There will likely be a time as a runner that you find yourself running on unstable surfaces. Are you intimidated by trail running, running in sand, or in snowy or icy conditions? We would hate for training to slip (pun intended) when presented with these various terrains. Between added soreness, tightness, and potential for injury can train how our training feels and how we execute it. In this article, we explore the obstacles presented by unstable surfaces and how we can work through these problems to continue effective training.
What to Expect: Increased Soreness
Your stabilizers are working overtime on uneven surfaces. Even the smallest extra wag from side to side causes soreness and makes your legs feel dead. Cross country and trail runners are encouraged to take on these new conditions gradually. For those of us who run predominantly on the roads, it will take us a few weeks. Give yourself a grace period when transitioning to trails or when the weather changes and you are navigating mounds of snow, hidden ice, frozen dirt, and other ground changes covered by snow.
Your stabilizers make up quite a few of your dominant running muscles: Glutes, quads, hips, & adductors.
SOLUTION: MUSCLE MAINTENCE
- Activate your dominant stabilizer muscles (listed above) during pre run warm up drills or exercises (Myrtle is a good one).
- If possible, get on more trails and grass in the fall season to prep for winter
- Roll daily or even more than once a day
- Do manual manipulation through massage of tight and sore muscles
Consider doing many of our easy recovery solutions during your time of transitioning to trail, sand, or winter running .
What to Expect: Slower running
A common trap runners fall into is paying close attention to time for feedback about training. Through different periods of training, conditions, and a myriad of other variables, pace does NOT equal effort. Effort is an input that is COMBINED with other variables, which then gives you your output of pace.
One of those significant variables are unstable surfaces. Whether you are running on the beach, running through snow, or hit the trails you will be increasing the work your body needs to accomplish to move forward. There are times you will run over a minute per mile slower than your normal paces at the same amount of effort.
What to Expect: Form Changes
Due to the potential for injury, it is necessary to adjust your form for the unstable surface. The harder you push off, the harder you slip when you are navigating sand, dirt, ice, or slush. Even if you don’t fall, a slip can torque your back, knees, ankles, etc. We devoted an entire blog post on adapting for winter running.
A beneficial and kinetically appropriate modification is to quicken your cadence. Quickening your cadence is a great way to lessen the impact of an unstable push off. To quicken your stride, push off more gently. Think: light and quick.
In addition to quickening your cadence, remember to be intentional about picking your feet up more to avoid clipping a mound of dirt, root, or ice and snow.
What to Expect: Footwear Changes
While running on more dynamic terrain, you may need more traction to get more productive forward motion. Trail runners wear trail specific shoes which may be a little heavier than road shoes, but provide rotation protection with a more structured shoe (rather than flexible) as well as have greater traction. Trail shoes can be beneficial for runners who are navigating wintery conditions as well.
While sometimes trail shoes can give enough traction for snowy conditions, worse winter weather may call for ice spikes. Typically ice spikes can be purchased and screwed into your current running shoes. An important note about ice spikes is that they should never be worn for longer than a few steps on the pavement. This can cause serious injury to your feet and make you very sore. I recommend running on dirt roads when the snow and ice are patchy. Yak tracks are also a common solution for runners in the winter time. These are grips that are put on overtop of your trainers. They are more clunky than the ice spikes, but are not a permanent modification like the ice spikes.
Those runners who do a lot of beach running may go the opposite direction and wear lighter shoes (with draining properties) in case the shoes get wet. Others may go barefoot, but beware of weak feet. Many runners overdo barefoot running on vacation without building up the foot muscles to support running barefoot.
What to Expect: Modifications in Training
Unstable surfaces can be such a large part of the training equation on a given day. If you have not eased into these running conditions, consider doing a few miles to let your body adapt. If possible, perhaps do some of your run on stable conditions while concluding on the abnormal surface.
If diversifying the terrain is not an option, be wise about your training because no one benefits from injury in the middle of a training cycle. You can modify your training by cutting a run short, running indoors, cross train, or take a rest day if conditions are dangerous.
What to Expect: Benefits
In this article we gave you a fair number of warnings, but what are the benefits of running on unstable surfaces? The Journal of Experimental Biology did a study about the Biomechanics and energetics of running on uneven terrain. Although the study found the energy expenditure was higher and joints saw more stiffness on uneven terrain, muscles saw an increase in electromyographic (EMG) variability. Hopkins Medicine defines Electromyography (EMG) measures muscle response or electrical activity in response to a nerve’s stimulation of the muscle. What does this mean? You are allowing greater adaptations by stimulating more muscles with greater nerve stimulation.
It can be exciting to introduce new conditions to our running if we know what to expect. Remember that consistency requires staying healthy. Adventure awaits! Happy running!
Check out our podcast episodes on trail running and winter running.
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