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Trail Running: Top Tips For Tackle the trails

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Trail running has been gaining in popularity over the last few years – and for good reason, as we have some absolutely wonderful trails and National Parks here in South Australia, with stunning views and beautiful scenery within.

How can we prepare ourselves to tackle the trails?

But trail running does have some unique features that distinguish it from road running. So what’s most different, and how can we best prepare ourselves to tackle the trails?

1. There’s a lot more to challenge our balance…

Whilst we can get the odd pothole here and there with road running, or cutting laps around the local oval, there’s a lot more to challenge our balance when out on the trails. This is even more of an issue when tackling some of the more technical trail sections; which may be hilly, uneven with loose rock surfaces, and winding us along really narrow paths that are particularly unforgiving of a misplaced step.

It comes as no surprise then that sprained ankles are common injuries we see with trail running. However, just like a footballer, basketballer or netballer does balance and landing drills to help them prevent injury, so too does the trail runner get benefit from a balance training program, to help strengthen the feet and ankles – and there’s a lot we can be doing to improve our strength & balance to prevent injury.

Even simple drills like hopping & landing, and balancing on an unstable surface can make a big difference to our balance – and make a twisted ankle out in the drills a lot less likely.

2. The steeper the incline, the harder the muscle work!

Anyone who’s ever slogged up a steep hill will tell you that the muscle work is a hell of a lot more than simply running on the flat!

It goes without saying that our muscle strength is important for trail running – but it’s not just needed to push up the hill! In fact, going on downhill sections can be just as hard, if not harder, on our muscles. “Putting the brakes on” during a downhill section puts really big eccentric contraction demands on the muscle – with eccentric contractions being where the muscle works and lengthens at the same time, and the ones that generally give us more muscle soreness afterwards! For running out on the trails, our quads play a huge role in helping us “put the brakes on” when running downhill and not ending up falling head over tail.

Many runners see trail running as a ‘strength session in disguise’, and trail running will certainly help to build strength; but the work you do in the gym can also be hugely valuable and help even better tolerate the running you’re doing. Having your strength assessed, and a strength program written specifically for you, can be a really big investment in both injury prevention and your performance.

3. Like any new thing, start slow & build up

Even if you run regularly, running in the trails is different – using different combinations of muscles in different ways. If I don’t get a chance to get into some of the downhill sections in the trails near home for a couple of weeks, the next time I do, my body certainly lets me know about the day after!

Particularly for people who are looking to get into trail running, like any new thing – the biggest piece of advice we can give is to start slow, and build up. Your body will thank you for it, and it will help keep you spending more time out on the trails long-term, and less time in the treatment room!

Mat Prior is a titled APA Sports & Exercise Physiotherapist and an avid long-distance runner; having completed several marathons and trail endurance events. He has a particular clinical interest in running injuries and running biomechanics, and loves helping runners to achieve their goals.

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