While any run is better than no run, here are the key reasons why you should trade your neighborhood route for a natural trail the next time that you lace up your shoes for a run.
Recreationists, rejoice! October in Detroit is in full swing, along with the full harvest of outdoor activities that accompany this incredible month. While October signals the start of several hunting seasons and annual pilgrimages to beautiful destinations for hiking, biking, or paddling under the changing colors, this month also marks the final training lap for primetime road and trail races. As I write these words, runners have already completed the Ann Arbor Marathon on October 2nd, while volunteers for the Detroit Free Press Marathon and Grand Rapids Marathon are actively setting up the course for this weekend’s upcoming race. Oh, and don’t forget several Halloween-themed local races, trail races, and relays that are also occurring throughout the Detroit region this month.
With these races all coming to fruition, we understand that runners by this point likely have a training routine locked in. However, despite the mileage logged and lessons learned along the journey, dare we add one more piece of unsolicited advice:
Make your next run a trail run.
MY ROAD TO TRAIL CONVERSION STORY
It amazes me how few runners actually switch up their pavement routes for an occasional trail run. Admittedly, I trained almost exclusively on concrete for my first half-marathon - I enjoyed the speed that I was able to employ along my familiar paved routes, benefitted further by the consistent elevation while running on “tamed” surfaces. In the end, that prolonged approach to training resulted in my fastest half-marathon on record, but also shattered shins, months of recovery, and an aversion to ever running farther than a 5K again.
I didn’t run again for over a year. Yes, I had a bucket list goal to complete a full marathon (still chasing it…), but the hours spent monotonously running along the same, repetitive, bland suburban routes were as appealing as studying for the LSAT again. Relatively fresh memories of grueling physical recovery were also a massive turn off to running. But, just as the final nail in the coffin containing my running aspirations was about to be struck, I noticed a Facebook ad for a different kind of race. A 10K trail race, with obstacles, known as the Warrior Dash. Looked like fun - and the polar opposite of my first racing experience.
“Screw it,” I said out loud as I signed myself and my unknowing wife up for the race.
Fast forward a month or so to race day and, wouldn’t you know, I’m falling in love with running all over again (much to my wife’s dismay). Apart from the festive atmosphere and plethora of obstacles to keep my mind preoccupied, my favorite aspect of the Warrior Dash trail race was that my legs didn’t hurt afterwards. Yes, this 10K race had lots of intermittent non-running obstacles, but my gut told me that the absence of concrete played a role in improving my post-race physical condition. So, I started incorporating regular trail runs into my training regimen to test this hypothesis.
Well, 5 half-marathons, seven 10Ks, and dozens of 5Ks later, I whole-heartedly stand by my theory.
The injuries that plagued me during my first half-marathon have never returned, along with the disinterest and boredom that characterized each of that race’s preceding road runs. After years of simply accepting the benefits of trail running for my physical and mental health, I finally decided to conduct some layman’s research on why trail runs were a critical tenant of my training regimen.
THE CASE FOR TRAIL RUNNING
Here are the five overarching arguments for why your next run - and most runs - should be a trail run:
1. Less Impact from Each Stride
Let’s start with the obvious: running on natural surfaces consisting of dirt, leaves, mud, or grass entails less wear and tear on your joints than running on concrete. Likewise, running on softer surfaces also decreases the requisite recovery time in between runs due to the lessened risk of prolonged injury.
The science behind these benefits is actually pretty simple. When you stride forward and land on your outstretched foot, the force coming down on your foot and leg is many times your body weight. That force must be absorbed, and since hard running surfaces like pavement have virtually no shock absorption qualities, all of the force from each stride must be absorbed into your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. On the other hand, softer running surfaces like dirt paths alleviate each stride’s impact so that your legs absorb less force, therefore decreasing your recovery time and likelihood of overuse injuries.
