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Pros and cons of trail running

By
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Running in the countryside is totally different to pounding the pavements.

It’s nothing like those school cross-country lessons you may not have enjoyed, especially when the wind and rain whipped your legs, it can be an exhilarating experience.

But is ditching road running to go off the beaten track better for you? We look at the benefits and drawbacks of trail running.

Less impact

It can give your feet a rest from the high impact of always running on asphalt or concrete.

If you suffer from shin splints, which is pain or tenderness running up the shin from the ankle to the knee, it may be better to run off-road as the ground is usually softer so there’s less impact.

Similarly sore knees are a problem area for some runners. If you run on a trail of grass or dirt your feet will sink a little bit which absorbs some of the impact and cuts down on some of the stress on your knees.

"When you can, run on a softer surface like grass as it’s easier on your body," says David James Professor of Exercise Science at the University of Gloucestershire.

Better work out

The nature of trail or cross-country running means your body has to work in a different way.

"Trail running is harder, your stability will be tested. There’ll be more hills and your muscles will move differently," says running coach Karen Weir.

It often involves changes of direction, jumping or swerving to avoid natural obstacles like rocks or branches. So it’ll give you a harder workout and challenge your lower body muscles as well as making them more responsive to changes as you run.

As the surface is often uneven on a trail or cross-country your core muscles will also be used for stability much more than if you were on a road.

"Trail running on softer, uneven surfaces like mud, grass and rocky paths means that the loading on the muscles is always different with each stride. So you get more of a whole body work out and less repetitive strain on the muscles and joints, in particular the ankles, knees and hips," says Claire Maxted, editor of Trail Running magazine.

Uplifting

The views when trail running can be breathtaking. There’s definitely a positive psychological element to running in the countryside, being at one with nature and appreciating your beautiful surroundings.

"Running in the countryside brings mental and physical benefits," says Karen.

Drawbacks

The components that make trail running such a great workout can also be its drawbacks.

Tougher on muscles

It’s a more varied type of running involving chopping and changing and also some challenging terrain, which puts pressure on muscles.

"There are raised risks off road," says David. "There are more components of short, sharp downhill running which means you are more liable to trips and falls."

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