4 alternatives to road running

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Most runners log their miles on the streets, but roads shouldn’t be your only training ground. ‘Running on different surfaces changes the scenery, workout and effort, giving road runners a break,’ says running coach Jennifer Novak. Running once or twice a week on grass, sand, trails or even in the pool reduces the impact on your legs, which minimises injury risk. And pushing off on softer surfaces strengthens more muscles, which can translate into faster times on the road. Here’s how to adapt your workout to whatever lies beneath.

Grass

Running on grass produces up to 17 per cent less pressure on your feet than running on roads, says a recent study in the Journal of Sports Sciences. This makes it ideal for runners on the mend who want a forgiving surface to help them transition back to the streets. It’s also ideal for runners looking to minimise injury risk while increasing mileage or intensity.

What to do there

Speedwork. On a neat, level surface, such as a football pitch, warm up and then run three minutes, two minutes and one minute hard, with a one-minute rest in-between. The intensity should be such that you can speak just a word or two at a time. Start with two to three sets and progress to five.

Sand

The unstable surface of a beach helps strengthen muscles in your feet, legs, hips and core, says Novak. Sand running also ramps up the aerobic challenge, burning about 1.6 times more calories than road running, reports the Journal of Experimental Biology. But avoid sand if you’re returning from injury, since it puts extra strain on your lower legs and calves, says Novak.

What to do there

Easy runs. Begin sand running by finishing your road workout with five easy minutes; stay on the harder sand, close to the water, for more traction, says Novak. Progress to seven minutes easy, running reps of two minutes on the hard sand and 20 seconds on softer sand.

Trails

Hitting the trail keeps your mind on movement. ‘The rocks, trees, roots and turns require focus if you’re to be safe,’ says Novak. Regularly shifting gears and adjusting to terrain also puts your leg muscles through a varied range of movements.

What to do there

Hills. Find a trail with inclines of a low and moderate grade. Run at a conversational pace for half to two-thirds the distance of your average easy run. ‘On each ascent, lean forward, keep your arms pumping, use short strides and land on the centre of your foot,’ says running coach Robert Rhodes. ‘Most importantly, breathe,’ Each week, pick up the pace until you’re running uphill comfortably hard – an eight on a scale of one to 10.

Water

Striding through water isn’t just rehab for injured runners – it’s also useful if you want to build strength. ‘Water offers continuous resistance,’ says Michael J Ryan, assistant professor of exercise science at Fairmont State University, US. Your muscles have to push at every point of your stride; on land they get a breather when they’re airborne.

What to do there

Alternating intervals. After warming up in chest-to-shoulder-deep water, do the following: two to three minutes hard, 30 seconds all out, then three minutes jogging. Repeat three times and add one set every two weeks. Moving to shallower water (waist-deep or lower) will increase the impact and work your lower leg muscles even harder, says Ryan.