Treadmill to Trail: The Benefits of Running Outdoors

Me and running have had a rocky relationship. Our story began when I was 11. Some might say I was too young, too foolish. Together, we’ve had our highs, and our lows. We’ve broken up for months at a time, I’ve walked away and not looked back, only to return again. 

How many times have I heard someone say to me, “Why on earth do you run? I hate running.” I’ve been running competitively since I was 13. I started on the track; I was a middle distance runner. 1,500 metres. Since, I’ve attended countless appointments for medical opinion after opinion. I’ve been diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter, told I shouldn’t run on concrete, should take painkillers, my ligaments are screwed, have an Achilles tendon of an 80-year-old, I’ll recover with massage, that I shouldn’t run at all.

But the truth is, running is addictive. And I’ve done it almost all my life. If I stopped running now, what was the purpose of the hours spent training and sweating and hating myself?

So, when I discovered trail (or fell running, I think, if you’re from the North), something finally nestled into place. I’m not saying things are perfect between us, but it’s a start.

Three reasons (IMO) you should run outdoors

  1. It’s good for you mood, your immune system too. You probably already know that exercise has been proven to improve mental health. In short, the brain releases a load chemicals like endorphins and serotonin to give you the ‘buzz’ you feel after a really good workout.What you might not have known, that being in nature is also linked to a healthier immune system too. Studies suggest there’s it's linked to vitamin D from sunlight, an airborne chemical plants release called phytoncides, and bacteria (the good kind) found in soil.
  2. You work out harder, you’ll run for longer. When you’re on a treadmill, you’re ‘fed’ you the ground as you’re running. Letting your legs do all the work instead + wind resistance = you’re working your muscles harder. A lot of people even shorten their stride to adapt to the physical boundaries of the machine. It’s also psychologically harder to run 5K on a treadmill that in a park. Why? Distraction. It’s as simple as that. Studies show that when humans are distracted, perceived time is less.
  3. It’s better for your knees (trust me). Running has one of the highest injury rates of all (non-extreme) sports. +40% of those injuries are to the knees, which are often the result of repetitive impact over long periods of time. Running on soft ground has less impact compared to hard surfaces like asphalt. If you run in the forest, or even just stick to the grass in the park, your knees with thank you for it.

Have I convinced you yet? Thought so.

Here’s a six-week training plan for beginners to get you running outdoors in no time.

You can skip the first few weeks, or adapt the times depending on your fitness level.

Hot tip: schedule runs into your calendar in advance on the same days every week. If you make running part of your routine, you’re more likely to stick to the training plan.

  1. Week one. Think in time, not distance. Go to your nearest park. 15 - 20 minutes, one or two times this week. Run as much as you can. If you walk every 30 seconds, it’s okay. Don’t give yourself any targets. It’s de-motivating when you don’t reach them.
  2. Week two. Two times this week, you’ll run a whole 20 mins. Relax, find your favourite park route. Keep to the grass, avoid concrete. Be mindful of how you felt last week. If you struggled, keep the pace slow. If you felt good, take it up a notch.
  3. Week three. By week three, you’ll have a favourite outdoor route. Naturally, you’ll have Googled or Strava’d how many miles or km this route is. Now, you can bump up the time you’re running to 30 mins. Extend your route, but be mindful of your pace; keep it consistent. No point in running too fast to start, only to walk the last mile.
  4. Week four. Focus on your rhythm, also known as your cadence. Take your favourite route, try to take 3 small steps for every 1 to 1.5 seconds. You might be surprised that in 30 minutes, if you focus on running to the same rhythm, you run a little bit further and faster than you usually do. 
  5. Week five. The ten percent rule. It’s a thing... Never increase you running distance or speed by more than 10% every week. This will reduce the likelihood of you getting a running-related injury tenfold. Overtraining injuries are more common than injuries such as ankle sprains or torn ligaments or muscles, so it’ll pay to keep that in mind. If you want, you can increase the frequency of your runs to three times per week. Look up some national parks or other green spaces you could run in. Plan a day away in nature next weekend.
  6. Week six. This is your week. Take to the road to your chosen npark, woodland, forest or shoreline trail. Personally, I find it best to find a trail that loops back to your mode of transport (you’re less likely to get lost that way). If you’ve decided on a longer route, don’t forget to take water with you. In general, less than 6 to 8K you’ll probably be okay (depending on the weather), anything over that you’ll need to keep yourself hydrated on the way.

What you need to run outdoors (kit list)

Trainers that are okay for variable terrain

You’ll want a pair of lightweight trainers with good grip, especially if your route contains a decline. You don’t want to slip on any tree roots on the way down.

2-in-1 shorts

It’s going to get warm. Choose some shorts with an elasticated under-short. They have the added benefit of staying in place and keeping everything… in place.

A lightweight cap

You’ll want to keep the sun/leaves/dust out of your eyes without making your head too hot. There is also nothing more annoying as a female with long hair than to be pushing it out of your face for an hour, plus.

Hydration pack or belt and fuel

Somewhere to keep your water, your snacks (I eat fruit puree for babies to keep up my blood-sugar levels, but dried fruit will do if you think that’s too weird.)

A way to navigate

There are some cool route builders, most popular is from Strava. You can just download the app onto your phone. You could even go old-school with a real-life map.

A change of clothes

This one sounds obvious, but how many times have I been on a trail and forgotten a spare top. Not only is the journey home in sweaty gear super uncomfortable, do not underestimate the power of wind when you’re exposed to the elements.

So, that’s it. Happy outdoor running! I’d like to know how you get on. Drop me an email any time - I don’t bite (much), if you want to share some running tips.