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Training & advice

Trail running perspectives from Mitch Phillips of Stride UK

Trail running for many people seems a more challenging effort than running than a nice flat piece of tarmac. Some runners choose to ‘road run’ as it feels that it’s less stress on the body and that running off road could make them susceptible to injury. Here at StrideUK we believe that to be so far from the truth. 

Here are a few reasons why trail running could be the more energy efficient and the injury prevention modality to be practising. 



Road Running

Trail Running

Road running can promote running in similar pathway of motion, loading and unloading the same muscle fibres in more of a repetitive manner, leaving you vulnerable to repetitive weakening by running in the same manner, all the way.

Running with inclines breaks the chronicity of taxing the same muscle fibres as different muscle fibres come out to play to deal with a few more ups and downs. Despite it initially feeling like it’s a harder effort of the system, sharing the load across different gradients helps the body recover at interchanging moments.

Running on a hard surface gives you very little shock absorption when you run as the ground often gives you very little back to help cushion ground-force reaction.

Running on more of a natural surface gives you far better shock absorption as the ground can be more porous, hence more forgiving on the calves, quads and glute muscles. Running on an uneven surface challenges your ankle joint (subtalor) to move in many more angles than running on a flat even surface. By challenging your ankle joint plays a huge role in helping strengthen your ankle and surrounding stabilising muscles.

Running without a mild hill or two is likely to prevent the calf from loading and unloading any differently. This means that your calf would become hardcoded to function within a limited range of movement. This could make you vulnerable to injury if a race does include a hill or two. For the record, hills don’t have to be K2 to upset your calves, something as subtle as a 2% gradient will alter your foot placement relationship with the ground and will require your calf to lengthen. Mindful that we take approximately 1600-1700 steps a mile, something that seems so insignificant can create an accumulative effect on your muscle fibres. 

Running up a hill helps lengthen your Achilles and calves as your foot can often go into a great dorsi-flexion (toes up) when the gradient increases. This is very important window of opportunity to allow your calves to purr along a flat route with little reason to complain. And as we know, when goes up, must eventually come down! Hill running may throw in a few ascents, but it’s always likely to be complimented with a few descents that will allow your body to recover and capitalise on your pace while you’re pointing your body downhill instead.  

 Food for thought – shoe technology
If pronation/support shoes were designed to help reduce ‘pronation’ and help ‘support’ the foot. Would this technology have any place or function when running off road on uneven surfaces? Surely, different rules must apply as no engineering in the shoe can cater for the constant rolling in and out and crazy foot placement that can happen when negotiating a dirty uneven path. 

Summary - For greater robustness, strength, balance, cardio and shock absorbing potential, go trail. If new to trail, avoid exposing yourself to the similar distance you would do on a flat, this also applies with the time or intensity too. Your body would need time to adjust to this multi adapting, muscle building, ankle strengthening environment. You may find that your cardio may complain too for the first few runs. If you’re completely novice to trail running, the most sensible way to start your trail relationship would be to go out for no more than 5 minutes to allow your body to adjust and adapt whilst reducing the likeliness of injury happening going too far too soon. Providing your body feels happy with the 5 minute run, think about adding a further 5 minutes every time you run until your typical distance has been achieved. 

 If training for a half or full marathon, reducing your mileage on a hard non porous surface is likely to help reduce the arduous repetition of running on single pathway of motion which I believe leaves your body more susceptible to injury.

If variety is the spice of life, doing many different things, and often changing what you do, makes life not only more interesting, but more importantly, variety could be the main answer to keeping you in the race and off the treatment couch!

Mitchell Phillips is the owner of StrideUK Brighton, specialising in 3D (Three dimensional) running technique analysis to help runners overcome injuries and improve performance. For more information, please visit