Off-road running such as trail running, dry river beds, sand dunes, the beach and the like can be an important part of a training program. The key of course is to answer who, what, when and how before launching into an off-road strategy.
First, let’s put one myth to rest. Off-road running is not necessarily easier (or harder) on your legs, joints, etc. than on-road running. Extensive research indicates that our bodies actually are very adaptive to the surface we run on. If we run a course which goes from pavement to grass to dirt, our bodies immediately adapt and provide a shock absorbing function appropriate to each surface. Our proprioceptive senses take care of this.
What is at play is what we have prepared our bodies to do – neuro-muscularly. The biggest injury producer is introducing any type of workout too soon or too much.
- Quantity too much (too many miles)
- Frequency too often (too many days too soon)
- Quality to high (too fast too soon or without warming up appropriately)
These issues hold true for running surfaces and terrain. This means that anyone who goes from any accustomed surface to unaccustomed surface without an integration plan (i.e. training plan) may end up injured.
Off-roading is not for everyone. You should consider the following.
- Do you enjoy nature and solitude? (Don’t let your mind wander too much, it’ll lead to a face-plant.)
- Are you secure with you ability to find direction? (Directionally impaired runners beware.)
- Are you a fairly resilient strong runner? (Fragile or injury prone runners beware.)
- Are you coordinated and can you react quickly? (Assess your face-plant potential.)
Off-roading is good for the mind. It is a break from the monotony of roads and traffic. As already stated, it is good for general strength. So when is best to off-road? Since it is not good for leg turnover it should be kept to off-season, base strength and pre-racing season. The notable exception is if you plan on racing on trails! Then you must do race-specific preparation which means run and do race simulations on trails. That includes learning trail running techniques, which I will not go into here.
Off-roading can improve general strength even passively. That means, you just head out for a steady run on a trail with rolling terrain for instance. Running in sand is great for strength training. It is running-specific and you don’t need a weight room. However, the down side is that these do yield slower leg turnover. Trails can yield one to three minutes per mile slower than roads. Remember, running fast (racing) is a neuro-muscular specific activity. Run slow to race slow. Run fast to race fast. This is easily countered however.
To get the most out of your off-roading, charge up some of those hillocks. Use good form. Don’t bend over too much from the waist. Think “power” as you run up. Change the pace and get away from just plodding along, even if only briefly. Try racing downhill and working on very quick footwork instead of long loping strides. Think: quick-quick-quick, chop-chop-chop. Don’t let your foot stay in one place long. In the case of sand/beach running, finish runs with a few quick repeats on the road or hard surface.
If you are interested in using trails as part of your training program, introduce them gradually. The number one consideration is time/miles. You may be able to run 15 miles on the roads comfortably. This does not mean you can translate that into a 15 mile trail run or even 10! The demands on your lower legs are substantially different. As a rule of thumb, start out with every other week trail runs. An experienced runner could start with thirty to forty-five minutes or so. Gauge how your feel the next day or two and then determine if you are ready to increase that. You can add another day to your schedule if you find you aren’t sore after workouts. Remember soreness is your body talking to you. Your body breaks down slightly with every workout. If it lingers for more than a couple days, it is a sign that you should proceed cautiously.
So in sum, trails are good for the mind and good for general running-specific strength development. It’s best used during your non-racing season. It’s good for off-road racers. And, finally, whether they are trails, beach or wash, introduce them gradually for the best results and most enjoyment possible.