Hit The Dirt This Year!

Trail-running inspires fun workouts for newbies, road racers and the injury-prone.

Lisa Jhung |

Trail-running inspires fun workouts for newbies, road racers and the injury-prone. – By Lisa Jhung

Trail runner

With longer days, warm temperatures, and trees beginning to show some green, summer is an ideal time to get outside and hit the trails. And there are as many reasons to go off-road as there are places to run.

You don’t need to be an Olympian to reap these benefits, nor must you scramble up steep rock faces. A trail is defined as anything off-road or unpaved, including flat gravel paths and wide dirt roads.

Whatever your experience level, there’s a trail that’s right for your run.

You Are: A New Runner

Look For: Gravel paths; wide dirt trails.
These types of trails are no more challenging to run on than roads, but they’re protected from traffic and easier on the joints. Their porous nature makes them softer than pavement and concrete – a breeze to new runners who feel achy during or after road runs. Plus, exploring new routes can bust boredom.

The Workout: Head out for 20 to 30 minutes, alternating walking and running.

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You Are: Injury-Prone

Look For: Soft surfaces like grass, dirt, or wood chips; technical trails with rocks or roots (if you’re comfortable on them). Because your joints and muscles take less strain on them, soft surfaces are less likely than roads to cause new injuries or aggravate existing ones. And because fast running generates greater impact forces than slow running does, it’s good to try hilly and/or technical routes that force you to slow down. If you can handle trails with rocks, roots, and other obstacles, consider runs on them to be preventive training: Technical trails engage different muscles than roads do, which builds balanced strength that may protect you from injury.

The Workout: Start with a short run of 15 to 20 minutes to make sure no injuries flare up. Walk up (and down) steep parts to extend your time outside.

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You Are: A Treadmill Devotee

Look For: Any trail that’s convenient to your home or workplace, but a mostly flat, nontechnical dirt or gravel path is ideal.
Treadmill running has its merits, especially for runners with busy schedules. However, the more stressed you are, the more you have to gain from spending time outdoors, away from traffic and close to nature, says Walker. In fact, a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that people experienced less frustration and more feelings of calm when in urban green spaces, compared with other parts of the city.

The Workout: Go for time instead of mileage, Koop advises: Trails can slow you down, and stressing over your pace defeats the purpose.

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You Are: A Road Racer

Look For: A nontechnical surface with some challenging inclines and declines.
The nature of trails—uphill, downhill, varying terrain—forces you to run different paces, which gives you an interval-like workout without having to count your laps or stare at your watch. Plus, the softer surfaces provide relief for road runners at risk of overuse injuries.

The Workout: Try a fartlek: Run uphills at a hard effort and recover on downhills. Or, for a structured workout, adapt one you’d do on the roads. If you usually do eight three-minute fast repeats during a road-training session that’s 45 minutes long, log 24 minutes of the same intensity during a 45-minute trail run.

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You Are: Already Doing Trails

Look For: A trail that you’ve never run before, a point-to-point route that takes you to new parts of a familiar trail, or a trail race in a location that inspires you. If you already spend time on trails, trying out new areas creates a challenge that can invigorate your running, says Koop. Grab a map, tell someone where you’re going, and explore. If you’ve been itching to run a trail that’s too out-of-the-way for a normal run, register to race on it and use it as motivation to hit your local trails at least twice a week.

The Workout: Choose a route that’s 20 percent longer than what you’re used to, and build up to it.

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