And on trails, and up hills, and in snow, and even in water. Here’s why mixing up your running surfaces does more than just beat boredom.
On the flat… Aim to spring
Don’t rule out flat surfaces: a 2013 study found that athletes who did intervals on level ground made larger VO2 max improvements than those who ran entirely on hills. Off-road when you can – it’ll reduce the impact you take from each step.
Need to know “Keep your cadence high,” says Saucony UK athlete and British world championship representative Ieuan Thomas. “Make your ground contact time minimal and try to spring off the ground.”
On trails… Be mindful
Uneven terrain requires you to be more aware with each step, and that’s a good thing. Running on these surfaces can make you stronger by improving the stabilising muscles you use for balance. It’s almost a form of mindfulness.
Need to know “If you’re off-road, be wary of loose and unstable terrain,” says Thomas. “Look up and ahead to spot your next foot placement rather than looking directly at the floor.” And watch out for low branches.
On sand… Keep it short
There’s a reason Rocky did it. Running on sand takes 1.6 times as much energy as staying on a hard surface, according to a study in the Journal Of Experimental Biology. Your body can’t rely on a heelstrike, which forces your calf muscles to push harder.
Need to know Plan your first run for low tide and run on the packed sand close to the water, advise the study authors – you can always graduate to the softer sand after a couple of practice runs.
In the hills… Push harder
Kenyan marathoners treat mountain efforts as mental training, but there are physiological benefits – going up, you’ll build leg strength and aerobic capacity, and going down you’ll get eccentric training that gets your legs used to long efforts.
Need to know “Fight the urge to lean forwards,” says Thomas. “It’ll reduce your range of motion, bringing down your power output. Drive with your arms – and remember, if you’re on a slope above 15°, walking is actually more efficient.”
In snow… Slow down
Bundle up and tough it out – you’ll benefit from improved performance, say researchers from St Mary’s University. In a study, participants doing 10Ks in winter conditions did better than those in summer heat – benefiting from a lower heart rate and lower perceived exertion.
Need to know Intervals are likely to be too taxing on your respiratory system, especially if you’re breathing hard. Keep it steady, but wrap up and aim for distance.
In water… Recover
You might’ve experimented with it on holiday, but there are tangible benefits to jogging in the deep end. A 2017 study found that it offered enough aerobic stimulus for training, as well as reducing load on the spine. If you’re injured, it’s a good bet.
Need to know Warm up by moving around in the pool, then up the intensity by running in place, driving your knees up as if you were treadmill sprinting. Yeah, best keep this one for quiet times at the pool.
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