While there is much to be said for specificity of training and focusing on the event you are training for, this doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy trail running. In fact, it can complement your road running efforts whether you are training for something specific, or just looking to become a stronger runner. While some may fear that trail running is too much of an injury risk, or that it won’t benefit your current training plan, there are in fact many reasons why trail running can improve your road running. In this article, we examine the question ‘can trail running make you a stronger runner?”

If you are training for a flat road marathon, the majority of your focus will be on road running. Your runs will consist of long miles, tempo runs and speed training. This doesn’t mean that adding in some well-placed moderate trail runs can’t help. For a start it can put less strain on your body and encourage you to take the “easy miles” at a slower pace.

Running on Trails Puts Less Strain on Your Body

Trail running puts less strain on your body. The softer trails depress slightly as your foot hits the ground meaning less impact and force is transferred up through your leg. This reduction in the intensity means you can run for longer and recover more quickly.

We are not suggesting you start going out and climbing thousands of feet of elevation on tough terrain. This will just be a training overload that puts strain on your body in different ways.

We would urge you to exercise caution here too. Because trail miles take longer, you are on your feet for longer – this means you don’t need to do as many miles as you would bash out in a road run.

Trail running can add a minute or two to your road running pace. Over a ten mile distance, this can be as much as 10-20 minutes longer that you are on your feet. You are also using muscles that don’t get worked as much so you must be careful not to overdo it and undo the benefits of the objective of the run – which is to take the pressure off your joints and muscles. A slow plod on a local trail for a few miles can be much better than pounding the pavements.

Trail Running Slows Down the Pace

Active recovery is so important when training for long distances. It aids in muscle memory, builds your aerobic system and muscle endurance. It also helps you recover from your efforts. Trail running can actually help you with your recovery because, quite simply, it slows you down.

Trails force you to focus on the terrain, the hills, the ground beneath you and less on your watch meaning you are less likely to get carried away running at your goal race pace. In fact, it’s a key part of how trail running can make you a stronger runner

How many of you can honestly say that you run your recovery runs 90 seconds to 2 minutes slower than your tempo runs or your intended race pace? In all honesty, many runners find it extremely hard to run slower paces and while not focusing, it’s easy to get carried away and start cruising along at your usual pace. Often, the well intentioned recovery run becomes almost a tempo run as you get carried away with the pace on tarmac.

This is where trail running offers an excellent benefit to road runners. The tougher terrain, the gates, stiles and lack of continuity will force you to slow down. You can expect to be 10-20% slower off road depending on the terrain.

Choose a soft, flatter trail for your recovery runs though. Anything too technical will be counterproductive and you will wake up with even more DOMs and fatigue.

Build Up Core and Muscle Strength

Trail running can make you stronger. If you’re familiar with trail running, you will

already know that it’s hard work at times. Especially in muddy, wet conditions where your feet sink into the ground and it’s harder to push off. Not only that but more balance is required especially when navigating tricky descents or rocky climbs.

A trail run can offer a good workout and help to build your running strength. Trail running will build up strength in muscle groups that will support the muscles used in road running. These muscles are not used in road running so it is helpful to strengthen and condition them.

Choosing a moderate hill for some hill reps is a great session for helping to build this strength. We often offer training sessions at a local grassy hill. 12 x 1 minute hill reps using the downhill as recovery, is a great little session for helping to build strength and endurance.

Reduces Stress of the Mind

Trail running is a great way to enjoy nature and relieve stress, not just on the body. Running on roads, through urban areas where you are focused on pace, doesn’t have quite the same mental benefits as running in beautiful places with stunning views. It’s one of the main reasons that we prefer trail running to road running. Sometimes it’s just nice to get out of the traffic and off into the hills.

Even if you can work a mile or so of trail into your run to ease the load and have a change of pace, you will notice the difference. It’s a great chance to slow down and take it all in.

It Keeps You Motivated

We have trained for road marathons, and we have trained for ultras. We have absolutely nothing against running on the roads but it can get quite repetitive. If you live in an urban area and are constantly running the same 5-20 miles loops, it can get quite monotonous.

Finding a local trail can break up your training and five you a fresh perspective. Keeping it fresh can help you keep your running mojo. Factoring in a long trail run in a block of road runs can give you a break and help you to find a fresh energy.

Part of the fun for us is finding new trails and new areas that we haven’t discovered before. We always advise when doing this to be safe – either explore with a friend or at least take your phone and keep your GPS on.

So, there you have it. For those asking the question “can trail running make you a stronger runner?”, we hope we have answered it.

Please note – credit for the cover photo for this article must go to a friend who is a keen road runner. He stopped to send me this photo while on a trail that I had introduced him to. He had incorporated this mile long trail into a recent road run and actually stopped to take the photo #proud!