Exactly why trail running is blowing up right now: A change of scenery and a chance to get out of your head are amazing things. “Not knowing what’s around the bend forces runners to stay in the moment rather than think about how long they’ve gone, how many calories they’ve potentially burned, or what’s on the to-do list back at home,” says Andia Winslow, USA Track & Field elite athlete and senior coach at NYC’s Mile High Run Club. The stats are pretty staggering: More than 7 million runners hit the trails last year, a noteworthy 11 percent jump since 2013, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Consider how thrilling it is to jog while watching Live with Kelly and Michael for the 10th weekday in a row.
A bit of FOMO may also be nudging us off the ‘mill and onto the dirt. Check the Instagram hashtag #trailrunning and you’ll call up over 1 million breathtaking pics. “It’s demystifying the trail and inspiring women to explore,” says Golden Harper, founder of Altra Running, a trail-running shoe company.
Explore first, blast fat next. “Because the texture of the ground is so inconsistent, your body is constantly using different planes of motion, which engages more muscles—especially your core!—burning more calories in less time,” explains Winslow. That same range of motion helps your body better absorb stress, one reason researchers believe that trail running might limit injuries like shin splints and knee problems. Ready to lace up?
Check the Weather
Before any off-road workout, check your route on NOAA.gov, which offers nationwide forecasts that can be narrowed to very specific areas.
Find Your Road Less Traveled
Hit up Trails.com for local off-road adventures, or check the crowd-sourced TrailRunProject.com for the most popular routes in your area.
Or try Strava’s free Route Builder app (available on iPhone and Android) to map out a neighborhood run perfectly fit for your skill level and fitness goals. (The app also lists popular preexisting routes, with info on the elevation gain and estimated duration.)
Adjust Your Goals
A four-mile run might take you, say, 40 minutes on pavement but well over an hour in the woods. “Depending on the trail difficulty, elevation change, and many other factors like the weather, it’s much harder to assess just how long it may take,” says Elinor Fish, a trail-running expert in Carbondale, Colorado. Expect to add about a minute or two per mile to your street pace on tough paths, slightly less on relatively smooth ground, and aim for 50 to 75 percent of your typical distance during your first few off-road adventures. Over time, you’ll build the confidence and solid footing to speed things up.
Move Your Feet
Gorgeous, gazelle-like strides have no business here. You’ve got to be quick and agile, staying on your toes and light on your feet. “Shortening your stride, which keeps your feet landing under your hips rather than in front of your body, helps you react quickly, so you can maneuver around obstacles like roots and rocks,” says Asics pro runner Megan Kimmel.
Use Your Arms
They’re your body’s natural counterbalance, helping you shift your weight and remain upright. When navigating tricky descents, let them flare out away from your sides a bit, keeping your elbows bent up high, near your chest; on gravel or loose-stone slopes, drop your arms slightly to help lower your center of gravity.
Don’t Look Down
Yes, you need to be aware of where you’re stepping, but when you look straight down to watch every step, the natural reaction is to hunch forward, which shortchanges your lungs. To breathe easier, keep your back straight and chest tall.
RELATED: Trail Running: Hot on the Trail
For the essential gear you need for trail running, plus other ways to exercise outside the box, pick up the October 2015 issue of Women’s Health, on newsstands now.