PTSMC Pro-tips: Making the Leap From Road Running to Trail Running

Autumn in New England is here, and many runners are ditching the road to take in the scenery on the hundreds of beautiful trails across the region. While an exciting change of pace, switching from road running to trail running can present a number of challenges, and can even be dangerous for those unfamiliar with the uneven, often unpredictable terrain of the trail. Below, Tom Kassan, PT, DPT, OCS, COMT, CMTPT, Partner and Director of PTSMC West Hartford, provides some expert guidance on how to safely make the leap from running on the road to running on the trails.

The obvious difference between running on the road vs. the trail is the varied terrain. While in road running you may encounter hills and the occasional pothole, the trails are constantly changing surfaces with rocks, roots, and sometimes even rodents that you must quickly divert around to keep your momentum while preventing injuries like falls and rolled ankles. This is especially important in the autumn, as fallen leaves can hide the ground beneath.

Here are some tips to help you perform better when you’re out on the trail:

Use shorter strides

  • Run with quick, agile hops with light feet
  • Shorter movements allow you to be dynamic and quickly adaptable to changing terrain
  • They also prevent too much force from being absorbed by a single leg

Keep your shoulders straight

  • Keep your shoulders up, don’t hunch forward
  • This allows for full lung expansion and more oxygen to your muscles
  • It may help to roll or squeeze your shoulders during the run to make sure they’re staying loose and relaxed

Use your arms for momentum and guidance

  • Use relaxed, pumping fists and arms for momentum to help climb up hills, and a wider wingspan (elbows out, fists inward) to control balance while running downhill

Keep your eyes ahead

  • Keep your eyesight focused 10-15 feet ahead on the trail to prepare for changing conditions and other obstacles

For uphills, switch to speed-hiking

  • If the terrain is too steep, long, or technical, slow your pace and focus on using your leg strength
  • Use your hands to push into your thighs to help extend the legs and provide more forward balance

For downhills, lean forward, land on mid-foot & wing out your elbows

  • This keeps you over center of gravity, improves balance and helps control speed
  • Landing on your toes or heels can cause increased stress on your body and can throw you off balance – a dangerous thing when running downhill

A quick and easy exercise you can do daily to improve your balance, proprioception and reaction speed: When brushing your teeth, stand on one leg, and close your eyes while making sure you have a soft bend in your stance knee. Hold this pose for 30 seconds, then switch legs. Repeat for 2 minutes. Bonus: Your dentist will be happy on your next visit!

Remember, if you happen to take a tumble on the trail, or if you’re dealing with nagging muscle or joint pain while running, you can likely get your issues assessed and treated with physical therapy without a doctor’s referral! Contact your local PTSMC clinic with questions. 

Learn more about Tom Kassan and his team at PTSMC West Hartford here: