However, these different surfaces present varied challenges for runners – here are five of the main trail terrains you can expect to face, and some tips on how to tackle them.
When you come across a trail covered in loose sand, you can forget the feeling of a relaxing trip to the beach – sand is a huge challenge to run on, but also extremely rewarding. When running on sand, you need to cut back on your speed and intensity slightly. A study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that runners on sand exert 30% more energy than road runners, so don’t be surprised if you have to take things slightly slower than you normally would.
By doing this you’ll be able to enjoy all of the benefits of running on sand, including reduced chance of injury and balanced development of muscles in the leg. The study also found that the most effective runners on sand had a shorter stride length, to reduce overstretching and improve control and balance.
Sometimes we all need to let loose and embrace our inner child by running through some seriously muddy conditions. First of all, you need to ignore the urge to run through any huge mud-filled puddles. Although they might seem like a fun idea at the time, you’ll soon find that they hide a shoe-sucking vacuum that will steal your favourite trail trainers in seconds. Another tip to remember is that any gear you wear running through mud is likely to get ruined, so it’s probably not a good idea to opt for your brand new and expensive kit.
If you’re really determined to do some serious running in the mud, then you should consider purchasing a pair of specialised mud running shoes. These shoes boast a sole specifically designed to grip well in muddy conditions, as well as small holes that drain away excess mud and water that gets into your shoe. Look out for a pair with mesh panelling, as this will ensure they stay breathable even when covered in mud.
If you have access to a wide, flat, and closely trimmed area of grassland to train on, then you can count yourself a very lucky runner. Grass is an optimum running surface for two reasons. First off, the soft composition of grass means it exerts less impact on your legs than harder surfaces, which helps to prevent injuries. Secondly, the energy dampening effect of grass saps energy from your legs on every footfall, and this leads to stronger leg muscles due to the increased effort you’ll have to put in. However there are still dangers to watch out for.
No matter how flat the grass looks, there are likely hidden recessions in the ground and small pieces of debris, so you need to take extra special care with your footing. Learn to keep an eye on the ground directly in front of you, whilst simultaneously watching out for any obstacles further ahead.
When most people think of off-road running, they picture long runs through scenic woodland with pristine trails stretching for miles and miles. Although the surfaces usually aren’t quite as perfect as you’d like to imagine, woodland trails are still a great way of varying your training. According to running coach Jennifer Novak, woodland trails are the perfect destination for runners looking to develop leg strength. The uneven surface requires subtle alterations to your footfall and stride pattern, which varies the range of movement your legs go through, and helps to develop muscles you might not otherwise use.
As with running on grass, the most important thing to remember when running on woodland trails is to focus on the route in front of you, and to pick a path free of obstacles. If you’re prone to ankle injuries it may be best to avoid woodland trails altogether, as the uneven surface will put your ankles under more strain than road running.
Although you’ll be hard pressed to find actual cinder running tracks nowadays, you will still come across cinder surfaces on manmade pathways through woodland and parks. Tightly packed cinder chips are generally a lower impact surface than roads, so they can be a great option if you want to give your legs a slight respite from pounding the pavement.
However, cinder is particularly dependent on the weather, so it’s best avoided if it’s been raining (the surface will be loose and slippery) or temperatures are below freezing (the cinder will be frozen solid, and tough to run on). If the cinder you are running on is particularly loose, you could even choose to run in spikes to give you that extra bit of grip.