• David Leith // MSc (Med) Exercise Science

Take to the Trails. But Beware: It's Tough Up There


The winter blues are rapidly approaching – a time when some abandon outdoor activities for the safety of gyms. However, many a mountain-goat live for this time of the year: they pack their pair of road runners away in favour of hardier alternatives to take to the trails. Indeed, the number of ‘trail-blazers’ in South Africa is continuing to rise and we are extremely fortunate to have some of the most rugged and technical, yet scenic and diverse trails to explore. However, apart from running off-road, how does trail running differ to road running? What benefits does it offer to our body and mind? And for those aspiring to compete, what are the unique physiological challenges that may demand tweaks to training, running style or mindset?

First-off, trail running is a completely different experience to road running. Three powerful drawing cards that may be inspiring the growing popularity of the sport are the softer running sensation underfoot, the varied terrain, and the opportunity to connect with nature. Trails are more forgiving on the body – the upward forces transmitted upon ground contact to the ankles, shins, knees, and hip, are relatively dissipated through the softer ground to protect the muscles and joints. Trails are further unpredictable and no two will be the same – they provide endless obstacles in the form of rocks, mud, river crossings, roots, sharp turns as well as steep uphills and descents. The body is challenged in multiple planes and is forced to adapt to a constantly changing terrain – meaning the risk of chronic injuries (e.g. shin splints, iliotibial band syndrome, patellofemoral pain) that plague road runners are reduced. Lastly trail running is medicine for the brain: it enables runners to escape the city, tune in to their natural surroundings and as Kilian Jornet (six-time champion of the Skyrunner World Series) describes ‘dance with the terrain’[1]. Trail running may, in fact, have a ‘biophilia effect’ that uplifts our mental well-being,[2] and it is prescribed by some psychologists as a means to relieve anxiety and depression.

Indeed, trail running may confer a host of benefits, however, this does not mean it is simply a ‘walk in the park’. Running on the mountains is taxing on the neuromuscular system and may induce marked muscle damage from the repeated and often long bouts of eccentric downhills. Millet et al. (2011) investigated neuromuscular alterations and muscle damage caused by the 166 km Mountain Ultra Marathon[3]. They found significantly more pronounced peripheral fatigue (specifically low-frequency fatigue linked to altered excitation-contraction coupling and muscle damage) compared to a similar study they had conducted during a 24-hour flat treadmill run. The peripheral fatigue and subjective pain scores were significantly greater from the plantar flexors (calf muscles) compared to the knee extensors (quadriceps), which was the opposite of the results from the flat treadmill run. The authors proposed these differences were due to the periods of steep walking and damaging eccentric contractions during the substantial descent (9500 m elevation change). Although there is a paucity of other trail-specific research, it is clear that the technicality and elevation changes unique to the sport demand specific training alterations compared to road running.

Firstly, trail runners require particularly strong, sprain-resistant ankles to safely navigate obstacles. Many runners implement plyometric (e.g. single leg hops, box jumps) training and proprioception (e.g. BOSU ball, wobble board, foot strengthening) training primarily targeted at activating the small stabilisation muscles that surround the ankle joint. Runners also need to be able to move in all planes of motion, given that on technical terrain the leg musculature will be striking obstacles in various planes or trajectories – exercises such as multi-plane lunges, medicine ball, and core stability work will likely translate into greater confidence and resilience on the trail. Technical prowess may also benefit from performing obstacle repeats – analogous to sprint repeats on the road – maintaining an eye-gaze 3 to 4 steps ahead and trusting one’s feet will land accordingly. This type of training intends to promote neural adaptations that may assist with making the optimal foot placement and line of travel during technical races. Furthermore, it may be easy during long adventures on the trails to settle into a comfortable pace; performing technical repeats or even continuing with faster interval sessions on the road, will maintain the capacity for rapid leg turnover that will likely be required on race day.

“What goes up must come down”, and for trail runners, this means building the necessary strength to overcome hills and float down technical downhills. Initially, patience may be required to conquer steep hills as runners may not be able to run the entire way with good form – instead alternating on long runs between fast walking with long strides and running with shorter strides, and progressively increasing the time spent running, may help build climbing capacity. Hill repeats are also effective at building strength quickly – these are ideally performed at a higher intensity, focusing on leaning into the hill, using short quick steps, keeping a consistent rhythm and engaging the posterior chain to pull oneself up the hill. These may take the form of short, fast repeats or long slower repeats to promote anaerobic capacity and muscle endurance respectively. Furthermore, gym strength work that prioritises the core and hip musculature (e.g. squats, lunges, step-ups, kettlebell work) may significantly enhance running-specific strength. When it comes to treacherous descents, however, dedicated training may not be enough – this requires an additional mental change: an absence of fear to run fast downhill. Although each runner will have his or her preferred technique, ‘trail gurus’ suggest looking well ahead to choose the safest line, allowing arms flap to the side to maintain balance, and leaning forward to let gravity perform its job as the runner merely controls foot placement around nature’s obstacles.

There are multiple training modalities to develop the resilience and finesse required to withstand the unpredictability of the mountains. It is important, however, to consider the unique factors pertinent to every individual’s goal event; for example, the elevation profile, terrain, technical difficulty and likely weather conditions – these will inform the specific training varieties that should be emphasised during the preceding months. During all training, however, I believe Kilian Jornet sums it up best: “think training is not training”[1] – remind your clients that they are on the trails because it’s a passion, not an obligation, and every outing is an opportunity for discovery!

  1. Jornet, K. Run or Die: The Inspirational Memoir of the World's Greatest Ultra-Runner. Penguin Books Ltd, UK (2014).

  2. Gladwell, V.F., Brown, D.K., Wood, C., Sandercock, G.R., Barton, J.L. The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extreme physiology and medicine. 2, 3 (2013).

  3. Millet, G.Y., Tomazin, K., Verges, S., Vincent, C., Bonnefoy, R., Boisson, RC., Gergele, L., Feasson, L, Martin, V. Neuromuscular consequences of an extreme mountain ultra-marathon. PLoS One. 6(2), e17059 (2011).

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