Running can be great for weight loss, but to maximise its effectiveness, it is beneficial to incorporate some high-intensity interval training (HIIT). This elevates the heart rate for fairly short bursts with lower intensity periods in between. The great news for trail runners is that running on hills provides the perfect conditions for building interval training into your daily runs.
Running on trails or in the mountains has a significantly different impact on your body than running on the road. The cardiovascular stimulus is similar to what you might get from a fartlek workout, but as an added bonus you also work extra muscles. When you climb a hill, you elevate your heart rate, your breathing intensifies, your legs burn, you work your quads, glutes, calves, and even your core and upper body. It's an entirely different workout to running on flat terrain. And then you reach the top of the hill and let gravity do the work for you, giving you a rest period in your interval workout.
I have seen a few people claim that trail running burns 10% more calories than road running, though I can't seem to find any studies that support that specific claim. However, the support for high-intensity interval training as a weight loss tool is bountiful.
If you want to lose weight, tone up and improve your fitness, but you want quick results, and you want to have fun doing it, I think trail running is going to be right up your alley. Getting onto the trails will take your running to a whole new level and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you notice changes in your body and your athletic performance.
So how can trail running help with your weight loss goals?
Trail running involves a lot of changes of terrain. Hills will obviously require more of your body than running on flat ground. They work the big, powerful leg muscles like quads, glutes, and calves. There will also be smaller undulations and obstacles that your body needs to accommodate for and will work your stabilising muscles. Treadmill and road running is a much less varied style of activity. Road running can still work some of the same muscles, but in particular, the stabilising muscles can be under-utilised.
Running on trails, especially downhill, builds strength and definition in your quadriceps. Your quads act as brakes to keep you from spiralling out of control downhill.
Running uphill engages your glutes for power. Also, on flatter ground, your glutes are used for lateral stability and negotiating obstacles.
Hilly terrain works your calves. They’re what propel you uphill. They're also recruited when running on technical trails and sections that require stability. Each step starts with muscles in your feet and heads to the muscles in your lower leg.
All this constant stabilisation, adjusting to surface changes and avoiding obstacles lead to the strengthening of connective tissue. With each step, the ligaments and tendons around the ankle and knee get stronger. Stronger connective tissue results in fewer injuries.
Build your cardiovascular system
With every small hill and change in surface type, your cardiovascular system has to work harder. These short bursts of intense activity followed by periods of lower intensity activity slowly improve your cardiovascular fitness.
Improved cardiovascular health will enable you to run progressively longer, faster, and steeper.
Engage your core
Trail running involves more lateral movement and provides a greater challenge to your core muscles than road or treadmill running. Downhill technical sections, in particular, activate your core to provide balance and stability. Each step you take works to strengthen your core. As well as helping to reduce the risk of injury, a strong core helps to improve your posture, your functional fitness and makes you appear taller and fitter.
Workout in all weather conditions
Trail running in differing weather conditions will require your body to adapt. There are benefits for training in both hot and cold conditions.
Researchers have been studying the effects of heat on athletic performance for decades, and their results have been consistently surprising. Studies have found that training at high temperatures can increase an athlete’s blood plasma volume, which leads to better cardiovascular fitness. It can also reduce overall core temperature, reduce blood lactate, increase skeletal muscle force, and, surprisingly, improve performance in cold temperatures.
Cold temperatures require your body to burn more energy to keep warm, assisting with weight loss. Also, cold temperatures have been found to promote the growth of brown fat. Brown fat is a metabolic tissue that burns energy. Once you've acclimatised and grown some brown fat, you'll be able to endure colder temperatures with less discomfort.
Running in extremes of weather may also improve your mental fortitude.
Sticking to a weight loss program is notoriously difficult. Trail running provides its own motivation. It offers motivating benefits such as awesome scenery, connection with nature, and optionally, solitude. Trail running is so much more enjoyable and motivating than plodding away on a treadmill or flat kilometres dodging traffic.
Trail running gets you out into the fresh air, away from stuffy gyms and dirty streets. Breathing fresh air can do wonders for your body and mind. Exposure to natural light can increase serotonin, improving mood and regulating biological rhythms. Also, a boost of vitamin D levels will help you absorb calcium and phosphorous to build strong bones. This all results in conditions perfect for sticking with the exercise for the long haul.
Become one with nature
Trail running enables you to explore the environment around you and, for most of us who spend each day in the relatively confined environments of our homes and offices, a run in the great outdoors where everything is calm around you can do wonders for helping you wind down quickly, effectively and completely.
While running on a treadmill can become monotonous and running through the streets can be frustrating, as you dodge crowds and cross roads, trail running is a great way to illicit a sense of freedom, independence and can immediately clear your head and de-stress you.
Finally, nature can have a soothing effect on the psyche. Studies have shown that post-operative patients who have a view of trees require less pain medication and fewer days in hospital than those whose rooms have a view of a brick wall. So, getting out to run some trails can be a simple way to not only boost the physical results that you get with your exercise, but also to give yourself a much-needed emotional boost that will translate into improved results in every area of your life.
Reduce risk of injury
Most trail surfaces will absorb some of the energy of each step you take, meaning your muscles work harder while the impact on your joints is reduced. This results in fewer repetitive strain injuries. Also, because the uneven terrain makes your whole body work a bit harder, you’ll develop new strength, fitness and resilience that will result in improved performance and reduced injury risk in general.
The fewer injuries you suffer, the more time you can spend training without having to take enforced breaks. Extended breaks can eat away at the gains you made.
Balance and agility
Trail running can help improve your sense of balance and agility, which translates to improved sporting performance.
Trail running also improves your balance and sense of proprioception. Proprioception is your body’s ability to know where it is in space. This is a benefit that is useful all the other sports and activities you do.
Improved balance and agility results in fewer injuries, which mean more time training.
Focus and Appetite
Trail running requires more concentration than road running and, while sometimes it's nice to clear your mind and achieve a zen-like state during your workouts, you’ll experience faster fitness gains if you’re fully engaged in your activity.
Focus on training translates into focus in other aspects of your life. Studies have convincingly shown a link between mindfulness and weight loss.
Some people believe that time spent in a natural environment can improve your sense of smell and taste, which results in an improved ability to regulate your appetite and tune into foods that are good for your body.
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