Benefits Of Time Running Trails

Trail Running

Trail running covers a wide variety of terrain and locations from city parks, local footpaths and bridleways, to forest trails, open moorland, and mountains. With a little research, your off-road terrain is easy to find and you can benefit physically and psychologically by getting on the trails.

Let’s take a few minutes to delve into some of the benefits of trail versus the more traditional surfaces of tarmac, track, or treadmill.

Increased Proprioception

Proprioception is the body’s ability to understand where it is in space. In scientific terms, proprioception is the sense though which we perceive the position and movement of our body, including our sense of equilibrium and balance These senses depend on the notion of force. Proprioception allows us to complete physical tasks without thinking much about them. This is important in all the elements of triathlon. Improving your proprioception can lower postural stress.

Changing Foot Strike

We can break this into three basic changing variables:

Undulating Terrain

Terrain can change from flat, to differing gradients and angles of surface. This causes very minor changes to foot strike and subtly alters the initial contact point with the ground. This changes the peak stress point (the point where the greatest bio-mechanical stress occurs). When the foot lands in a limited way, the peak stress point remains the same. An athlete’s body absorbs 2.5 to 3 times body weight with every run stride (for a 80kg runner that’s 200 -240kg every stride). On the road that force is hitting the same peak stress point every pace.

Uneven Terrain

At the foot/ankle this changes the amount of movement that occurs (pronation or supination). As trails are more uneven, the types of movement varies throughout the run. This spreads the load more evenly as at times it is more and at other times less. As this changes, so does the associated stress loading. There is also varying subtle differences in the use of stabilising muscles to compensate for terrain, again spreading the overall load.

Changes In Surface

Trail surfaces vary from soft, softer, to being compact, or stony. This adds another dynamic to trail running. In this instance, it is the impact forces that can vary, depending on the surface and terrain underfoot. On stony surfaces, the impact forces are higher, (similar to the road) whereas on a softer surface they are lower. This can lower the cumulative impact over the duration of the run. The combination of variance in foot strike, terrain, and changing surface creates a more dynamic run environment. Each footstep is subtly different and so is the stress point. This works to strengthen smaller muscles and tendons that often don’t get worked in other training environments.

More Muscle Groups Working And Working Differently

Trail running, due to the variations discussed, causes activation of a wider range of muscle groups when compared with a constant, more consistent, surface such as tarmac. The varied surface of the trail increases the workload of smaller stabilising muscles such as those responsible for stabilising feet, ankles, knees, and hips; as well as increasing the workload of core muscles.

This helps to ensure you work a wider range of muscle groups. Potentially this can make you a more robust and balanced runner. As your best running line may not give the opportunity for a clean, linear, foot placement as on the road you are again utilising a greater diversity of muscles. Greater variation in muscular contraction occurs, depending on whether you are running uphill, downhill, or on flatter terrain. This can amount to whole life physical benefits.

The Core

During running, core and stabilising muscles work to hold the body in position and maintain stability. The dynamic nature of trail running, compared with running on the road, requires a greater level of activation and engagement of these muscles. This can help make for a more robust and stable runner. Another whole life benefit.

Varied Surface = Varied Loading

The diversity of the trail compared to the road, track, or treadmill, can reduce the overall impact and loading experienced during a run. The work rate of your running muscles is increased. The variable running surface means your muscles and tendons won’t get the same level of energy return from a consistent surface as in other environments. Therefore muscle workload can vary with each stride to drive you forward. This can strengthen your soft tissue structures associated with running and improve muscular endurance. More whole life benefit.

Improved Economy

The uneven nature of trails improves strength and core stability. The eccentric loading from downhill running strengthens key muscle groups and improves joint stability. Downhill running particularly increases the strength of the knee extensor muscles. This may reduce injury risk and increase knee extensor strength and stability around the knee joint, so playing a part in improving run economy.
Overall, reduced levels of impact allow you to recover quicker and vary training load (duration/intensity) which is an important factor in long-term improvement of running economy.

Varied Intensity

As trail running involves varied work rate with each step, ascent, descent, twist and turn, when compared to regular surfaces, there is more power variability. Heart rate and power intensities may vary according to the demands of the terrain. This variation in work rate can be beneficial for overall improvement.

Improved Co-ordination And Reactions

Due to the rapidly changing conditions under foot, differing foot placement options, and line selection you can improve your co-ordination and reaction at speed. This is due to your mind being more engaged in the practicalities of each foot strike. Yet more whole life benefit.

Psychological Benefits

The focus on every foot placement and optimal running line which trail running requires is akin to mindfulness. To deal with the variation of terrain and surface you need to have a greater level of awareness than when running on other surfaces. You need to be present in every stride (to maintain balance). The trail is constantly changing and requires constant concentration on the task. This creates a sense of moving meditation. Add in the positive health benefits of being in green spaces and you have a significant emotional plus.

Connecting with nature is something that scientists are starting to understand more about and are identifying links to mental health, psychological well-being, and physiological health. These links may also explain why moving naturally in nature is associated with improved immune function.

So many reasons to add this dimension to your training and life and enjoy ‘trail time.




Ian is a British Triathlon Level 3 High Performing Triathlon Coach. He has raced at all distances, formats, and levels over 3 decades in the sport. He seeks to enhance his athletes’ training and racing experience. He is an advocate of balanced training which offers improvements or bonuses to all aspects of an athlete’s life, not just the finish time. He is always happy to discuss your goals and training.