Why trail running is the best route to success

Trail Running spoke to Professor Greg Whyte, one of the country’s leading sports scientists, about the benefits of running off-road

Pic credit: Squay Valley Alpine Media

Pic credit: Squay Valley Alpine Media

While we can’t promise any shortcuts – anyway who wants to go that route when trail running is involved – what we can say is that lacing up your shoes and heading out for an off-road run is just about the best thing you can do when it comes to sport. Trail running will get you fit for anything and everything. It’s better than a gym session, better than eating a special superfood and certainly better than – dare we use such a four-letter word in public – the road. 

We all sort of know that an hour in spectacular scenery, continually shifting your bodyweight to adjust for uneven surfaces has to be better than, pounding the pavement, but it’s nice to have it in black and white. So here it is.

Professor Greg Whyte, who coached David Walliams to swim the channel, has some great things to say about the sport we all love so much. Feel free to quote him the next time someone says running is bad for your knees or it’s boring. As trail runners, we really do know what works.

Climb every mountain

Invariably road runners like to run on flat Tarmac. The secret weapon with trail running is the hills. However, it’s not just about the uphills that are good for you but the downhill as well. You get the double-whammy effect of concentric strength (developing power) as well as eccentric strength (building mobility and improving balance) coming down. Twice the work in half the time! Plus, because running up and down is unpredictable, you tend to run harder. To do quality speed sessions, road runners stick to the Tarmac or track, but a fartlek is far better over rough variable terrain. You also start to find that you can work far harder and sustain the effort
for longer because you are constantly changing environment. The psychological stimulus of being in ever-changing surroundings increases the motivation, meaning you get greater gains for the same input.

A spot of fresh air

Trail running is a great form of fitness, no matter what your primary sport. All the stuff you get from exercising is magnified when we do it outdoors. Research shows that being outside is more impactful on your mental health. People who exercise surrounded by nature are generally much happier, have greater vigour and better self-esteem. Those who exercise outdoors also find their perceived exertion (RPE), – how hard they think they are working – reduces, making the exercise more enjoyable. What these people tend to do is run harder for longer. If you add in the benefits of vitamin D, natural light exposure and the impact at this time of year on seasonal affective disorder, huge benefits can be gained from trail running and being outside in winter.

Variety is the spice of life

The true beauty of our hobby is that no two trails are the same. You can even run the same trail in the opposite direction and it’s a completely different trail. A key benefit here is the variety of conditioning. As part of a standard road run you get normal running conditioning. Off-road, however, as well as the improvements in strength you get running up and downhill, you will improve stability and proprioception, so in effect you are getting a much better bang for your buck.

A cure for gymphobia!

Core strength is often neglected, but unlike road runners we don’t have to go to the gym to work on it. Trail running is all about stability and running economy. You get in-built core work running off road because of that ever-changing terrain. You have to be stable and not just through the ankle but through the whole core. A strong and stable core will make you more economical as a runner, thus increasing your speed and stamina. 

Reap the benefits

Road running is all about linear endurance. Repeating the same action again and again overloads the joints and muscles in the same fashion continually. Trail running overs the same benefits as cross training. Running off road changes the way your foot strikes the ground, varying the loading that creates. The road is uniform and involves a steady repetition of the same strike, while the trail can be rough, muddy and undulating in almost any combination. That means you have to continually adjust proprioception around the ankle, knee and hip so you are much more aware of where you are placing the limb. You can then use this new-found strength on the road to improve your stability and reduce the risk of injury. 

We ran with Greg on a Fitbit watch test, appropriately enough midway through an hour-long trail run