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Hit The Dirt!

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Why and how to run off-road.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Many, if not most, elite runners who race on the roads do much of their training on trails. Nike coach Alberto Salazar’s runners, including Kara Goucher and Dathan Ritzenhein, run on the extensive network of trails in and around Portland, Oregon. Two-time marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi trains in the woods of Brooklyn’s famous Forest Park. The large contingent of Kenyan runners who make their American training base west of Philadelphia trains exclusively off-road there.

Why do elite runners avoid pavement like the plague? Because it’s hard, of course—materially hard and hard on the body. Professional road races must routinely log more than 100 miles per week to compete against others who are doing the same. That’s a lot of pounding on the old legs. By covering as many of those miles as possible on slightly softer surfaces such as dirt, wood chips and grass, these runners are able to absorb that pounding with a little less wear and tear on the muscles, bones and joints.

Another advantage of running off-road that is less appreciated is that it forces the runner to vary his stride more. Trail running tends to be hillier, to require more directional changes and lateral movement, and to demand more variation in stride length and foot action to avoid obstacles and maintain traction. Some experts in running biomechanics believe that such variations accelerate the process by which the stride becomes more efficient as the brain learns novel ways to engage the muscles.

You can benefit from training off-road as much as the professionals do. Here are some tips for making a smooth transition to the trails:

Know where you’re going.

While it can be fun to blindly explore new running trails, it’s not always wise. If you don’t take some time to research a new trail before you run it for the first time, you might find out the hard way that it is much more challenging than expected, or mazelike and conducive to losing your way, or frequented by snakes or other beasts you don’t like. Your best bet is to do your first run on a new trail with a buddy who is familiar with it.

Choose your line.

When running on the roads you seldom have to pay much attention where you’re going. For the most part you travel straight forward and you don’t have to worry about your footing or obstacles in your path. But trail running is different. Especially on highly technical trails, it is important to keep your eyes focused roughly six strides ahead, as this will enable you to choose the smoothest and safest way forward.

Wear the right shoes.

Trail running shoes have become a major subcategory of performance footwear for runners, but the truth is that trail-specific shoes are not necessary for the type of trail running that most runners do. On groomed fire roads and other fairly smooth trails, your regular running shoes will do just fine.

If you do any amount of running on more challenging trails, however, a trail running shoe may be necessary. Trail running shoes have features such as more durable outsoles, aggressive traction and waterproofing that make them better suited to more extreme circumstances.

Work on your proprioception.

Acute injuries such as twisted ankles and knees are uncommon in road running, but somewhat more common in trail running. To minimize your risk of suffering such injuries, work on your proprioception (balance and body awareness) at home every other day or so. You can do this by balancing on both feet on a balance board for 4 x 30 seconds or by balancing on one foot on a BOSU ball for 2 x 30 seconds on each foot.