Running has returned with a vengeance. Every week I hear about yet another race being planned—be it a half marathon in the city, a 24-hour run inside a stadium or massive ultra-marathon distances on a hilly trail. But before you just jump and sign up for any of those races, you need to figure out if you are ready for any of these terrains.
Each runner has a different running style. But it is also very important to factor into consideration the running surface. For most of the city runners, used to running on tarmac roads, suddenly shifting to softer silicone tracks in a stadium might feel great (extra bounce equals less effort), but running on natural trails can be doubly hard.
“In my opinion flat roads or treadmills are ideal for avoiding any injuries like an ankle sprain, but it also gives an edge on concentrating on breathing and pacing. A simple uphill run, on the other hand, can build great stamina as the intensity increases and is a great way to involve your quads, glutes and calves,” says Alka Rao Yadav, nutrition and fitness coach at online fitness and nutrition community Fittr.
But running on trails can be tricky if you are not used to it. More often than not, trails will be uneven, and may also have vegetation and rocks or twigs strewn about. “A runner has to be extremely attentive while running on a trail because every single step can be different. You have to learn to think with your feet. If you are slow while making decisions, you might just twist your ankle while running on a trail,” explains Rajat Chauhan, sports-exercise medicine physician, and race director of La Ultra. If you are a first time trail runner, you will need to train to transition. According to Dr Chauhan, just “hitting the gym” will not work in your favour. You need to do specific strength training exercises that help you on the steep uphills, sharp turns and even on downhills.
On a trail, where you’re navigating roots and rocks and ditches with every step, the biomechanical load is much more varied. “In general trail running is much more strenuous on the body and athletes have to understand that even at slower paces the effort is sometimes as much if not more when compared to running on road or track. It’s very important that athletes keep that in mind, and plan proper recovery sessions post trail runs,” says Pune-based Kaustubh Radkar, triathlon coach, Garmin Run Club.
According to Radkar, since trail runs involve a lot of lateral movement, along with eccentric muscle contractions during downhill, when compared to usual road running, there is a greater demand on stabilizer muscles such as the hips, glutes and core. These are muscles that trail runners should focus on while strength training.
Along with that, consider the basics. Your shoes cannot be the regular running shoes, trail running shoes need better grip. A regular (road) running shoe’s life will be decreased by a third if you use it on the trail. Your selected shoes should offer better traction, foot protection, and stability. Moreover, choose your attire carefully. Wear breathable fabrics, but something which might give you better cover, as trails might have more trees and thorny bushes, or even insects. A headlamp, GPS watch and basic first aid kit could also come in handy. Carrying your own water and food, in case you are doing longer distances, is always a bright idea.
“A common mistake a lot of runners make while transitioning to the trail is to expect their pace to remain unchanged. This then causes them to push extra and at the first instance of carelessness, an injury can happen. On the trail, it is much better to run by effort and not by pace,” points out Dr Chauhan.
The way you run can also be tweaked on the trail. Keeping your strides short can help you maintain balance on uneven terrain. It is a good idea to keep your eyes on the ground—maybe 10 feet ahead of you to look out for any rocks or shrubs. On uphills, we often feel like slouching or leaning forward as that seems to make the run easier. But keeping your back straight can help you with breathing efficiently. On downhills, resist the urge to go too fast or to lean back. This can prevent injuries and muscle fatigue. And on a run which might go on for hours, you don’t really want to be limping or holding your back.
Trail running is often remarked for its meditative qualities. While on the one hand, you have to be alert of your surroundings, on the other you have to let go and just concentrate on taking one step at a time. That is surely going to help you conquer your first trail run.