Trail Running to Prevent Injuries
By: Dr. Peggy Malone
I am a runner. I like to run. For many years, I have run in organized events from 5km all the way to marathons and lots of distances in between.
Through my years and experience as a runner, I have suffered my share of injuries. Most of them were repetitive strain or overuse injuries that occurred from putting one foot in front of the other for thousands of steps in a row on a flat hard surface.
I don’t begrudge the road or my insistence on continuing to run on the road despite ending up in pain on more than one occasion.
I got the benefit of the fitness, the finish line and the knowledge of what those injuries feel like to take back to my practice with me so that I could find ways to help other athletes skip that part of the running experience. (or at the very least help them recover if they happen to end up in a similar state)
After all of that road running and accompanying injuries, I started heading off the road and into trail running.
Trail running has become my new passion and it’s how I have been spending my fitness time through this past spring, summer and fall.
I love the feeling of heading out through the woods on a single track trail covered in roots, rocks and up-and-down hills. The sites, sounds and smells along the way really make for an all round awesome workout experience.
Along with having this wonderful exercise ‘date’ with Mother Nature, there are some other benefits to putting one foot in front of the other on a trail.
The challenge of the terrain of a trail which can include rocks, roots rolling hills, mud and puddles forces you to stay focused in the moment.
I personally find that when I am always focused on my next step, the burning in my lungs and my tired body are less of a distraction than they might be on the road where I don’t have to stay as focused on my footsteps.
Running on a trail will also improve your balance, coordination, and strength while decreasing the risk for repetitive strain or overuse injuries.
If you put one foot in front of the other repetitively for thousands of steps in a row on a flat surface, which is the case with road running, the same muscles are doing the same job every step.
This makes you susceptible to repetitive strain or overuse type injuries such as shin splints, plantar fasciitis, iliotibial band syndrome and Achilles tendinitis. These common running injuries are the injuries that I have personally experienced and the injuries that I see every day in my office.
There are a couple of reasons why running on trails will help you to avoid these types of injuries.
First, the earth and the trail terrain whether it is gravel, woodchips, grass or dirt is more forgiving to your body with repetitive running steps than the pavement of a road run.
The uneven, varied surfaces that your feet come into contact with on a trail provide a different stimulus to your body every step which over time improves balance and encourages strengthening of muscles, tendons, ligaments and joint capsules from your feet and ankles all the way to your hips and low back.
So essentially, instead of taking the same step every step for thousands of steps, using the same muscles…
…the trail requires different muscles every step which mixes it up and allows for your body to get stronger over all.
There are a few things to be aware of if you head out on the trails as there are some potential pitfalls in this type of workout.
First of all, make sure that you run with a partner or let someone know where you will be and take a cell phone with you. This is good practice in any kind of running but is especially important if you are heading out somewhere a bit more remote.
Even though the terrain may give your body a break in terms of repetitive strain type injuries, if you aren’t careful it can increase your chance for trips and falls, especially if you are tempted to look around while running on the trail.
It definitely is beautiful, but take a walk or water break and walk for a minute or two if you want to look around. Otherwise, keep your eyes on the few feet in front of you to avoid trips and falls.
Also, make sure to bring snacks and water with you as you probably won’t be running by a variety store any time on your trail run 🙂
It’s a good idea to run for time rather than for distance when you are out on the trails. The challenging terrain can slow down even the most experienced runners to sometimes half the speed that they might run on the road.
Trail running is something that I have fallen in love with over the past few years and I highly recommend it for some cross training or a break from the intensity of road running, especially if you have struggled with injury.
Get out and say hello to Mother Nature!
Dr. Peggy Malone is a Chiropractor and an Athlete who helps other athletes to overcome injury and get back to their sport. Her weekly Television Series ‘Living Well” inspires people from all walks of life to take control of their health to be as happy and as healthy as they can be.
A former varsity Basketball and Rugby player, she has since entered the world of endurance athletics where she has completed 2 Ironman Triathlons, 3 Marathons, several Half Marathons and many other Triathlons, Road Races and Off-Road Adventure races of varying distances.
Her own athletic endeavors and injuries have given her valuable insight into working with athletes in her practice for both the care of injuries as well as for the improvement of athletic performance.
Another great article, Peggy. I would never have really given much thought to the terrain and how that could impact your running but this article really outlines some great tips when running on rugged terrain. My biggest problem might be stopping to absorb the scenery longer than necessary 🙂
I have never been a runner, I love to get out with Mother Nature for the fresh air and to clear the mind or sometimes it gives you time to get creative thoughts which I love! Thanks!
