You’ve been running outside all summer long, you love your treadmill studios, and fall races are about to cement your focus.
But have you really lived until your sneakers have scuffed along a dirt path, and you’re jumping tree roots and dodging rocks and twigs for some trail running? Lisa Jhung, author of the new book Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running (and an occasional Well+Good contributor) says no!
Going off-road is obviously a great way to get inspired by a new running route and get in some leaf-peeping this fall, while adding a few mind-engaging challenges like not getting clothes-lined by a branch in your path. And there’s a whole lot more that road warriors should consider, she says.
Here are Jhung’s top seven reasons you should try trail running right now:
1. It’ll make you stronger. Bounding through dirt, grass, wood chips, and other uneven surfaces recruits tiny muscles (hello, core!) and strengthens small, stabilizing muscles, tendons and ligaments throughout your body to keep you balanced and agile on a trail. These same muscles don’t see a lot of action on a road or treadmill run.
2. It’s easier on your joints. Ever hopped onto the grass on the side of a concrete path for a few steps? That cushy feeling eases joints. Trails have forgiving surfaces, so you avoid the pounding impact you get from street running. The result? You should be able to run longer and get fewer injuries.
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3. It’s good for your mind. Exercising in nature—trees, fresh air, sunshine!—don’t just give you a break from running alongside honking cars, it helps combat depression more than exercising in a gym or outside near traffic, recent studies show.
4. Your sneakers want to see if they can take it. Time to put your cross-trainers to use on something more than a sidewalk.
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5. It helps you be in the moment. Sports psychologists have said that for people prone to anxiety, running on a rock-strewn or otherwise “technical” (AKA: tricky) trail can be a mental break. Focusing on foot placement for part of your run or all of it forces you to be in the moment—a good thing.
6. It’s easier than you think. New York has Central Park, with its Bridle Path and the singletrack dirt paths that wind throughout (hint: run with a friend, to be safe), and San Francisco has the Presidio or Golden Gate Park. Elsewhere, large parks and hiking/biking trails are easily Google-able (obviously!)—but for inside scoop on the best trails, check in at your local running or outdoor store.
7. It’s fun! Whether you choose a smooth, natural-surface path or a rocky, rooty, narrow trail, there’s an element of playing in the woods like a kid that’s great for your overall happiness quotient. And who doesn’t like that?
For more information, check out Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running