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