My recent discoveries in trail running have lead me to conclude that it could be a form of rehab in its own right…
For a long time my running consisted of just 2 routes. Left or right. I'd stand on the sea front and decide if I headed east over the cliff tops or west along the crowded, but flatter, promenade. Throughout 4 months of marathon training all my runs consisted of going either left and east or right and west or, a combination a little of both in a circular route. It's only recently when I reached the usual point on my easterly run where I turn to head home, that I started to wonder, why not just keep going?
So one day I did and went on an 'exploratory run'. Each new run lead to discovering more routes. I'd wonder 'where does that path go?' and the next run I'd find out. I started to choose different routes and paths and got more and more off-road and onto trails, and loved every minute of it. I'd come home after, splattered with mud, my shins itching with nettle rash and with a host of greenery trapped in my shoe laces. I went from dodging tourists to hurdling sheep and was rewarded with stunning views.
But views weren't my only pleasant discovery, I found something else…all my niggles and aches disappeared…
Despite running long distances over challenging terrain and including more hills than I've ever done before I have far less pain running on a trail than I do on the road.
I'm not the only one to find this, so how can trail running reduce pain and help injuries?
It's all to do with repetitive load – running on a fairly uniform surface stresses the same areas of the body over and over again. Those areas become overloaded and you start to develop pain. Trail running involves a variety of different surfaces – I usually run over grass, mud, gravel and forest ground with treacherous tree roots. This variety means the load on the body is constantly changing rather than overloading certain areas. It may also act as its own rehab – your body adapts to the constant challenges to your control and stability. Running a trail becomes like an advanced balance work out.
When might trail running not be such a good idea?
Running a trail requires good balance and stability, if you struggle with this then you may need to work on it first – assess and rehab your balance. It may be that trail running will do this for you as long as you don't do too much too soon. The biggest concern though is usually recent history of ligament injury or joint instability (a joint that gives way or feels unstable). Common injuries of this type are ankle sprains or MCL injuries (injury to the Medial Collateral Ligament of the knee). If you suffer from recurrent sprains or instability it may be wiser to stick to road running, or more predictable flat surfaces until you have improved your stability.
How to introduce trail running
Like any change in running it's best to introduce it gradually. Start by including some grass sections in your runs, then find short trails to add in before slowly increasing the distance. It's sensible to continue some road running, especially if you are training for road races – a mixture of training on road and trail often works well. Remember the weather – road running in the wet can be a little treacherous but trail running in poor conditions can be very slippery and muddy even quite dangerous. Be safe – off the beaten track it's easier to get lost and much harder to hail a cab if you pick up an injury – take your phone, tell people where you've gone and, if possible, run with a partner. Tackling unknown trails is exciting but can be more orienteering than running! On my most recent 'exploratory run' I covered 17 miles in 2 hours 50 mins. Of that time only 2:16 was spent running, the remaining 34 minutes was spent wondering where on earth I was! For long runs consider taking an OS map or using an App on your phone. Also worth carrying some fluid and a little food, especially if you're heading deep into countryside.
Final thoughts: trail running can be a welcome change from the repetition of roads and may even have benefits for your balance and stability. You'll find yourself experiencing awe inspiring sights too, like this….