There are endless reasons to run outside—and even more to venture off the paved path to more challenging gravel or dirt terrain. Trail runs provide great mental stimulation, agility work, and a change of scenery—but you might not think of them as an opportunity to build muscle. Turns out, if you add a little structure to your runs—and some strategically placed exercises—you can burn more calories and gain strength while boosting your cardiovascular fitness.
How Trail Running Can Transform Your Body
“A lot of times when people hit the trails, they just go for slow distance runs,” says Stephanie Violett, Ph.D., a running coach and sports nutritionist based in Bend, OR. “Adding some intensity is a great way to break up the run, improve your fitness, build muscle, and make you a more efficient runner.”
And who doesn’t want that? Here, seven ways to take your trail runs to the next level.
1. Add a Dynamic Warmup
“A slow-building dynamic warmup is great for trail runs,” says Danny Mackey, coach of the Brooks Beasts pro mid-distance track club, which is currently training with trail runs at altitude in Utah. He recommends starting with 10 front and side leg swings. Then, get into a walk-stretch-walk-stretch dynamic. Take two steps, then come into a hamstring stretch, continuing that pattern for 15 meters. Repeat for a quad stretch, then “keep going, hitting all the major muscle chains.”
A walking lunge is also a great way to fire up your glutes before you take on an incline, says John Henwood, Olympian and running coach in New York City. “With steep trails, you might be using your glutes more than you’re used to with flat-surface running.”
You can add in other track drills too, like Frankenstein kicks, butt kicks, high knees, and hip circles, says Violett. “A good warmup gets the blood flowing, helps protect you from injury, and prepares the body to run hard.”
Spend at least five minutes doing dynamic stretches and drills for your warmup, she says.
How to Find the Perfect Running Trail
2. Strengthen Your Ankles
Trails can be littered with uneven terrain, rocks, and sticks you have to dodge. All part of the fun—until you’re sidelined with a sprained ankle. When the muscles around the ankle are strong, you’re less likely to roll it, and more likely to bounce back without a major injury if you do, says Henwood.