Forget for a moment about the quiet serenity of a run in the bush. About the peace, solitude and freedom. About the clean air and gentle breeze. And about the absence of cars, crowds, smog, traffic lights and concrete. In fact, go ahead and think about those things – each is reason enough to head for the hills. And here’s another: you’ll get fitter faster by hitting the trail than by pounding the pavement.
“Trail running is a better workout per kilometre than road running,” says Ian Torrence, winner of 53 ultra trail marathons. In fact, he says, the two pursuits almost qualify as different sports. “Trail running is more difficult than road running because the terrain varies constantly, forcing you to adapt your technique and use your muscles in new ways.”
With each stride, you’ll not only incinerate more kilojoules – about 12 per cent more, according to researchers at Appalachian State University – but also build greater core and leg strength. Plus, you’ll sustain fewer wear-and-tear injuries than you would on the road, thanks to less-jarring footstrikes on softer ground, according to research published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. Another bonus? “Running on roads feels a lot easier after you’ve trained on trails,” says Torrence. “Most guys discover that their race pace picks up quite a bit.”
Need another reason to kick up some dirt? A long run in a natural setting benefits your brain, helping you feel revitalised and energised while reducing tension, anger and depression. And those positive vibes can have a snowball effect: you enjoy exercising outdoors, so you’re more likely to keep seeking out that enjoyment, according to a review in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Therein lies the real reason why nearly seven million people a year trade pavements for single-track: trail running is fun.
So unplug the treadmill, head outdoors, and discover this for yourself. The training tips, gear and destinations on the following pages will help you make the most of every step.
1 Dial Back Your Pace
“The biggest mistake people make is trying to run trails at the same pace as they do roads,” Torrence says. If you don’t adjust your pace to the more challenging terrain, he warns, you can easily overexert yourself. The result: a much shorter workout that ends a lot further from home than you would like. So do what the pros do: run 30-45 seconds slower per kilometre than you normally would on the road. “This might seem too slow at first,” says Torrence, “but after a few hills, you’ll realise that you need to preserve energy.” If you still feel like you’re going too slow, increase your pace by 5-10 seconds per kilometre.
2 Leap Obstacles
When making the switch to trails, road runners often adopt a short, shuffling gait because of the uneven footing. “There are a lot of rocks, roots and other obstacles to trip you up,” says Luke Nelson, Patagonia’s trail-running ambassador. “But hold on to your long, smooth road strides.” Try to lift your feet 10-15 per cent higher than you normally would. “That’ll keep you from stumbling,” says Nelson. And don’t look down at your feet – that’s another road-running habit. “Keep your gaze about 5-10 metres ahead of you at all times so you can anticipate obstacles instead of letting them surprise you,” he says.
3 Charge the Hills
“Much of running trails well has to do with technique,” Torrence says. The exception to that rule is hill running. “Hills are all about general fitness, not necessarily cardiovascular fitness. Power really comes into play.” The key to conquering them is to be explosive: when you’re running up a hill, approach each stride as you would a step-up in a gym. “Lean into the slope and drive up and forward with your entire lower body,” says Torrence. You want your hip, knee and toes to be fully extended with each stride. “The ‘triple extension’ of the hip, knee and toes is where true power lies,” he says.
4 Don’t Sit On the Brakes
“Most people’s instinct is to take downhills slowly, because bombing them gives you the sensation that you’re out of control,” Torrence says. In reality, the opposite is true – it’s safer to pick up your pace. “Your momentum will carry you forward and provide stability, whereas putting on the brakes increases the possibility of your feet slipping out from under you,” he says. Adopt a 90º angle to the slope and take short, quick strides, keeping your feet under your hips. “It takes practice, but it gives you more balance,” says Torrence. “You’ll know you’re doing it right if you aren’t sore the next day.”
5 Find Your Balance
Varied, loose terrain requires more balance and co-ordination than hard, flat roads, says Torrence. Indeed, the inability to react quickly and find equilibrium is what leads to most trail-running injuries, including sprains and strains (not to mention cuts, bruises and breaks). Unless you want to risk having to limp home from 10 kays out, do stability-building moves on days you don’t hit the trail. Torrence’s recommendations: goblet squats, single-leg squats and step-ups, all performed on a Bosu ball. Do three sets of 10 reps for each move, resting as needed.
6 Max Your VO2
Running performance in any environment – but especially on trails – is largely determined by the maximum rate at which your body can consume oxygen, a measure known as VO2 max. The best way to boost your lung power: hill intervals. Make them a regular part of your weekly routine with this workout: find a long hill and run up it at a fast pace for one minute. Jog back down at half that speed. That’s one interval – do 15. If you’re not prostrate at the end, you didn’t push hard enough.