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Health & Fit: How Your Body Handles Trail Running Versus Road Running

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Comparing road running to trail running is like comparing apples to oranges. The beauty of pavement is there’s nothing in your way; on dirt (or leaves, or rocks, or mud), you need to be constantly adjusting your body to whatever nature throws at you. Because of that difference in terrain, of course the Generally, trail running is a much more intense total- body workout than road running , and strength training can really help beef up all the muscles that will help you tackle dirt and vert. Workouts that specifically target strength and stability are going to give you the most bang for your buck, developing

How Trail Running Is Different from Road Running . Read this before you transition from running on concrete or pavement to trails . picture-425-1479752003. "Anytime you transition from road and smooth pavement to trail and undulating terrain, there's more stress on the body and mind," says triathlete and running coach Bob Seebohar, R.D.N., C.S.C.S., owner of eNRG Performance in Littleton, CO. The terrain is uneven and the verticals typically steeper, so you'll burn more calories.

Your body works slightly differently when you're trail running vs road running. Learn how to prepare for both. © monkeybusinessimages - Getty Images Your body works slightly differently when you're trail running vs road running. Learn how to prepare for both.

Comparing road running to trail running is like comparing apples to oranges. The beauty of pavement is there’s nothing in your way; on dirt (or leaves, or rocks, or mud), you need to be constantly adjusting your body to whatever nature throws at you. Because of that difference in terrain, of course the physiological demand on your body will be different.

If you’re thinking about transitioning your runs from the road to the trail, here’s what your body (and your mind) should expect.

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So how should you unite road and trail running in your athletes’ programs? Both probably have a place but as always, it’s best to start with their goals and work backward. If a client is taking aim at Leadville, the XTERRA Trail Run Series, or other events that will take them off road , then they need As well as taking the balance between trail and road work into account, you’ll also want to consider training targets. It’s doubtful that even an off road legend like Kilian Jornet could keep up the same pace while heading up a steep, windy trail as he could if he was on a flat, well-maintained road , so be

The trail running community is generally pretty awesome. I think the camaraderie and support from your fellow runners (even if you're fiercely competing) during trail races sets them apart from your typical road race. I’ve been an elite runner for more than half my life. You may have heard of me when I was a teenager - I made the World Championships at 17 and broke the high school American record for the 1500m.

You’ll Use Different Muscles

No matter what terrain you’re on, you’re always putting one foot in front of the other. But on a flat, smooth road, “it’s all about metronomic efficiency,” says David Roche, a running coach in Boulder, Colorado, two-time USATF trail 10K national champion, and coauthor of The Happy Runner: Love the Process, Get Faster, Run Longer. “You’re generally repeating the same motion over and over and over again.”

This repetitive movement results in a more even distribution of the biomechanical load, adds Stephanie Howe, Ph.D., a running coach and Western States 100 champion. “Your quads, your hips, your hamstrings, your glutes, your calves—they’re all kind of working in harmony to propel you forward,” she tells Runner's World.

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I've run trails before, but today I got my butt kicked. On the road , I'm used to a 7:20-7:45 easy pace, but today on the trail I averaged a 9:05. A few questions: **Is this normal? If so, what's the "ratio" or relationship of road times to trail times? **What's the best way to run trails ? Is it best to stay steady throughout? There are a few ways to prevent this. Some form of tape on your nipples, generously apply some Vaseline or BodyGlide to said nipples or you can invest in a synthetic based shirts that wick sweat away from the body , like Dryfit, Coolmax etc.

But on a flat, smooth road , “it’s all about metronomic efficiency,” says David Roche, a running coach in Boulder, Colorado, two-time USATF trail 10K national champion, and coauthor of The Happy Runner : Love the Process, Get Faster, Run Longer. © monkeybusinessimages - Getty Images Your body works slightly differently when you're trail running vs road running . Learn how to prepare for both. Comparing road running to trail running is like comparing apples to oranges.

On a trail, where you’re navigating roots and rocks and ditches with every step, that biomechanical load is much more varied. “You start to get everything from side to side movement, eccentric muscle contractions on downhills, different engagement on steep uphills,” says Roche. “There’s a far greater demand on your hips and your stabilizer muscles.” (Think: glutes and core.) Those are the muscles that connect to the pelvis, plus the little muscles in your ankles and feet. Those stabilizers are especially important, because while primary movers like your quads may be doing the lion’s share of the work, these smaller muscles are what help you stay upright when confronting obstacles or unstable surfaces (hence, why your ankles might be sore after a long trail run!).

