Don’t be afraid of a little dirt

When I wrote about my summer trail race, I noticed a pattern to many of the comments: people were afraid to try trail running for fear of getting hurt. I can understand having those fears, but I also want to allay them to some degree. In fact, I’d argue that trail running brings with it less chance for injury than road running.

Yes, you might fall during a trail run. I just took a good one on Friday. But other than a few scratches and bruises, I’m just fine. Yes, you might twist an ankle: I sprained mine badly years ago on a trail run when I descended a bit too fast and wasn’t paying attention like I should have been. But if you look at my years of running, more of my injuries have occurred from overuse on the roads, and those have been injuries that took longer to get over than those I’ve sustained on trails.

I think a couple of factors play into making trails gentler on your body than the road. One is that you use a much wider variety of muscles when you trail run, so you’re less likely to overuse particular body parts. You also strengthen muscles that might get neglected when on the road, and this can only help build a stronger overall machine, one that is less prone to injury.

Secondly, trails force you to slow down. You’re going to be paying closer attention to your footing, plus you’ve got lots of ups and downs. You can’t help but to slow things down. Injuries from the road often stem from too much speedwork. By taking a slower break on the trails, you give your body a chance to catch its breath and repair damage.

Finally, the softer surface may do your body some good, too. I’m a believer that a softer landing via good form has more to do with the impact running has on your body, but I also don’t discount the theory that dirt is easier on your body than asphalt or cement.

A few tips to make the going easier:

  • Take a buddy
  • Go for time, not miles
  • Put more space between you and the person in front of you than you would on the road–this helps you spot hazards
  • Pay attention to the trail markers
  • Embrace the dirt!

Bottom line–yes, I’m trying to sell you on doing a little bit of mileage on the trails! The more I do it, the more I love it. I believe it’s not only gentler on your body than the road, but tons of fun as well. There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a kid than playing in the woods!

So tell me–do you love trails or do you fear them? 

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  1. says

    I just know my ITB was happier with me running off road! Even though I live in the city, I ran every trail or park that I encountered on my runs and I believe it’s been an integral part of my recovery. Makes you stronger too!
    Sherry recently posted..Getting FasterMy Profile

  2. says

    For the last few years, I’ve alternated road marathon seasons with trail 50Ks. Not only do they keep me from getting the overuse pounding injuries, but it also strengthens those little, lesser used muscles through your entire body as you struggle more to stay upright.

    That said, at my last 50K a month ago, I fell hard and tore up my knees REALLY badly and am now a little afraid of rocks and roots. The confidence will return eventually and I’ve got some killer scars, but I wouldn’t give up trails for the world.
    Karen@ La Chanson de Ma Vie recently posted..Devil’s PunchbowlMy Profile

  3. says

    I have a friend who does most of his running on trails now. We were talking about rolling ankles (since I’m prone to that) and he’s found that the ligaments in his foot have adapted. He can roll, twist or contort his ankle in so many different positions now, that it just pops right back up with no damage. I’m still interested in doing more trail running it’s just that I can’t find anyone with a similar schedule as me to do it with! I don’t feel comfortable being out by myself on a trail. I’m still looking though!
    Angela @ Happy Fit Mama recently posted..The Most Meaningful MilesMy Profile

  4. says

    Love the title of this post. When I plan my runs I make sure I always go off road, it makes it a little more exciting for me plus it is better on my feet. Softer ground is the way forward hehe.

  5. says

    This is a very good point. Unfortunately, the closest trails for me involve a 20 minute drive and when I get an hour in the morning to workout that doesn’t usually work out. If I don’t go in the AM I’m forced to take the stroller which definitely does not bode well for trail running! One day!
    emma @ a mom runs this town recently posted..What Gets You Going?My Profile

  6. says

    I LOVE trail running and it’s not injury that scares me but getting LOST! I need to find a trail running buddy to show me the ropes of a few of the local trails so I don’t end up on the 11 o’clock news!! Thanks for this post – I’m ready to get my woods run on as soon as that last half-marathon is done:-)
    Allie recently posted..VITA-MERICAL or My Blog CommercialMy Profile

  7. says

    I think you know how I feel about trails :) If I could scrap the road all together I would. I love trails and especially back there. In SoCal I am afraid of rattlesnakes during the warmer months, so by late fall, I’m chomping at the bit to get out there. If it’s really early morning, I’ll still go out in the summer. Really great tips and information!
    LisaM@RunWiki recently posted..10 simple tips for running your first half marathonMy Profile

