Taking it Off Road
Trail running is as natural as running could ever be. The first people to pick up the pace and start striding along did so not on roads, tracks, or treadmills, but on dirt paths, animal trails, and in open meadows. This was the way people first ran. It was trail running and it made them strong and balanced and it can make you a better runner too. Many runners are recognizing the advantage of taking their training to the trails and strengthening their road performance in the process.
The variability in terrain makes trail running uniquely challenging. Hills and descents are typically steeper, the ground is uneven and can frequently change in consistency, and trails are often complicated with roots, rocks and narrow twisting turns. These characteristics of trail running place a set of demands on the trail runner that are different from road running. Understanding how the body adapts to these demands helps one appreciate the benefits of trail running.
Collateral leg muscles work to stabilize the ankle and foot — helping to later prevent shin splints and other running-related maladies. A strong and supple core develops as the abdomen and back muscles strengthen and provide lateral agility and responsiveness. This dynamic and powerful core becomes the foundation for balance and stability, also assisting in impact absorption on descents. The physiological range of exertion is much broader. Heart rates typically range from 70 to 95% of MHR (maximum heart rate) during a single trail run. Similar to a “fartlek” run, the peaks in effort are unstructured; however, on the trail, the intensities are dictated by the demands of the terrain.
Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of trail running is the decreased impact on the joints and back as the foot strike takes place on softer surfaces. Many long time road runners have found renewed enjoyment going off road, giving their knees and other joints a reprieve from the hard impact of pavement and concrete.
Although many fear the dreaded “twist my ankle on a tree root” scenario, the same risks hold for road running. It is easy enough to catch a curb or fall victim to a careless motorist while running on roads. The key to making a safe transition into trail running is to recognize that although it is running, it is not the same as road running. As such, trail running should be treated like any new activity. Recognize that there is a learning curve and take your time to become acquainted with the unique characteristics of trail running. Here are some suggestions to consider if you’re planning on introducing trails into your running program;
• Start with one trail session per week. Try substituting one medium to hard road session a week with a trail run. Integrating trails into a portion of your program can give your running an edge without compromising your mileage or speed.
• Start off with shorter runs. Give your body time to progress and adapt to the new demands you are putting on it. Your leg stabilizers and core muscles will need time to develop before you can go out for a 90 minute trail run; or else you’ll be risking aches, pains, and possibly injury.
• Slow everything down. Speed comes after caution. Your pace should be at least 10 to 25% slower on the trail than it is on the road.
• Keep your eyes open. Moving at anything faster than a walking pace along a trail requires that you diligently scan the immediate two to three meters ahead of your feet to identify hazards. If you start gazing off into the woods, you’re asking for a dirt sandwich.
• Shorten your stride. This will give you more ground contact time and enable you to negotiate technical terrain more safely.
So if you’re looking to reinvigorate your running, consider getting back to the way people first ran and take it to the trails. If nothing more, the change in scenery and comfort of nature will breathe new life into your runs.
By John Klich
This article first appeared in Get Out There Magazine. www.getouttheremag.com
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