If you want to get more out of your run—more muscle firming, more calorie burning, more stunning views to soak in—take it off-road. "Pounding pavement can make you a good runner, but taking on trails can turn you into an athlete," says David Roche, a running coach and ultra runner in Palo Alto, California. "On a normal trail run, you'll be leaping over sticks and logs, climbing steep hills, and sprinting around switchbacks. The movements are diverse, so your body gets stronger, more agile, and skilled at propelling in multiple directions rather than just forward," he says. And all those mini challenges recruit more muscle fibers.
"When you're running on uneven ground, your thigh muscles in particular work harder than they would on flat surfaces," says researcher Alexandra S. Voloshina, who conducted a study at the University of Michigan on running on uneven terrains. Even little ups and downs underfoot elicit enough muscle action to rev your fat melt: A surface-height variability of just one inch can increase calorie burn by 5 percent, the research found. (That would mean some 40 extra calories per hour at an eight-minute-mile pace.) Then there are the hills you may encounter. The strength you build going uphill will translate to a quicker pace when you're back on pavement. "Playing on dirt works all the physiological systems that matter on the roads, like lactate threshold [the point at which lactic acid accumulates and your performance dips] and VO2 max," Roche says. Best of all, virtually anyone can take up trail running. Be creative with your definition of a trail—anything off pavement counts. Simply follow our pro tips to hit the ground running.
Be Ready for Action
On the trail you might not have access to things like water fountains, bandages for blisters, or even cell service, so think ahead. A hydration pack that can also store a few extras is essential, says Krissy Moehl, an ultra runner and a coach with Revolution Running, a training club with multiple locations. Throw in a snack in case you're out longer than you expected, and pack a lightweight jacket in case the weather cools off or it rains. (Don't forget to have proper footwear too!)
Ignore Your Speed
Running on trails means your overall pace may be slower, because you're constantly adjusting your footing to changing terrain—rocks, roots, moss, mud, sand—Moehl says. The perk? "You'll probably stay on the trails for longer because you're enjoying the scenery," she says. (There are serious benefits to hitting the trails, like getting killer legs, so there's no need to worry about how long it takes you to finish.)
Mix Things Up
Just like road running, you can change up the types of workouts you do on trail, says Meghan Hicks, an ultra runner and a coauthor of Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running. The difference is that you need to choose your path wisely. A trail with many obstacles can improve your agility, and if you want to build strength, hike up a trail and run downhill to work your quads. On the flip side, for speed work, head to a spot that's relatively flat and clear—wading through a creek midway won't help you get your heart rate up.
Lean In On the Uphill
Your body's most efficient posture for running hills is to hinge (from your hips) slightly toward the incline, which brings your center of gravity forward, Hicks says. As you climb, use your arms to help propel you by driving the swing, both forward and back.
Let It Go On the Way Down
On steep descents, your natural instinct is to throw on the brakes by digging in your heels, Hicks says. "But that's actually quite impactful on your skeleton, because it doesn't allow your muscles to absorb the shock of your landing.
Leg and core strength are key for thriving on the trails, Roche says. He suggests doing three minutes of lunges—one front, one lateral, one rear, then switching legs—and one minute of step-ups on a box every other day. Then work up to one minute each of front and side planks. "Those seven minutes can make a big difference," Roche says. (Use these bodyweight moves to strengthen off the trail.)
Trail running can cause more muscle breakdown than running on flat ground, because your leg muscles are contracting eccentrically for longer, Roche says. The breakdown is good because it leads to muscle growth and increased strength, but it also means you'll need to take care of your muscles to prevent injury. Make time to foam roll for 10 minutes a day, focusing on your quads, hips, butt, calves, and shins, he recommends. (You can also try these runner-friendly yoga poses to keep muscles loose.)