Most runners, or at least those who do it as a casual hobby, will have a set route and a set time-frame in which they run. But running on the same terrain every time is unlikely to give you any improvement in your strength, speed and fitness levels – so if in doubt, mix it up a bit.
It’s a long held belief that constantly pounding the pavements can cause all sorts of joint problems – with the impact of the road running potentially leading to shin splints, ligament strains and sprains.
So that’s another reason it’s good to make sure your running is varied. Training on softer terrain, like grass, can help to protect your joints better. Cross country running to the road runner can feel like a whole new dimension. Your ankles start working like never before and you can often succumb to turning your ankle in a divot or pothole. Then there’s the mud to contend with on wet days, and struggling to scramble up slippery hills.
But suddenly you’ll find that your ankles begin to strengthen up and as you’re working harder to cover the same distance as you would on road, then your fitness is being built up too. The other benefit to running off-road is that you don’t have the same boredom that can come with monotonous road running. There’s always something new to look at, a corner to turn, an overgrown path to battle with and a river to run along.
Think also about trying out beach running for really testing your legs to their limits. Running on sand works you so much harder than running on road or grass. As soon as you take a stride forward, the sand fills back on itself making it feel like you’re not covering any ground at all.
And then there’s the pebbly beach, giving your ankles and hips a real test of their mettle. You have to focus on your balance and footing, making sure you stay injury free, and working new muscles you may not have known about while running on the smooth surface of a road.
Remember as well to mix up the gradient of your runs. The problem with a lot of road running is that it’s easy to stick to residential areas which are often flat for easy access. If you get off road then you can challenge yourself to a few hills which really work your lower back and core muscles. For some people even the type of trainers they wear can add a new dimension to their running. Barefoot trainers which saw a surge of interest a few years back have made claims that it’s better for you to run barefoot than with trainers on – but the jury is very much out on this one.
Then there’s the track work. This is generally to build speed. No doubt while running on road, or cross country, you are sticking to a training speed – maybe a 10K speed or even marathon pacing, but by incorporating track work you can work on sudden bursts of energy. Push yourself to run bursts of 100 metres as fast as you possibly can, interspersed by some steady jogging around the track, and you’ll soon see how your reflexes kick in at the end of a race when you need that extra kick of speed.
By varying your terrain and the type of running you do over the course of the week can really improve your all-round running performance. Not only will you have the stamina built up from steady road running, but you’ll improve your ability to run up hills, speed up, and have staying power for longer stretches.
The best thing to do to really give you a boost if you doubt the different terrains are helping, is to have a week running off road before going back to a steady road run. The road terrain will suddenly seem too easy, and you’ll feel that you need to push yourself further for a new challenge.
For the best results always ensure that you include a good programme of stretching both before and after you start running. Take time on your stretches and make sure you are properly warmed up before embarking on any kind of run. Take yourself up to the nearest playing field and do star jumps, high knees and stretches before you go on a run, and then remember to ease into it.
Once you’ve trained on all terrains you’ll be ready to put yourself in for some challenging events, or even just challenge yourself with extra distance or quicker speeds. Either way, if you’ve had a go at cross country running then I doubt you’ll stick solely to road running in the future.
by Kath Webb
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by Kath Webb
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