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4 mile jog at Trinity Skyline Trail | Benefits of Trail Running

This morning was beautiful. To kick off my day I ate a opal apple & drink some water. Afterwards I went downtown and knockout a 4 mile jog at Trinity Skyline Trail.

According to Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D., RDN, CSSD, Associate Professor in Nutrition and Exercise Science at Central Washington University, road running and trail running share similar benefits such as improved aerobic fitness, increased muscular endurance, and a boost for mental health. While Pritchett notes the cardiovascular outcomes are likely comparable between both types of running, research has yet to determine whether trail running provides a greater cardiovascular benefit than road running. 

Nevertheless, science has shown us that trail running indeed has health benefits that extend far beyond our physical health. Let's take a closer look at these benefits.

An article titled "6 Health Benefits of Trail Running" presented by Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CPT, states the following points are benefits of trail running:

•Promotes Longevity

-Good news! A recent 2020 systematic review has shown that running was associated with a lower risk of death related to cardiovascular and cancer disease states in both men and women.1

Pritchett points out this review did not have specific trends for weekly volume, pace, duration, or even terrain, yet noted that some running (or jogging) versus no running (or jogging) proved to have improved health in participants as well as longevity benefits.

And, more is not necessarily better when it comes to logging those miles. The authors also noted that higher doses of running may not have greater mortality reduction benefits.

•Improves Cardiovascular Health

-Whether running or jogging, you are moving more than just the muscles in your legs. Yes, your heart is a muscle too! With every stride you take, your heart is pumping out blood to help support your workout while strengthening itself over time.

A stronger heart sets you up for success, just like the 2020 systematic review above noted with a lower risk of mortality seen from cardiovascular disease in participants who logged any amount of running throughout their week. While this benefit isn't isolated to trail running, it's a baseline for further research that could look at the cardiovascular differences between road versus trail running.

•Improves Muscular Strength and Balance

-Amanda Brooks, running coach and author of Run To The Finish: The Everyday Runner's Guide to Avoiding Injury, Ignoring the Clock and Loving the Run, notes one of the best benefits she shares with her clients to get them on the trails is the added benefit of strength training that the terrain offers to work stabilizer muscles.

Pritchett agrees, sharing that given the varied terrain with trail running, runners may see improvements in lower limb strength, balance, and neuromuscular benefits. Plus, it reduces the impact on the joints due to the softer surface which may, in turn, reduce the risk of injury.

But, Pritchett advises moving with greater awareness as there may be a greater risk for tripping over roots or rocks. This is especially true when hydration and fueling are neglected and decision-making and cognition are impaired. 

•May Reduce the Rate of Some Injuries

-Running on the road is harder on your joints than running on a soft surface like a trail. In fact, you may reduce your risk of certain injuries by heading out onto the trail instead of the pavement. In a study conducted in 2020, researchers compared road runners to trail runners and specifically analyzed the impact of each on the Achilles tendon. The study authors found that road runners have higher loads on the tendon and less shock absorption that can result in Achilles tendon structure changes.

•Boosts Mood and Mental Well-Being

-One of the best ways to get your "vitamin N" (nature) in to improve mental well-being, says Pritchett, is to run outdoors on trails. And the research agrees!

According to a 2020 study, participants who logged up to 6.5 miles of running on trails self-reported higher wellness and health scores on the surveys. While there are limitations to this research, including the self-reported survey and limited diversity in the sample, it does complement the earlier research.

A study published in 2019 that showed both experienced and novice runners preferred specific characteristics in their running environments to gain the restorative capacity from their run, which included green and lively spaces.

•Promotes Community

-In a run funk? Grab your friends and lace-up together for the trails, or consider joining a running group to embrace the community aspect that running can provide.

Brooks shares that, "Trail running can bring some fun and joy back to a lot of runners, who spend their time so focused on paces when hitting the road."

While she does note there are some limitations to trail running if you are working on speed work for a road race, there are also many benefits as we've seen above, and something many of us have missed over the past year: connection!

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