The growing popularity of trail running is largely due to the adventure and fresh set of challenges the sport offers. Canopied paths, the hush of nature, and unpolluted air are drawing runners en masse to trade some pavement-pounding miles for a more peaceful off-road experience.
Although the trails may offer the mind a sense of serenity, they require something wholly different from the body. Trails, whether they are dirt, rock, wood chip or crushed gravel, present new challenges to runners who aren't accustomed to navigating the ruts and rocks of more natural paths. When a runner isn't prepared and doesn't have a good sense of balance and proprioception, the inherent unpredictability of trails can lead to ankle strains and sprains, common injuries among off-road runners.
"Trails are naturally an unstable environment covered with rocks, sticks, branches, poison oak and critters," says Tim Sorenson, head coach for Total Body Fitness in Sacramento, California.
The good news is that these injuries are largely avoidable through balance training and improved proprioception. Trail runners often find that by adding balance training into their regular workout regimens, they are more confident on the trails and less likely to encounter injuries.
Research backs up this contention. For instance, one study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that athletes who followed a balance-training program were significantly less likely to experience ankle sprains than athletes who did not. Another study out of the University of Calgary demonstrated that a six-week balance-training program for high school athletes improved balance standing, jumping, and running and thereby protected the athletes against related injuries.
"Balance training helps you dance around the obstacles in that unstable environment without getting injured," adds Sorenson.