A recent piece on the BBC News website got people talking about treadmill vs outdoor running, after a study carried out by the University of Exeter looked into the pros and cons of both.
But what about trail vs treadmill? One would imagine that the differences between the two would be even more pronounced.
For the month of January I took part in a Trail Running campaign with Sportsshoes to look at the physical and mental impacts of running in different environments.
What is trail running?
Trail running is essentially just that: running on the trails, usually in a rural landscape and away from busy roads. It involves training on stony, muddy and rocky tracks and grass, often on hilly terrain, through woodland and forests, and along rivers.
I am lucky in that I have the Wandle Trail right on my doorstep, a 14 mile route that follows the River Wandle from Croydon to the Thames at Wandsworth. It’s a favourite running haunt of mine, and one I turn to time and time again – whether that’s for a quick tempo run to Beddington Park or a longer easy jog up to Wimbledon.
While the trail runs through some of south London’s most industrialised landscape, you are running off-road by the river and enjoying an escape from the busy city streets.
Why you should try trail running?
Running on a treadmill in the gym, I find myself distracted by negative thoughts about the rubbish on TV, the irritating habits of the people around me, or the general over-crowdedness and lack of interesting scenery. Training in a peaceful trail setting boosts my mood, helps me focus and reduces stress. The mental benefits of logging miles away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life have been well proven by previous studies but I can confirm this simply by how much better I feel after running somewhere green and open!
If you’re feeling a bit stuck in a rut with your training, you can also breathe fresh life into it with trail running. More technical terrain requires your full attention, you have to slow down and focus more on your body and less on your watch. Trail running means you can explore new and interesting places too- remember to look up and around and take in the scenery!
Repetitive running on hard surfaces can lead to over-use injuries. For someone like me who is definitely injury-prone, trail running is a great way to mix things up and reduce the risk. The softer surface of trails means shock is better dissipated, and improves balance, stability and strength. Also if you tackle a more technical trail with uneven terrain and undulating hills, it will activate muscles that are under-used when running on the road, improving your overall endurance and performance.
A big plus-point for trail running for me is the fresh air. Ok, so you might not experience the benefits of this quite so much on the Wandle Trail in South London, but heading further afield guarantees less traffic, reduced fumes and better air quality, all of which makes breathing easier- great for an asthmatic!
Ok, so why the treadmill?
Bad weather can make it difficult to run trails, as they are likely to become muddy, slippery, icy and even deep in snow which can be dangerous to run. Added to which, in the winter it gets dark so early and there isn’t usually any lighting out on the trails, so you may have to save them for weekends. The treadmill can be a good option for those snowy, dark days when you need to get in a workout.
Indoor running also offers consistency which if you’re a beginner runner can be a good introduction to get used to pace and distance. You don’t want to set out on a trail and discover you’re miles from home and unable to run back! Preparation is key, particularly if its a more isolated trail, so make sure you invest in trail shoes that offer appropriate grip, warm layers, and a waterproof jacket. I would also make sure you carry a phone, snacks and money for emergencies.
Races – I couldn’t write a post on trail running without mentioning the fantastic Trailscape: Rail to Trail series. It’s a great introduction to the trails, in an organised setting and all four races are just a short train ride from London. I highly recommend!
Are you a trail running fan?
NB: I was sent an outfit by Sportsshoes as part of the trail running campaign.