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Why trail running is better than your current cardio workout

Photo: Getty Images/Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

James Gilmore ran throughout high school and college but then took about 15 years off before resuming running as an adult. The 47-year old archivist from Maryland first returned as a road runner, but after about a year, he decided to venture onto his local state park trails. He was hooked. “It took me back to my old cross-country days,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Plus, there’s just something right about running in nature — as if that’s how running is intended to be.” Since that first trail run, Gilmore has become a regular in the woods, even logging several races, all the way up to a 100-miler. He appreciates not only the mental and emotional benefits of the trails but the varying and challenging terrain they present. “It definitely requires a different set of muscles than the road,” he says. “You’re jumping over logs, streams, rocks, and other obstacles.” This combination of physical and mental variation provides plenty of overall health benefits, says California-based David Roche, professional runner and coach. “For many people, trail running can be more engaging than the road and bring lots of joy,” he says. “There’s the potential to cut down on injury because you’re switching up muscle groups, and there’s less chance for self-judgment because the pace isn’t relevant to the road.” Sound inviting? Before stepping onto the dirt, it’s worthwhile to do a little upfront prep to make the most of what will certainly be your new favorite workout. Add some muscle Roche says that runners need to know that strength matters when it comes to trails. “You need the ability to be resilient and powerful,” he says. “You’ll be jumping over things and running down steep hills. Your body needs to be able to withstand that.” Ryan Smith, a Maryland doctor of physical therapy and level one CrossFit trainer, says road runners are accustomed to running in straight lines on predictable surfaces, a very different environment from what a trail delivers. “If you’re not ready for it, your body won’t do a good job handling the variability and side-to-side motion that trails present,” he says. This is where some specific strength work can come into play. Smith recommends spending some time outside your shoes to strengthen up the feet and lower leg muscles, which will be challenged differently on trails. “Incorporating some drills like plyometrics, hopping, sidestepping, that kind of thing, will go a long way,” he explains. “Do it all in your bare feet to work those muscles more efficiently.”

Feed the machine

Trail running can be a time-consuming endeavor, because you’ll cover ground more slowly on dirt than you would on the road. Long climbs, tricky obstacles, the occasional stream crossing, and other factors all mean more time on your feet. This is where food intake becomes more important. “You really need to feed the machine, or your body breaks down,” says Roche. “Make food your friend.”

Practice makes perfect

You aren’t going to hit the trails and instantly maneuver around them like an expert. “Be prepared to fall,” says Gilmore. “In my first year on trails, I fell on just about every run. It’s good to learn how to fall and navigate the terrain.” Roche says you can expect to improve the more often you get out there. “Practice your technique whenever you are on trails, and you’ll get better,” he encourages. “My wife (professional runner Megan Roche) used to think she was bad at running downhill, but in one of her first big races, she discovered her training had taught her to run them well.” Gilmore advises mindfulness on trails. “You can’t go on autopilot like you can on the road,” he says. “Pick up your feet and be aware of your body and how you move through space.” Smith recommends easing into trail running by taking it slowly. “Start out with some simple run/walk combos,” he suggests. “Build up your volume slowly.”

Keep the speed

While trail running is by nature slower than road running, Roche recommends keeping up some of your usual speed work on the roads, because it will carry over to the trails. “When you run trails, you don’t hold a steady pace,” he says. “You’ll have downhills, uphills, and everything in between. If you focus on improving your running economy by running short, fast sections a few times per week, it will translate nicely to the demands of the trails.” At the same time, remember that you won’t hold similar paces from road to trail, so don’t get frustrated or worry that you are becoming a slower runner. “Unless you’re running on flat, packed dirt, your road times just won’t translate,” says Gilmore.

Gear up

There’s not much difference in the gear you need when you switch from the road to the trail, but there are a few pieces you might want to consider if you find yourself a convert. “You really don’t need expensive trail shoes,” says Gilmore, “but you might eventually want to find a shoe with a reinforced toe, an aggressive tread, and maybe a rock plate to protect your feet.” Roche adds: “If you start going longer, you might want to consider a handheld water bottle,” he says. “The beauty of running in general is that it’s simple.” Gilmore still keeps a healthy portion of his running on the road, but when it comes to where his heart belongs, there’s no contest. “I’ve enjoyed trail running for the laid-back camaraderie,” he says, “and also because it’s so freeing.”

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