Even if you really enjoy running the length and breadth of your town or city on the roads, it is important to mix it up in terms of running surfaces. Not only will it ease the burden on your joints, the change in scenery will do you the world of good. So hit the parks and trails of the big outdoors and see the difference it makes.
Injury prevention - One of the major benefits of leaving the tarmac behind and hitting the grass, gravel, sand and groomed/rough tracks and trails, is that it gives your joints a break. Pounding pavements and sidewalks can be brutally hard on your ankles, knees and hips, so something softer is a joy for them. Even if you just mix it up on your urban runs by running on the pavement and grass verges, you are giving your joints a well earned rest and they will appreciate it. And remember that the increased leg strength you will achieve from running off road will help protect you from injury in the future. You’ll be better prepared to absorb impact no matter what surface you run on. Plus as an added bonus, it will also ease the wear and tear on your shoes.
Calorie burn - You will know off by heart by now, that running a mile (1.6 km) burns around 100 calories (418 kilojoules), but running off road will burn more. Why? Because you have to work harder. Uneven surfaces, tight corners, possible uphill sections, potential obstacles, uneven footing; all of these factors conspire to make your body work harder to stay upright, balanced and maintain momentum. The increased workload on all of your major muscle groups and some of the smaller ones means more calories and fat burning.
Muscle strength - As a result of the harder work, your muscle strength will improve and you will add explosive power to your muscle capability. Your core will benefit hugely from the increased demand for stability and balance, as well as co-ordination and power, as it answers questions that your body won’t need to ask on a flat road run. According to Louise Sutton, head of the Carnegie Centre for Sports Performance and Wellbeing at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK, the overall benefits are huge, with the muscles in your hips, lower back and abs all forced to work harder to keep your body balanced.
Running gait - On a technical level, the challenge that a different surface provides is great for your running gait and stride. You have to be on your toes at all times when you’re off road, as you don’t necessarily know what’s around the next corner. As a result your stride pattern needs to be varied and respond quickly. It is that variation that makes your stride more efficient. And remember, elite athletes who are regularly clocking 100 miles (160km) a week in training often train on trails in parks and the big outdoors, because of the benefits it brings to them technically and aerobically.
Change of pace - Running in the city tends to be mainly on the flat. But when you go off road, the scenery changes and so does the gradient. You will probably need to tackle hills and steeper gradients and that will require changes of pace. It is easy to get into a routine and a monotonous rhythm on the flat, because you aren’t technically challenged in any way. Trails and off road will make you think about your technique as you are forced to run up and downhill, which is why your technique will improve.
Variety - Quite apart from anything else the change of scenery is great for the soul. You can have too much of a good thing and even though running around your neighbourhood can be easy and convenient, heading to a new location with different requirements will keep you mentally fresh. The scenery may be stunning and the trails will keep your body guessing and sharpen your reflexes.
Active recovery - If you know the area well and you know the terrain of your off road run in advance, you can pick a flat route and use it as an active recovery run. Running off road invariably means running slower, because of the differing gradients, surfaces and obstacles you may face. But the softer surfaces and slower pace can really work to your advantage if you want to use it as an easy recovery run.
Be careful - Having said all of these good things about off road running, and there are plenty, be careful out there. The great outdoors in all its glory does present a potential risk in terms of rocks, stones, brambles, tree stumps, boulders, uneven surfaces and wildlife. Yes you can trip over a paving stone in the street, but falling over a rock in the middle of nowhere and twisting an ankle is slightly more inconvenient! So take precautions and take care.