  8. says

    I love, love, love trails. I actually did all of my Boston long runs up on the trails/foothills and it was great. Nothing prepared me for the rolling course like 2,000 foot inclines and it kept me doing some slower training and the soft ground was WAY easier on my body than 20 miles on streets!
    Sheila recently posted..The Impromptu 5kMy Profile

  9. says

    I was one of those who feared trails until I found myself on them during my last race! I did love that you really have to pay attention and be in the moment when on a trail; and I can definitely attest to the fact that you use muscles differently – ouch! But I really enjoyed the experience and will be adding some trail miles in the future.
    Michelle @ Running with Attitude recently posted..Eliminate Can’tMy Profile

  10. Katie O says

    I love the trail run, but can’t my HR moniter to work when I am in the woods. How are you doing easy MAF runs on the trails?

    • MissZippy says

      My HRM works just fine out there, so it’s odd that yours doesn’t? And of course, there’s walking involved in the really big, long climbs!

  11. says

    I would love to do some trail runs, but I don’t feel comfortable running the trails without a running buddy and those are very hard to find:/ Most of the trails I would run are a bit far away and I wouldn’t want to run them alone. Trails are super fun though!
    Rachelle Q recently posted..Five For FridayMy Profile

  12. bob says

    I’m not even sure if there are any good trails nearby. I’ve never thought about it. Still enjoy running on roads, and like the challenge of remaining injury-free on pavement. Ran a marathon yesterday, and I think I’m about to go out for a run in a minute. I guess I’m doing alright, because I’m not too achy today. Taking a break from racing for a while. I’ve set some modest PRs so far (3:37 yesterday) but I think it’s time to try the MAF stuff and build a better engine.

      • bob says

        So much for downtime… Went 9 today and 6 yesterday. Really didn’t expect to feel this good. I think I might use this marathon as my last long training run before another one in October, and try tapering like a normal person. I’m not sure why I want to keep going like this. I guess if it felt bad enough, I would stop.

    • MissZippy says

      You might be skeptical to this, but I have found that being in the most minimal shoe I can on trails has made me enjoy them so much more. I wear the New Balance Minimus trail shoe and having that much improved ground feel has made me so much less likely to go down. I seriously just went two years w/o a fall (ended on Friday!) and I attribute that to the shoes.

  13. says

    Love the trails! I agree with everything you wrote. It is actually quite amazing how many road runners don’t like the getting dirty factor. I know for a fact trails are “softer” on the body. Trail injuries yes, running injuries no.
    Johann recently posted..Sick Sucks!My Profile

  14. says

    I fell in love with trails last summer when it was too darn hot to train for MCM anywhere else. I really should treat myself to a trail shoe already.
    Love your ‘kids in the woods’ analogy. We played in the woods all the time as kids. SO. Much. Fun!
    Marcia recently posted..Carrot Spice BreadMy Profile

  15. says

    I used to do quite a bit of trail running when I did our hill sessions. The thing that used to scare me most is coming down the steep slopes where there was only gravelly rocks underfoot. I’m fine when I have good footing but when the earth moves beneath my feet I get scared.
    Char recently posted..The End of an Era … MaybeMy Profile

  16. says

    Every time I think about trying trail running, I’m at a point in my mileage and race training that it would be unwise. Perhaps I will have to make more time for it in the future.
    Mandy recently posted..Rainier RecapMy Profile

  17. says

    I’ve never felt more beat up as I have the past few weeks road training again vs. the months and months I trained on the trails for Leadville. Oh…unless you count the numerous times I fell and tore of my knee on the Leadville trails….oh, and the infamous face plant where I tore a rib muscle and couldn’t run for 2 weeks. Haha. But overall, my aging body much prefers the trails. One more road marathon and I think I’m done with ’em.
    Jill recently posted..Pikes Peak MarathonMy Profile

  18. Debbie @ Deb Runs says

    My husband and I took a hike on Saturday morning and the whole time we kept saying how fun it would be to run the trail instead. Next time we’re in the area and have time, we’re doing it! :-)

  19. says

    love your thoughts on this.
    I am not a trail runner but have enjoyed it so much the few times I’ve gone. We have some great trails near our area and actually it’s more the fact that it’s been SO hot since May around here that we haven’t done much of it. I will promise to make our way out to the trails as a family, because I think my boys would enjoy trail running too! So scenic and peaceful :)
    marissa recently posted..don’t think about it…My Profile

  20. says

    I think people may also perceive the word “trail” as being hard, when trails can be very easy (a loop in a park for example). The key is to find some easy trails to start with and increase your comfort level as you build up from easy trails to harder trails.
    Jamoosh recently posted..Running in Genes – Part 2My Profile

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