should we say, dirty?). Start with a relatively flat trail with soft dirt or wood chips to get your muscles used to the unfamiliar terrain. As it becomes easier, gradually move onto more challenging terrains. Research trails in your area in advance or ask other runners to recommend a good “beginner” route.
Secondly, prepare your body in the gym. When asking about cross training, Seaver recommends incorporating bands and bodyweight exercises into your routine to complement running on an uneven surface. Strength exercises that target your core, as well as hamstrings and glutes, will go far when you hit those unpredictable paths.