A road runner’s reasons for getting off-road

4 November 2018

I am a distance road runner, yet most of my training and mileage is undertaken on natural surfaces such trail, grass and loose packed dirt. In a typical week, my mileage would hover around the 90-100km mark with about 80% of my training runs completed off-road. Running on trail when you are racing on road may seem a little counter-intuitive. However, I have discovered that for me, trail running is not only a desirable, but also a necessary component of my training.

Here’s why:


For the love of it.

I like to think of trail running as the heart of our sport. Our ancestors ran on trails out of necessity to obtain food and to travel from one place to another.  As children, we ran on trails, exploring, finding and connecting with our surroundings.  Even now, mention the words ‘bush’ and ‘mud’ to my children and they are at the ready, beckoning me to get a move on. I think this is because there is something incredibly disarming and uncomplicated about this type of running.


As adults, hitting the trails and finding new undiscovered routes connects us with our environment and removes the monotony that sometimes comes with regimented training. Variety, clean, fresh air, an opportunity to get lost and experience new places, can be a powerful stimulus that adds enjoyment to your running-relaxing both the body and mind. There is truly something invigorating about running in the mountains surrounded by a canopy of dense forest or even on rocky dirt trails in open spaces that wind and weave for miles and miles, beyond even where the eye can see. It’s running stripped back to its most primitive state.  It’s just you, your environment, and your running.  How empowering!


I can run more?

With out a doubt, taking training to the trails has allowed me to build mileage and run more kilometres than I otherwise could manage. I was able to immediately increase my mileage significantly, simply because I was able to get in runs that I had been too sore to previously complete. Natural surfaces dampen the impact that our bodies experience when we run on hard roads and therefore, allow us to absorb, recover and rebound quicker. It means less aches and pains and more continuous days of training.  For a distance runner, this is gold!


I want to be strong.

Our bodies are amazing. They repair, adapt and respond to the stimulus and intensities we throw at them.  What this means is that opportunities to engage and recruit a variety of muscles in the performance of your training, is an excellent natural mechanism to build flexibility and strength. Trail running, even on non-technical terrain, forces proprioceptor engagement in your lower limbs and feet.  Undulating, shifting and hilly terrain influence the use of muscles that we otherwise fail to engage and can increase running efficiency.  Running on hilly terrain requires you to increase the power you put through your legs when making the climbs. It develops reactionary manifestations in our body and our ability to run downhill.


Because intensity matters.

I will often alter the course of a given run or workout to making it more taxing or to build on previous weeks of training. In this way, trail is an excellent, yet often underutilized tool, to increase the intensity of a specified workout.  Most people would attest to the fact that running off road, even on a predominantly flat course, will slow the pace of your effort down.  The reason is that hard surfaces such as the road and track provide greater rebound, firmness, and certainty underfoot.  When this is absent, the body needs to work harder to create the same level of speed.  Speed is therefore negated by unexpected stimuli provided by the terrain but interestingly, the effect of the effort may be heightened because your body has to work harder to complete the session.  Similarly, injecting hilly trail into your long runs or easy runs can naturally elevate the intensity of the without increasing the mileage.


Remember, a trail run does not necessarily mean tree roots, rocky out crops or sudden, pronounced climbs. If your training dictates a speed effort, you can naturally increase its intensity by taking it off road while keeping it safe. There are loads of off road options for runners.  Be smart, and adapt your terrain to suit your needs but don’t shy away from them all together.  You will be a stronger runner for it and if you’re like me, a happier one too!


Go exploring. Hit the trails. Find your strong.

By Anna Fitzgerald Photography courtesy of  Marceau Photography


Anna is a distance runner, writer, coach, mother and Running Mums Australia (RMA) Ambassador. You can follow her here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Anna-Fitzgerald/312715348936278