Forget for a moment about the quiet serenity of a run in the woods. About the peace, solitude, and freedom. About the clean air and gentle breeze. And about the absence of cars, crowds, smog, traffic lights, and asphalt. On second thought, 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 mile than road running is,” 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 crush more calories—about 12 percent 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 pavement, thanks to less-jarring footstrikes on softer, grassy ground, according to research published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. And in all likelihood, you’ll see your 10K time drop dramatically. “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 also benefits your brain, helping you feel revitalized and energized 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 journalEnvironmental Science & Technology. Therein lies the real reason why nearly 7 million people a year trade sidewalks for singletrack: Trail running is fun as hell.
Unplug the treadmill, head outdoors, and discover for yourself.Follow these training tips to help you make the most of every step.
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 become overexerted. The result: a much shorter workout that ends a lot farther from home than you would like. So do what the pros do: Run 30 to 60 seconds slower per mile than you normally would on the road. “This might seem too slow at first,” says Torrence, “but after a few hills, you’ll realize that you need to preserve energy.” If you still feel like you’re going too slow, increase your pace by 5 to 10 seconds per mile.
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 to 15 percent higher than you normally do. “That’ll keep you from stumbling,” says Nelson. And don’t look directly down at your feet—that’s another road-running habit. “Keep your gaze about 20 feet ahead of you at all times so you can anticipate obstacles instead of letting them surprise you,” he says.
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, and not necessarily cardiovascular fitness. Power really comes into play,” he says. The key to conquering them is to be explosive: When you’re running up a hill, approach each stride as you would a stepup 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.
Don’t Ride 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 tactic is better; 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 90-degree angle to the slope and take short, quick strides, keeping your feet under you. “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.”
Bring a Lifeline
“The greatest draw of trail running is the solitude,” says Nelson. “But that can also be its greatest danger—if something goes wrong, a nice lady in a minivan won’t be there to pull over and help you.” For backup in the event of an emergency, carry your cellphone—but set it on airplane mode. “That way you won’t be interrupted by calls and texts,” says Nelson. “You’ll also never regret having a camera to take pictures.” Before you set off, be sure to let someone know where you’re going, the route you’ll be taking, and how long you expect to be away. Need a reason? Watch James Franco in 127 Hours.
Find Your Balance
Varied, loose terrain requires more balance and coordination than hard, flat roads, Torrence says. Indeed, the inability to react quickly and find equilibrium is what leads to most trail-running injuries, including sprains and strains (to say nothing of cuts, bruises, and breaks). Unless you want to risk having to limp home from 10 miles out, do stability-building moves on days you don’t hit the trail. Torrence’s recommendations: goblet squats, single-leg squats, and stepups, all performed on a Bosu ball. Do 3 sets of 10 reps for each move, resting as needed.
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: “Do intervals on hills,” says Rickey Gates, winner of the 2007 USA 10K Trail Championships. 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 1 minute. Jog down to the start at half that speed. That’s one interval. Do 15. “If that doesn’t exhaust you, you didn’t go hard enough,” says Gates.