Trail Running: What’s All the Hype?

trail running, outdoors, exercise, running

CEU Article Title: Trail Running: What’s all the hype, it’s only dirt

Erica Gratton

Jeep wrangler or sleek sedan? Filet mignon or turkey burger?

Enough metaphors already…Trail running vs. Road running. That’s the real question. Which are you? Trail runner or road runner?

The difference between trail runners and road runners isn’t what they wear on their feet or the car they drive or the even the meat they eat. The difference lies between their ears. No joke. It boils down to a psychological difference. One distinction in their attitude is the quest for speed and distance versus pursuing something for an intrinsic, yet immeasurable, experience. Road runners tend to be into measurement. Pace, heart rate, time (above, in and below their heart-rate zone), the distance they have run and the calories they have burned. In contrast, trail runners rarely know their pace, unless it is to estimate their finish time or figure out if they will make a time-cut-off. Normally trail runners, measure their runs by time rather than distance. They may crunch some elevation gain numbers, but that’s just because it’s cool to know how high the trail is that they just run.

Normally trail runners, measure their runs by time rather than distance.

Don’t get me wrong, trail runners may log their training days – miles, calories and elevation but their notes usually also include what trail it was, the condition of it; rutty, rooted, single or double track…if they found a new trail and / or discovered the trail they were on actually connected with last week’s trail and voila……! The trail now offers a loop option rather than just an out and back course. Trail runners are also about details, just not the same kind. Just as there is separation between “roadies” and mountain bikers in the cycling world, so is the dichotomy between alpine skiers and telemark “pin heads,” sport climbers and traditional climbers, flat-water kayakers and white-water kayakers, track skiers and ski tour types, and road runners and trail runners. It’s all in the attitude!

If that is the case, based on an ALTA* recent study showing the rising trend in trail racing…there should be a lot more free loving, laid back people running around the streets. Oh wait, they wouldn’t be running around the streets, they’d be hitting the trails! Check out these recent stats: There were 450 trail races in 2000 and 2,667 in 2012. Huge growth.

In 2000, 90,105 runners participated in those races which grew to 326,098 in 2012. Also in 2012, 233 new trail races were hosted while in 2000, only a mere 25 were held. Statistics predicted the growth trend in trail running to reach nearly 350,000 participants in 2013. It is an obligation of the trail running community to teach the new comers how to stay safe, how to pick a good running line, basic trail etiquette and most importantly, how to leave the trail better than you found it! So hang up your road shoes and throw on some rugged sneakers, because we’re going to hit the trails running.

There are so many trail running benefits. Trail running reduces your risk of injury. How is that possible? Easy… The uneven terrain – roots, rocks, water crossing and ever varying trails lesson the likelihood of overuse injuries due to constant, repetitious foot strikes on pavement. The varying terrain also requires a runner to engage core stabilizing muscles. Trail running will make a runner stronger by building greater balance and better mental focus. If I haven’t convinced you to hit the trails yet, then ponder this…getting dirty makes you feel way more badass than you really are. Before you let your inner primal warrior free, let’s review some easy ways to stay safe on the trails.

Stay safe on the trails!

  1. Slow down and take short, light footed strides. Expect to run slower on the trails. Focus on what feels comfortable, not your pace. Shorten your stride, stand tall and run lightly. You will probably roll your ankles, but if you are light on your feet with shorter strides you will be able to go into that “roll” more easily and less likely to injury yourself. Agility is a key factor.
  2. Pick a good line. Always look 5-10 feet ahead of you, not directly down at your feet. Plan your steps and pick a good line. Try to step over fallen trees, roots and large rocks rather than on them; they can be slippery even when they don’t appear to be. Keep a distance between you and your fellow runners as well. In case you need to jump, duck or change speeds, it helps if you can actually see the trail ahead of you!
  3. Walk if you need to. Don’t be afraid to walk the hills. Trail runners know it’s more efficient to walk up steep hills and conserve energy. Be sure to keep your posture tall and pump your arms. It’s harder to get up a hill if you are bent over. Your lungs aren’t as efficient if they are compressed. Keep your eyes on the crest of the hill. Knowing the top is near is a huge motivator for digging deep within. Don’t exhaust yourself on the steep stuff. Train smarter. Perform better.
  4. Run wild on the down hills. Stop breaking and allow yourself to fly a little. Your knees will thank you later. Use your arms to slow you down if you need to. Extend them away from your body and loosely hang them to draft you. A“bunny hop” kind of run on the down hills will also slow you enough to navigate the technical stuff on single tracks. If you start to lose control, run like a skier in an “s” formation.
  5. Know the weather. Before you go outside for hours, be sure you check the weather. Especially if you are heading for the mountain trails. Weather can change within minutes. Be certain to apply plenty of sunscreen if the sun is shining and the trails are exposed.
  6. Pack plenty to drink and eat. Hydration and fueling can make or break some days. Studying the mountain trails and knowing if they are exposed or shaded is good to know. Take plenty of water, electrolytes, and food. If you plan to go far, you may be away from any supplies for hours.
  7. Buddy system and unplugging. Many things are better when done together. Grab a friend and hit the trails. It is safer to run in pairs or small groups. It is also safer to run unplugged. If you can hear your surroundings, you will be less likely to get spooked or surprised by a downhill mountain biker as he or she whizzes by.
  8. Be Safe. Bring a map, plenty of water, fuel and a phone. Phone service is not always available, but you can take a picture with a phone. The spectacular views are worth it. Again, leave your ear buds at home. Safety is first and if you can’t hear your surroundings, you’re not alert. Unplug and enjoy the sounds of nature as they were intended.

Now that we know how to stay safe on the trails, let’s learn a few reasons why we made the best decision in our running career to leave the asphalt behind.

Benefits of trail running over road running:

  1. Trails are softer, so most trail runners experience less injuries due to impact forces.
  2. Uneven terrain forces runners to take shorter strides causing them to land more mid foot; less heel strike. Uneven terrain also builds stronger stabilizing muscles in the lower legs. In addition, smaller muscles responsible for proprioception and balance get recruited as well — especially around the ankles.
  3. Hills, hills and more hills make you stronger. There is little to nowhere that trail running is flat. Running uphill engages the same muscles when running flat, however there is increased resistance which builds more strength.
  4. Shorter strides due to the varying terrain promote foot striking mid foot requiring less energy than heel to toe running which also creates a braking simulation each time the foot makes contact with the ground.
  5. Breathe easier knowing there are no motor vehicles on the trails (or minimal Ranger traffic) and an abundance of trees.
  6. Trail running is mentally enjoyable which is a major component in maintaining consistency and longevity in the sport. It is most relaxing to get out of the hustle of town and reflect on life. You may make a spiritual connection.

So the next step you take should be onto a trail.
Don’t be intimidated, it’s only dirt!