A IT DOESN’T MAT­TER WHERE YOU RUN, ONCE YOU RUN

Runner's World (UK) - - Human Race - BY SAM MUR­PHY

re you a road run­ner or a trail run­ner? It’s not a ques­tion I can an­swer defini­tively – I run where the route takes me, be it through a leaf-car­peted wood­land (this morn­ing), along a city street ( last week) or across a muddy field ( yes­ter­day). Each has its own plea­sures and chal­lenges.

But some run­ners can be snobby about sur­face. A trail afi­cionado re­cently com­mented on Twit­ter that ‘peo­ple who do road marathons hate them­selves’. You’ll find sim­i­lar dis­parag­ing re­marks about road en­thu­si­asts if you look at trail-run­ning fo­rums and spe­cial­ist pub­li­ca­tions. The gist of it is that road run­ning is deathly dull/ bad for you/a poor sub­sti­tute and that run­ning of­froad is in all ways more fun, health­ier and gen­er­ally su­pe­rior. I think it’s an un­wel­come di­vi­sion – we’re all run­ners, aren’t we?

The Twit­ter re­mark came to mind at the week­end, when I was toil­ing along a pub­lic foot­path bor­der­ing a field the farmer had de­cided to plough to the very edge of the barbed-wire fence. Each time my foot landed, the clump of earth un­der­neath it would ei­ther crum­ble or roll, cre­at­ing an­gles at my an­kle and knee joints that would have biomech­a­nists throw­ing up their arms in hor­ror. Any views to be ap­pre­ci­ated went un­no­ticed, since I had to keep my eyes firmly on the treach­er­ous trail.

There was lit­tle re­lief to be had when I reached the stile, which was over­grown with net­tles. ‘ Fun this is not,’ I thought. Fif­teen min­utes later, the net­tle stings fad­ing, I was float­ing along a bliss­fully smooth as­phalt lane. The ironed-flat sur­face ren­dered me sure­footed enough to ap­pre­ci­ate my sur­round­ings – ripe black­ber­ries in the hedgerow, leaves just turn­ing in the au­tumn sun­shine. My good mood was re­stored.

Now I’m not claim­ing road run­ning is more en­joy­able, or bet­ter, than trail. I love the ever-chang­ing de­mands of an of­froad run – one minute, mud is suck­ing at your train­ers, the next you’re bound­ing through high grass, leap­ing over tree roots or skip­ping from rock to rock. But it’s hard to find a rhythm – which is why I also rel­ish the rhyth­mic clip of feet on the pave­ment and the space that metro­nomic move­ment seems to cre­ate in my head.

One of the rea­sons the anti-road brigade say trail run­ning is ‘bet­ter’ is that it puts less stress on the body. In­tu­itively, it makes sense (softer sur­face equals a softer land­ing, right?) but there has been lit­tle re­search to back up the claim. In fact, stud­ies seems to sug­gest there’s a com­plex and en­tirely sub­con­scious in­ter­play be­tween our limbs and the sur­faces we run on: the ‘stiffer’ the sur­face, the ‘softer’ we make the limbs, and vice versa. It’s known as ‘mus­cle tun­ing’. This con­tin­ual ad­just­ment of limb stiff­ness to match the sur­face the brain ex­pects us to land on means the re­sult­ing force is pretty much un­changed re­gard­less of sur­face.

More re­cently, re­searchers have posited the the­ory trail run­ning may be health­ier (though there is no data prov­ing trail run­ners get fewer in­juries as yet) be­cause of the va­ri­ety of­fered by the mixed ter­rain and un­du­la­tions. Each foot­step is slightly dif­fer­ent from the last one and the next one, so the forces ex­erted on the body are ap­plied in slightly dif­fer­ent ways, re­duc­ing the risk of overuse. This makes per­fect sense and is prob­a­bly also why vary­ing your run­ning shoes, rather than wear­ing the same pair all the time, has been linked to a lower in­ci­dence of in­jury.

Va­ri­ety is al­most al­ways bet­ter than do­ing the same thing all the time – but with run­ning sur­faces there’s no rea­son why a town pave­ment should not form part of that va­ri­ety. Es­pe­cially when it’s a choice be­tween that and of­froad ter­rain that is so tech­ni­cal you’re barely able to stay up­right.

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