6 Health Benefits of Trail Running

Two women running on an open grassland trail.

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If you're tired of running the same routes on city streets or on the treadmill, then trail running may be a great way to break the boredom, reduce your risk of injury, and challenge yourself in a new way.

Trail running is exactly what it sounds like: lacing up those sneakers to clock the miles in nature. The difference between road running and trail running is that trail running is a bit more unpredictable, meaning you are not guaranteed a smooth, paved path.

While elevation changes may occur in both road and trail running, depending on the location, trail running may also have unpredictable terrain with surfaces (such as rocks, roots, and streams) that require a special shoe designed to help support your foot during this style of workout.

Health Benefits of Trail Running

According to Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D., RDN, CSSD, Associate Professor in Nutrition and Exercise Science at Central Washington University, road running and trail running share similar benefits such as improved aerobic fitness, increased muscular endurance, and a boost for mental health. While Pritchett notes the cardiovascular outcomes are likely comparable between both types of running, research has yet to determine whether trail running provides a greater cardiovascular benefit than road running. 

Nevertheless, science has shown us that trail running indeed has health benefits that extend far beyond our physical health. Let's take a closer look at these benefits.

Promotes Longevity

Good news! A recent 2020 systematic review has shown that running was associated with a lower risk of death related to cardiovascular and cancer disease states in both men and women.

Pritchett points out this review did not have specific trends for weekly volume, pace, duration, or even terrain, yet noted that some running (or jogging) versus no running (or jogging) proved to have improved health in participants as well as longevity benefits.

And, more is not necessarily better when it comes to logging those miles. The authors also noted that higher doses of running may not have greater mortality reduction benefits.

Improves Cardiovascular Health

Whether running or jogging, you are moving more than just the muscles in your legs. Yes, your heart is a muscle too! With every stride you take, your heart is pumping out blood to help support your workout while strengthening itself over time.

A stronger heart sets you up for success, just like the 2020 systematic review above noted with a lower risk of mortality seen from cardiovascular disease in participants who logged any amount of running throughout their week.

While this benefit isn't isolated to trail running, it's a baseline for further research that could look at the cardiovascular differences between road versus trail running.

Improves Muscular Strength and Balance

Amanda Brooks, running coach and author of Run To The Finish: The Everyday Runner's Guide to Avoiding Injury, Ignoring the Clock and Loving the Run, notes one of the best benefits she shares with her clients to get them on the trails is the added benefit of strength training that the terrain offers to work stabilizer muscles.

Pritchett agrees, sharing that given the varied terrain with trail running, runners may see improvements in lower limb strength, balance, and neuromuscular benefits. Plus, it reduces the impact on the joints due to the softer surface which may, in turn, reduce the risk of injury.

But, Pritchett advises moving with greater awareness as there may be a greater risk for tripping over roots or rocks. This is especially true when hydration and fueling are neglected and decision-making and cognition are impaired. 

May Reduce the Rate of Some Injuries

Running on the road is harder on your joints than running on a soft surface like a trail. In fact, you may reduce your risk of certain injuries by heading out onto the trail instead of the pavement. In a study conducted in 2020, researchers compared road runners to trail runners and specifically analyzed the impact of each on the Achilles tendon. The study authors found that road runners have higher loads on the tendon and less shock absorption that can result in Achilles tendon structure changes.

Boosts Mood and Mental Well-Being

One of the best ways to get your "vitamin N" (nature) in to improve mental well-being, says Pritchett, is to run outdoors on trails. And the research agrees!

According to a 2020 study, participants who logged up to 6.5 miles of running on trails self-reported higher wellness and health scores on the surveys. While there are limitations to this research, including the self-reported survey and limited diversity in the sample, it does complement the earlier research.

A study published in 2019 that showed both experienced and novice runners preferred specific characteristics in their running environments to gain the restorative capacity from their run, which included green and lively spaces.

Promotes Community

In a run funk? Grab your friends and lace-up together for the trails, or consider joining a running group to embrace the community aspect that running can provide.

Brooks shares that, "Trail running can bring some fun and joy back to a lot of runners, who spend their time so focused on paces when hitting the road."

While she does note there are some limitations to trail running if you are working on speed work for a road race, there are also many benefits as we've seen above, and something many of us have missed over the past year: connection!

How to Reap the Benefits: Tips for Trail Running

If you are new to trail running (or running in general), Brooks offers tips to get your workout off on the right foot!

Invest in Trail Running Shoes

First, she reminds clients that trail shoes are necessary given they offer the additional traction needed when you hit the trail terrain. For those runners who are used to the road, embracing the slow down and remembering to pick up your feet is crucial.

Adjust Your Stride

"Picking up our feet sounds like an obvious thing", says Brookes, "but distance runners sometimes have a little shuffle that helps them conserve energy. On the trails, dirt will grab that shuffle and slow down your pace, so there's a need for greater awareness of your foot-strike."

Fuel and Hydrate Strategically

For those seasoned trail runners participating in trail ultra-events that can last greater than four hours, Pritchett notes the extreme demand from a physiological perspective placed on the body including dehydration, neuromuscular fatigue, inflammation, exercise-induced muscle damage, and glycogen depletion.

To prepare your body properly for these events, Pritchett points out research has shown adequate carbohydrate intake and hydration during training and races can help delay fatigue and improve performance in these situations, meaning fueling pre, during, and post-trail runs can greatly impact your overall experience with the trail run.

A Word From Verywell

Trail running provides an excellent opportunity to get outdoors while moving your body. Not only does trail running improve your physical health by enhancing your cardiovascular and muscular endurance, but it also bodes well for your mental health, too.

Consider taking a friend with you or joining a running club to interact with others to take advantage of more of the psychological benefits running can provide. And, last but not least, remember whether you are a seasoned trail runner or new to this style of running to wear proper gear (i.e. trail shoes) to help prevent injury while allowing you to get the most out of your run.

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