Great article!! One of the things I miss the most of living up North are the trails and mountains:( Not many mountains here in the South..although we do have some beautiful trails. Thanks for sharing these tips…will definitely start running the trails..although I may be doing it with my children since my hubby's philosophy is..only run when being chased..lol.. Hugs! 🙂
That’s funny Dr. Daisy, my spouse has the same philosophy 🙂 Enjoy the trails!
Definitely something to think about. I never really thought about running as I have bad knees but I have been thinking about a Warrior Dash or Tough Mudder run. The trail running may be what I need to add into my fitness regimen as training. Thanks.
Great points, Peggy. Not something I've really thought about. I'm not a runner, but I spend a lot of time out walking. I have to admit, I much prefer walking and hiking on our fantastic trail system or up in the mountains here–didn't realize there was such a great physiological benefit to my preference.
Great post! I started having problems running in school and that was due to running in tarmac.
I bet it's such a good feeling running through the woods 🙂
I walk, alot. At nearly 50, I am mindful of my health in ways I ignored when younger, and see the benefits accumulating. Nice to read about all the ways my preferred exercise regimen is helping my body!
~RJ, the HOPE Coach
WOW! Great article Dr. Peggy. I used to run years ago but stopped since my knees were really sore. Now, I walk with my 2 dogs, 3-5 times a week and for about 5-6miles. Love the beautiful scenery and meeting people. Love to connect with nature!
Very interesting and makes sense. I am not a runner, but love to walk ~ particularly on the beach. The resistance of the sand makes a difference in muscles used, somewhat like trail running I guess. Too bad I live amidst miles and miles of flat farmland ~ there are few trails (and no beach!) here, but when I get a chance I will take your suggestions 🙂
Trail running, what a great alternative! While I love working out, running has always been out for me because of the shin splints. (and because I find it kind of boring!) However, I love nature and walking trails, so why not turn it into a real workout? Thanks for the advice and the safety info.
For us city folk, what's the next best thing to trail running?
The next best thing would be to make sure that you are cross training. If you only have the option of flat concrete/asphalt to run on, you definitely want to make sure you are balancing out your workout with other activities that will help to decrease the chances of injury.
I am not a trail runner, but it was very interesting post, I learned a lot from here and going to share this with others, who are runners!! Thanks a lot for sharing Peggy! 🙂
Great post Dr. Peggy. I never realized the impact that running on different surfaces had on the body's ability to strengthen itself. Very cool =)
I love running. I haven't run trails yet, but I definitely will add this to the list.
I knew running on the pavement can be hard on your joints, but it never occurred to me that trail running would be easier on your joints while working other muscles.
I'd love to see brain scans or some type of science of people who run on a treadmill verses those who run a beautiful nature trail. Not much of a runner, but I love walking and hiking, and there's a huge difference in a nature hike than walking the sidewalk.
I love all of your posts, Peggy! You inspire me to want to run. I have had 2 spinal fusions, so I will check with my neurosurgeon the next time I go to see what my options are. I had them in my 30's quite a few years ago 😉 I do walk, and do isometric and isotonic exercises as well as leg strengthening on my Total gym. Thank you!
Even walking on the trails is highly beneficial Susan! And you get the benefit of the beauty of nature 🙂
Not sure I'd be up for trail running yet–just now starting to rebuild my health after several years of neglecting myself. But I do love walking/hiking in the gorgeous area around the Pacific Northwest. Great to hear how trails can specifically help my overall strength.
You will be getting great benefit from walking/hiking on the trails as well Elise! It’s so good for you (and more than just physically) 🙂
Well – I must admit that I know next to nothing about running, but I certainly admire those who do! Keep up the good work, Peggy… x0x
The LEARNED Preneur @ NormaDoiron.NET
Keep them coming! Lorii at http://www.manifestingmydestiny.com
I'm a non-runner also – but reading this, I can imagine the thought of running through the woods, along the gorgeous park trails I walk, sounds far more enticing than that of running beside roadways full of vehicle fumes. Thanks for the advice and inspiration!
Great article- so many people forget how easy it is to get on a trail not only in the north but right in your own city! Here's to deer dodging and mudslides for all!
Thanks for your comment Andrea! I’m glad you like the article and I hope you’ve been enjoying some trail running this fall 🙂