8 Tricks to Get the Most Out of Your Outdoor Run
Whether you're taking it to the trails or the neighborhood loop, running outdoors can make you feel a magic beyond the exercise high.
As the temperatures rise and the sun comes out of its winter hibernation, you might be itching to take your treadmill workouts into the great outdoors. But jogs on the sidewalk and trails are pretty different from ones on the belt, so the approach you take to your outdoor run should reflect that.
The main reason: The harder the surface, the greater the ground reaction force, which is basically the force exerted by the ground back onto the body that is in contact with it. That means surfaces like concrete and pavement will cause a greater reaction back into your joints and legs than an energy-absorbing treadmill will. This not only makes you work harder, but it will tire you out faster and cause greater stress on your joints. And unlike on a treadmill, which provides consistency with each step, you have to deal with stones, uneven surfaces, traffic, or inclement weather activity when you're running outdoors, all of which could cause you to be off balance or have to change your gait.
That said, there are plenty of steps you can take to ensure your outside run is a successful one. Here, pros share their top tips for outdoor running. (Related: Your Guide to Cold-Weather Running)
Prime Your Mindset
The flow state begins with a blank slate, as free of distractions as possible. “You want to be comfortable in your body out there,” says Kara Goucher, a pro distance runner and former Olympian who trains on trails near her Colorado home. Goucher suggests rerunning the same short section of a trail to acclimate to the terrain until it becomes second nature, then take that confidence and muscle memory to longer jaunts.
“To get out of your head and enjoy the run, I like to repeat to myself a power word or mantra as I start going,” she says. “Your power word might be present or courageous. Repeating it helps you center on the task at hand and shut out other static.” (Can't decide if you should hit the trails or the road? Here's the difference between the two types of runs.)
Perfect Your Form with Mobility Drills
Rather than overthink your technique, set yourself up to be fluid during your outdoor run. “The way to get those beautiful strides, those knee lifts, and great alignment right for the best running form is through a small combination of mobility drills before you run,” says Annick Lamar, a coach with New York Road Runners. Her four go-tos that do the trick:
- Knee grabs: bring left knee to chest, then hold, pause, and release; take a step, and repeat with right knee
- Quad stretches: bring left ankle back to glute, then hold, pause, and release; take a step, and repeat with right ankle
- Walking hamstring stretches: reach toward left toes with left leg extended straight, heel on ground, and right knee bent, then stand up and repeat with right leg straight
- Heel-to-toe walks: walk forward 25 feet on heels, turn, then walk back 25 feet on toes
“Warming up with this drill three times a week will get you better mechanics,” says Lamar. (These mobility and stability workouts will also get the job done.)
Lace Up In the Right Sneakers
It doesn't matter how stylish your outdoor running sneakers may look, it's about what they're meant to do: protect, support, cushion, and stabilize your foot when it makes contact with the ground. Choosing the proper sneaker for your foot is imperative. To take the guesswork out of what shoe works best for you, head to a local running specialty store. The in-store specialists will likely take a look at your foot and stride and use the information to find the correct sneaker for you. (Related: The Best Running and Athletic Shoes for Every Workout, According to a Podiatrist)
If you're flying solo on your quest for outdoor running sneakers, how do you know if you’ve truly found your perfect pair? Your treads can give you a hint, says Sean Peterson, a product guru at retailer Road Runner Sports. You want to see wear right down the middle of the forefoot. “That means you’re in a shoe that is accommodating what your body wants it to do,” says Peterson. “More wear on the inside of the forefoot may mean that you’re rolling in a little and that you could benefit from more stability in your sneaker.” The opposite — wear on the outside of the shoe — might mean you naturally roll out or are in a stability shoe when you don’t need to be. In the latter case, “every time you land, that structured post at the arch is going to force your body and your foot to do something a little less natural,” he says. Try a specialty run shop or the Fit Finder at roadrunnersports.com for pro guidance.
Stride with Your Virtual Tribe
You may be running outside solo more these days, but it doesn’t mean you can’t feel the pull of the pack. “Most running communities have a virtual component right now,” says Alexandra Weissner, a cofounder of bRUNch Running, which switched its typical 5K and 10K meet-and-eats to social media events during COVID lockdown. “Find a community where you can connect online through fun challenges, training, and more," she says. (Don't forget to download these best apps for runners.)
Other social sweatworks for runners include the November Project, which has a gut-it-out training component, and the Midnight Runners, who head out after dark. Many November Project clubs have their meetups online, says Lazina Mckenzie, a leader for the community in Edmonton, Alberta, so you can log on from anywhere. “Once you show up, we are all the same no matter what the level,” she says. “We’re getting into the same mindset.”
Play Your Favorite Tunes
Sure, listening to a podcast while you jog can keep you entertained, but if you want to get the most out of your outdoor run, put on your favorite Spotify playlist. A 2017 study found that people who exercised with music could work out an average of 15 minutes longer than those who broke a sweat without it. Plus, research has found that listening to motivational, upbeat music during repetitive, endurance-type activities (such as running) can reduce ratings of perceived exertion (aka RPE, how hard you feel like your body is working). (Here are even more ways to trick yourself into working harder during your workout.)
Make Time for a Cooldown
After your outdoor run, walk it off a little to gradually slow down your heart rate and lower blood pressure. “It also can help trigger the parasympathetic nervous system so you can relax and transition into what is next in your day,” says Danny Mackey, the head coach of the pro Brooks Beasts Track Club in Seattle. Five to 10 minutes should be enough time to unwind. “Also, slow breathing through your nose will help aid in the above benefits.” (Related: Why You Should Never Skip Your Post-Workout Cool-Down)
Keep Track of Your Progress
Whether you're stepping out of your house for the first time or you're a lifelong runner, writing down your daily goals should be a part of your pre- and post-workout routine. Before you hit the pavement, write down your goal for the workout (i.e. 30-minute run with a 9-minute per mile pace). Once you're finished with your outdoor run, write down what you *actually* did and how it felt (i.e. 30-minute run with a 10-minute per mile pace – felt challenging but doable). When you confirm your goal, commit yourself to a plan, and keep track of it, you'll be able to see how you're growing as a runner. You can use an old-school pen and paper or one of these free running apps to keep tabs on your progress.
Don't Skip on Strength Training
Lifting weights may not seem like a top priority if you're outdoor running, but think of it like this: A runner who has strong legs and good stamina but weak upper extremities and core is not providing their body with complete fitness balance. "The performance benefit of strength training comes from being stronger, more powerful, and more efficient,” says Pascal Dobert, a coach for the elite Nike Bowerman Track Club. “The entire body is involved in maintaining good form, but the glutes and core are often not targeted properly during exercise.”
That’s why the club incorporates a series of glute bridges using a loop band and a series of forearm and side planks. At New York Road Runners, the five-day-a-week running classes include two days of bodyweight moves — planks, glute bridges, squats, walking lunges, clam shells, single-leg balances — after the easy runs. (Related: The 5 Essential Cross-Training Workouts All Runners Need)
A typical outdoor running week, including strength training, might look like this: Tuesday is a challenge day (pushing your pace, doing sprints or hills); Wednesday is an easy day, with strength moves post-run; Thursday is a challenge; Friday is another easy day, with post-run strength; and Saturday is a long run. Think of it like a roller-coaster with challenge days at top, easy days at bottom.