Research on running injury reveals off-road running can help prevent injury. When you get the off-road running strategy right, it makes you a much stronger runner.
Even though often considered suitable for crazy people who love running up hills, getting into some off-road running is definitely one of the most common pieces of advice given to beginner runners. As long as you break it in step by step and choose your hills wisely, swapping some of your regular pavement runs for the grass and gravel of trails and tracks can definitely help you become a stronger, more injury resilient runner.
VARY YOUR RUNNING SURFACES
The widespread belief that running on tarmac or pavement is more dangerous than running on something softer, like grass, is a myth. Various surfaces present different injury risks, but likewise they also offer various benefits. Changing the type of surface you run on allows your body to be exposed to different types of load, instead of subjecting the same tissues to the same load again and again. Given that overload is connected to injury, it makes sense to try to vary the loads each run.
The same can be said for type of footwear. Studies have shown that wearing different types of running shoes for different runs can also lower risk of injury (as long as you allow time to gradually get used to new footwear and don’t make any sudden changes in type of running shoe). The distances you manage to run comfortably on different surfaces and in different shoes may well vary, but for the majority of runners, variety does appear to be key in reducing risk of injury.
IMPROVE YOUR RUNNING FORM AND STRENGTH
The demands of running on a softer surface build the kind of strength that you’ll never achieve running on road. The obvious additional effort of having to run through mud as well as the additional focus and coordination it takes also improves your neuromuscular strength, which is the communication between your brain and muscles. Proper running form depends on this quick firing communication, so having to think a little when you head outside isn’t such a bad thing!
When it comes to running up hills, this might sound like a recipe for injury, but a slight incline actually allows you to work hard at a slower speed, something that’s usually safer than trying to work hard by running fast on the flat. Running up (and down) hills does demand a bit of coaching, therefore it’s recommended you find a running coach to help you when you try it for the first time. With appropriate advice—such as stay tall, increase cadence, make sure you don’t overstride—running up hills can actually help enhance your running forms. Incorporate those hills gradually into your weekly running program and you’ll notice the difference very soon.
BUILD YOUR CORE NATURALLY
We all have heard that we should do 10-minute planks to build a strong ‘core,’ yet we also know that trying to keep your pelvis ‘braced’ or ‘rigid’ has very little to do with everyday life. Running, like any other physical activity, is dynamic and the best way to build your core—which is actually any muscle connected to your pelvis—is by performing challenging and varied dynamic activities. The mixed terrain of off-road running creates a naturally increased need for stabilization, which means that the muscles used to keep your torso reactive and strong while running will get great exercise.
RELAX YOUR MIND
Running off-road allows you to experience scenery and landscapes that you may have never truly appreciated before, despite it often being in front of your nose. For many runners, off-road running means a very special, quality time in which you feel free and at one with nature. If you exercise regularly to improve the quality of life and reduce stress, off-road running can be just the right choice.