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We’re not ones to hate on a treadmill run or a road race (never!), but trail running has some unique benefits of its own, and too many runners fail to take advantage of the twists and turns beyond their front door. Only 23 percent of runners said they were interested in running a trail race, compared to 75 percent of runners interested in a half marathon, according to Running USA’s National Running Survey.
But there are benefits to switching up your scenery. “Trail running is a great way to connect with nature, see beautiful landscapes and escape the noise of the road,” says Cyndi Wyatt, REI Outdoor School instructor who leads trail-running courses around the country. And that means benefits that last long after your heart rate goes down: Research shows that spending time in nature can reduce anxiety, relieve stress and even make you more satisfied with life in general—no small perk.
Not to mention, all those hills strengthen your lower body like crazy, especially your quads, calves and glutes. “A thousand feet of elevation gain during a marathon is considered challenging, so if you spend your cross-training days summiting a 5,000-foot mountain, a ‘hilly’ road race will feel like your warm-up,” Wyatt says.
If that’s not enough reason to explore paths less paved, trail running also forces you to focus on technique in a way that road running, quite frankly, can’t. “The basic fundamentals of form are the same on any surface, but the stakes are higher on the trails,” Wyatt says. “If you don’t want a sprained ankle in the woods, you can’t cheat.” This means trail running can help instill habits that reduce your risk of injury and make you a stronger runner overall. Here, she explains how.
You’ll adjust your cadence.
A faster cadence (aka how many steps you take per minute) can help prevent injury by minimizing the impact on your hips, knees and ankles, according to a Sports Health review. Your cadence is important because it affects where your foot lands. “And to avoid injury, it should land under your hips, not stretched out in front of you,” Wyatt says. What does this have to do with trail running? Your cadence naturally increases to keep you stabilized among all the rocks and roots.
You’ll listen to your body.
“The quietness of nature allows you to focus on your breathing and pay attention to any aches and pains before they become injuries,” Wyatt says. “You’re 100 percent in-tune with everything that’s going on.”
You can train at a higher intensity with less impact.
The pavement is hard on your joints, Wyatt says, but a softer surface allows you to train harder with less force on your hips and knees. Consider heading to a trail (even a flat one)—instead of a sidewalk—for your next sprint session.
You’ll learn to push through the tough parts.
Every run has its hard and uncomfortable moments (lookin’ at you, mile 23), but trail running has a unique way of sharpening your willpower. “If you’re on a remote trail, you have no choice but to stick it out—there’s no Uber, no train and no distractions to take you out of the moment,” Wyatt says. “Just you and your drive.”