Generally, trail running is a much more intense total-body workout than road running, and strength training can really help beef up all the muscles that will help you tackle dirt and vert. Workouts that specifically target strength and stability are going to give you the most bang for your buck, developing your primary movers while challenging those smaller muscles as well.

The Best Hiking Apps for Trail Runners

  The Best Hiking Apps for Trail Runners We asked seasoned trail runners which apps they turn to when they want to clock miles through the woods.Apps meant for planning out hiking treks and mountain biking adventures can help you find the best trails to find your stride. And they’ll tell you everything from elevation gain to current trail conditions. Some even let you download maps to use for navigation offline when you’re in a cell service dead zone.

Trails are constantly changing. When running on a rugged mountain trail your speed, footing, balance, scenery, surface, incline, pace, temperature, and even your company can change dramatically from moment to moment. On trails , you don’t necessarily get into a zen rhythm of laying down fast mile after fast mile. Physically, trail running puts different stresses on your body than road running . I suffer from achilles tendonopathy, which flares up when I try too fast a pace on hard surfaces. In trail running , each step is different, helping to make your feet stronger and more flexible.

You’ll Damage Your Body Differently

Of course it’s possible to feel sore after a road run—that repetitive motion and constant turnover can lead to chronic overuse injuries. But a trail run is likely to have a more acute effect, mostly due to one factor: the downhills.


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Whether you’re on the road or trail, your quads eccentrically contract (or lengthen) and then rapidly contract (or shorten) to propel you forward. On downhills, which you’re more likely to encounter regularly on a trail, your quad muscles lengthen more than they would on a flat or uphill, putting more tension on the muscle fibers. That eccentric nature of downhill running induces more lower limb muscle damage for up to several days after exercise, a 2020 scientific review published in Sports Medicine found. Not to mention, soreness in those lesser-used stabilizer muscles is the norm for new trail runners. “It’s often underestimated how much that energy cost is if you aren’t used to moving that way,” says Howe.

On the plus side, dirt, gravel, and grass are natural running surfaces that have significantly less impact on your bones and joints than running on concrete or asphalt. “There’s just more room for absorption there,” says Howe. “You don’t just hit them like pavement, they have a little more give, which is gentler on your body.” For example, road runners experience higher loads on the Achilles tendon and less shock absorption compared to trail runners, which can increase the likelihood of injuries, according to a 2020 study published in the journal PM&R.

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Your Technique Will Vary A Little

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to proper running form. Everyone’s individual mechanics differ, but you can optimize that form to boost performance or prevent injury. In road running, the goal is to lock into a pace and maintain your form and technique throughout a run. Out on the trails, you need to be more reactive to what’s ahead of you, says Howe—and “your form is going to change depending on how technical the terrain is, what the surface is, if it’s up or down.”

Uphills and downhills require different mechanical patterns, says Roche. The uphill will force your stride to naturally shorten, and “you want to have a slight forward lean from the ankle, so your center of gravity is slightly forward,” he explains. That’s going to help propel you forward and up.

On the downhill, the tendency is to overstride, which will actually be more damaging to your muscles. Short steps will protect you from that, and “you want to move your feet as rapidly as you can tippy tap them while still maintaining good posture,” says Roche. “That will let you adjust on the fly. The best downhill runners are moving their feet fast enough that any misstep is already corrected for by the next step.”

Your Mental Approach Will Change

One of the nice things about road running is, as long as you know where you’re going, you’re free to zone out and almost go somewhere else in your mind. At the same time, a road or track allows you to really push your limits in terms of pace—even when you’re in an almost meditative headspace.

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That's not the case on the trail. “A trail forces you to be present,” says Howe. “You can’t totally disconnect, because you’ll fall on your face.” That doesn’t mean you can’t get into a flow state on a trail, it’s just the kind of flow state where you’re present and aware of every step you’re taking. “It’s like a mindfulness practice,” says Roche. “Your mind can wander, but you come back to whatever you’re doing over and over again.”

Trails also force you to slow down—in a good way. The best way to stay in the moment on a trail is to ditch your watch, or at least stop paying attention to your splits. “Pace on trails does not matter,” says Howe.

Plan your a trail run based on time, not mileage, and “try looking at it from a bigger perspective, like how long it takes you to do a certain loop or finish a climb in one section,” she says. You may not be checking off certain workout milestones, but you better believe that hard work on the trail will contribute to whatever bigger goal you’re working towards, whether better stamina, a stronger body, or even a new road or trail PR.

road versus trail runners © Ash Bartholomew road versus trail runners

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