Trail Running is Strength Training in Disguise

By Rick Morris

Both current research and anecdotal data agree that strength training is a critical and indispensable part of your distance running program. You know you need strength training but there’s a good chance you don’t like to do it. You’re not alone; most distance runners have to force themselves to get in their strength training workouts. Well, I have some good news for you. There is a form of strength training you may already be doing and you don’t even know it! Trail running is strength training in disguise. Trail running works the muscles in your lower legs, hips and core in ways that level road running just can’t do.

While trail running won’t completely take the place of dedicated strength training it does provide an alternate method of strength training that is both fun and effective. Here are just a few of the ways that trail running provides hidden strength training benefits.

Increased Lower Leg Strength

Weak lower leg muscles reached epidemic proportions in recent years due in a large part to the over supportive shoes that have been shoved down our throats. Those over engineered shoes act like a cast on your foot. They prevent your lower leg muscles from performing as intended and as a result the muscles that control your foot become weak. That causes a higher incidence of lower leg injuries like shin splits, decreased performance and a less efficient running stride. Now that we are moving to more minimal shoes that trend should reverse. Trail running can help you increase your lower leg strength even more. Running on trails with their rough, uneven and always changing surfaces force your feet and lower legs to work much harder than the smooth and level roads. Your lower legs will get stronger, you will suffer from fewer lower extremity injuries and you will improve your stride efficiency.

Greater Core Stability

The uneven and varying terrain you encounter during trail running not only makes your lower legs work harder but also forces your core muscles to get more involved. The core muscles in your hips, lower back and abs are all forced to work harder to keep your body balanced, your hips aligned and your stride pumping along at peak efficiency. The rougher the road the more your core is forced to work. A strong core will make your stride more efficient, improve your overall endurance and increase your performance.

Improved Hip Extensor Power

You may hit some small hills on your road runs, but nothing like you will find on the trails. The uphill sections of your trail routes will force your hip extensor muscles to switch into high gear. Improved hip extensor strength gained during your trail runs will improve your running power, speed, endurance and running specific strength.

Stronger Quads

What goes up must come down. The downhill portions of your trail runs place a lot of stress on your quadriceps muscles as they control your decent. Increasing your quadriceps strength is important for you as a distance runner for several reasons. First, it will maintain proper upper leg muscle balance. Running on level roads or uphill tends to develop your hamstrings and other hip extensor muscles more than your quadriceps and other knee extensor/hip flexor muscles. The downhill running will help you maintain that critical balance. Stronger quads will also improve the health and injury resistance of your knee joint. Downhill trail running is also a great drill for improving your running mechanics and stride efficiency.

Fitter Feet

Plantar fasciitis, an injury to the fibrous band that runs along the sole of your foot, can be a chronic running injury. One way to help prevent plantar fasciitis and other foot injuries is to increase the strength of your foot and the tissues in your foot. Trail running forces your foot to work in ways that road running does not. The frequent rocks, stones, roots and rough surfaces you encounter during trail running will place stress on your feet that will gradually strengthen them and make them more injury resistant.