Growing up in Connecticut, Stevie Kramer ran on streets—but only because she had to. “I ran to stay in shape but just had access to boring roads or a treadmill,” she says.
Kremer isn’t alone—almost 7 million Americans opt to jog across natural terrain. And why not? Trail running boosts coordination, is easier on the joints, and can even lower activity in the part of the brain linked to depression. This is how to kiss the asphalt good-bye.
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You may be going through many of the same motions that you would on pavement—especially when running across smooth, groomed trails—but as paths get trickier, off-roading becomes a different beast. “You’ll need to switch to shorter, quicker steps and do some lateral movement,” explains Ryan Atkins, a professional obstacle course runner for Icebug sneakers. The good news is that sidestepping fires up even more muscles. (Read: extra calorie crushing!)
Treading over rocks and uneven ground does mean you’ll slow down, so you may not crank out three miles in your regular 5K time. But don’t feel bad—everyone’s pace drops on the trail, says Golden Harper, an avid trail runner and founder of the Altra running-shoe company. His tip: Aim to run for as many minutes as you would on the road rather than the same number of miles. (And think of your slower stride as a chance to take in the scenery.)
Finally, go get the most out of your trail time—and keep from face-planting—alter your regular running form in the following ways:
1. Stand tall, chest forward, to engage abs for more power. Swing arms close to the body, keeping elbows behind your hips, says Harper: “This helps with balance and prevents overstriding.”
2. Hold your head up. “If you bend your neck down, your shoulders roate in, which shuts off air supply,” says Harper.
3. Set your sights about 10 feet ahead of you to plan upcoming steps. “Look where you want to go, not where you don’t—your body will follow your eyes,” says Lisa Jhung, author of Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Train Running. Glance down briefly to navigate any obstacles.
4. Pick up your kenes and don’t drag your feet, says Jes Woods, a Nike+ Run Club coach and instructor at Mile High Run Club in New York City. It’ll help you avoid tripping.
5. Take small steps, especially when going downhill, says Atkins. “It helps prevent falls. You’ll be more balanced and can change direction more quickly.” And touch your feet down under your bent knee, not in front of you, to help keep the ankle from rolling, says Harper.