2. Improved Running Form and Total-Body Strength
Full disclosure, I have been singing the praises of trail running as a means of improving running form for years, so I’m really thankful that the research supports those claims… While variable underfoot conditions pose a clear risk to a runner’s safety vs. road running (e.g., uneven terrain, loose rocks, roots, thick mud), the changing conditions of trail running force runners to slow down and intentionally place each stride during their run. The cumulative effect of constantly adjusting your strides is that your body is engaging a wider variety of muscles beyond just the quads, hips, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. More specifically, trail running engages your core muscles as stabilizers throughout your run due to the varied trail conditions, including the micro-stabilizing muscles that exist in your ankles and feet.
Trail runs also give runners more bang for their buck when it comes to maximizing the cardiovascular and strength benefits obtained from a run. Trail running is a much more intense total-body workout than road running, as evidenced by the greater demand on muscles needed to tackle steeper climbs on less durable surfaces. Consequently, trail runs result in greater calorie burns than road runs, therefore allowing runners to simultaneously build more muscle while burning more calories - the ultimate win-win scenario.
3. Enhanced Psychological Benefits
What happens when you remove the congestion of people, cars, advertisements, and the general overstimulation of your senses from your runs? Well, research overwhelmingly supports that the mental health benefits already received from general exercise are exponentially compounded by running in a natural environment. Especially when running through green spaces or beside water, outdoor runs have been scientifically proven to increase feelings of revitalization, energy, positive engagement, while simultaneously decreasing tension, confusion, anger, and depression. Concentrating on a rocky, muddy, or twisting trail also has a grounding effect that will take your mind off of work, domestic life, or any other real-world problems that a monotonous run can allow to creep in.
Additionally, studies suggest that nature runs boost one’s creativity and capacity to think clearly via a phenomenon called “Attention Restoration Theory.” This article is a testament to that phenomenon - I first thought of this topic while on a trail run, as well as several other articles on this platform that have either been published or are in the works. Put differently, trail runs get the creative juices flowing (along with sweat). We strongly advise tapping into that power.
4. Addition of Exploration to Your Training Regimen
While road running is king for immediate route accessibility, trail running adds a sense of adventure and freedom to running that jogging through your subdivision (or, god forbid, on a treadmill) can’t hold a candle to. Road running is often burdened by logistical barriers like stop lights, traffic, crowds, and air pollution that collectively damper the spirit of freedom and autonomy that characterizes every good run. Not so with trail running - yes, you may need to pass a hiker or two along the journey, but the trail will largely be yours and yours alone to explore and enjoy. Simply pick a destination, breath in the fresh air, and fully bask in the natural solitude that accompanies running through the Detroit region’s most scenic trails. Just be sure to keep your eyes open for the wildlife that you’ll surely encounter - I’ve almost tripped over squirrels, rabbits, and woodchucks several times, while a massive buck nearly trucked me like a linebacker just the other day…
5. Failed Runs Become Successful Hikes
We’ve all been there - you set out on a long run where everything went wrong. Regardless of whether the temperature came in hotter than you anticipated, you took a wrong turn that added a mile or two, or you had one too many the night before and forgot that your college era recovery skills didn’t graduate too, you’ve now found yourself in a situation where you bit off more than you can chew for this run. Absent a medical emergency, most runners end up walking the rest of the planned route back to their car or house. Not necessarily a walk of shame, but definitely something similar.
With trail runs, this unfortunate situation fortunately and simply turns the remainder of your run into a hike. Especially if you planned to run into a new destination that you’ve been eyeing to explore for a while, the running gods have now gifted you with an opportunity to slow down and fully-immerse yourself in a beautiful natural environment. You will still reap the physical and psychological benefits described above, but just to a slightly lesser degree. Trust us, a hike under any conditions beats the hell out of walking alongside a busy highway.
We wish you nothing but success as you close out the 2022 racing season, and we hope that you find this article useful for improving your training regimen for every running event. Be sure to check out our Destinations page if you need some inspiration for the location of your next trail run.
Whether on the trail or at the finish line, we can’t wait to see you out there.