The Benefits of Trail Running to Speed and Endurance

The Benefits of Trail Running to Speed and Endurance

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    Image by: Nick Swanevelder

    Trail running seems to have exploded in popularity over the past few years. More and more people are discovering the sheer and unbridled joy that can come from running, training, and racing trails, and no doubt, many of these runners — surely some of whom were originally seasoned roads runners — are discovering that training on trails can do a wonder for their endurance and speed, particularly when racing on roads.

    If you want a little authorial ethos to backup my claims, indulge me for a moment. I’ve been running marathons and long-distance stuff since 2007, and I was running exclusively on roads for nearly a decade before moving cross-country from the Midwest to northern California. It wasn’t until I moved to California that I really began running trails more often, and in time, I’ve noticed that my speed and endurance on the roads has really been ratcheted up a notch — after feeling like I had been plateauing for a few years — and I totally attribute at least some of my fitness gains to the time I’ve spent on trails.

    Fortunately, there are a host of other benefits to running trails that extend far beyond increasing your speed and endurance. Perhaps the most obvious one is that running trails is just good for the soul, as cheesy as that sounds. In a lot of trail systems, you can only access some of the most scenic woods and countryside, not to mention mountaintops or hillsides, by foot; no vehicle can traverse there. Taking the time to unwind from the hub-bub of life can be good for your mental health, too, because it forces you to disconnect for a little while and forces you to focus on the here and now and not worry about the pending meeting you have, the thousands of unanswered emails in your inbox, or whatever other life stress you may be navigating. Finally, among many other benefits, running trails allows you to connect with an excellent community of talented trail runners the world over, folks who all share the same type of stoke that you do for “getting high” by running up and down hills and mountains, and it’ll be in this community that you could develop some long-lasting friendships, if you so choose.

    Below, you’ll find some additional insight that elaborates the connection between trail running and increasing your running endurance and speed. Reasons why this connection makes sense:

    Time on your feet matters to your endurance. If you’re training for an endurance event like a half marathon, a marathon, an Ironman, or any sort of ultra-distance, your training will likely place some importance on getting in a long run nearly every week and ensuring that you are conditioning yourself to spending a lot of time on your feet. When you run trails, you’ll find that you’re likely to be running far slower than you would be on the roads. An 8-minute road mile may take 13+ minutes on trails, depending on the severity of the trail’s ascents or descents. It’s simple math to figure out how much longer it’ll take you to run the same distance on roads versus trails, but even though trails will likely take you much longer, you’ll get the added benefit of increasing your endurance through the time you’re spending on your feet, and you won’t be unnecessarily risking injury by adding on too much volume (in terms of mileage) before you’re ready for it. 

    Trail running works a lot of the “little” muscles that are missed in road running. Depending on the type of trails you run, it’s likely that you’ll be running significantly more slowly than usual, and if the terrain is especially technical, you may find it hard to stay upright and to keep your balance at times. This challenge can do wonders for your running musculature because you’ll be activating lots of the so-called “little muscles” that you don’t have to use as much, or not to the same extent, when you’re training on flat roads. Trail running can be a strength and core workout in disguise, you could argue. Getting a full-body strength workout regularly can help you increase your running endurance and speed over time because it may lessen the likelihood that you’ll get injured from an overuse issue or a muscular imbalance.

    Trail running forces you to switch gears often. If you think of running roads as driving a manual-shift car, you’re basically cruising the entire ride in fifth gear. There’s typically no reason to have to speed up or slow down when you’re running on flat roads simply because there aren’t any ascents or descents — gravity suddenly working with you or against you — that can compromise your speed. In contrast, running trails basically forces you to constantly “shift” running gears as you navigate steep uphill, treacherous downhill, technical and root-laden paths, and anything in between. Running constantly in fifth gear can be unduly tiring over time and even perhaps increase an injury risk, but if you’re constantly changing speeds (or gears) to match what the terrain dictates, you’re never really easily allowed to be running at your fastest for long stretches. Running trails, in effect, can let you be honest with your training and keep your easy days really easy, therefore allowing your hard days — the days where you really try to ratchet up the speed — significantly harder.

    A final anecdote about trail running as it relates to increasing your running endurance and speed: when I was training for my 27th (road) marathon last autumn, a dear friend was also training for a really tough 80 kilometer trail run. We ran most of our long runs together on the weekend for a few months. If my long run included goal marathon-paced miles, then I’d stick to flats, but otherwise, if my long run didn’t have specific parameters, I’d go long on the trails with my friend, usually racking up well over 2,000 feet of ascent over long run miles each weekend. There were some long runs for me that literally took me longer to run than my projected marathon finish time, but I knew that the time on my feet would serve me well, in addition to the fact that I knew that even though I was running more slowly than usual, I was also working my muscles in many different ways than usual. Ultimately, a few months later, I successfully shattered a three-year old marathon and half marathon PR, and I completely attribute at least part of my success to including trails regularly.

    If you’re on the fence about including trail running in your training program, don’t be. It can be a seamless inclusion, and if you have any questions, talk to local coaches who know their stuff in both roads and trails, or talk to other seasoned athletes who regularly run in both domains. With a little planning and flexibility, you’ll be surprised at how easily you could include trails into your running regimen, and in time, you will be satisfied at seeing the fitness gains come, too.

    Dan Chabert

    Dan Chabert

    An entrepreneur and a husband, Dan hails from Copenhagen, Denmark. He loves to join ultramarathon races and travel to popular running destinations together with his wife. During regular days, he manages his websites, Runnerclick, The Gear Hunt, Monica’s Health Magazine and GearWeAre. Dan has also been featured in several popular running blogs across the world.