Tackling the Trail

By Matt Forsman A.K.A. Marathon Matt, March 04, 2016

Tackling The Trails

If you’re a recreational runner, you may balk at the idea of incorporating trail running into your routine. Trail running is often not the most convenient option. Additionally, trail running usually entails navigating hills and uneven terrain. To boot, trail running has pretty much become synonymous with ultra-running.

Pick up any issue of Trail Runner magazine and you’ll find the overwhelming majority of the content is associated with training for distances of 26.2 miles or more. It’s understandable why one might be trepidatious about tackling the trail. However, one can enjoy the trails without running 26.2+ miles.

Below we lay out a few tips for transitioning to the trail. We also outline a few of the reasons why you should embrace trail running even if you are primarily a road runner. There are some very real benefits you can derive from the trails that will help with your road running.

Trail Running

Transitioning onto the trail

There are a variety of things to consider when making the transition to the trail. Here we will focus on the three biggest considerations.

 

HILLS!

There is simply no way to get around them if you’re running on trails. Virtually every trail has hills, usually in spades. So, if you HATE hills, try to think of them less as ‘hills’ and more as ‘developmental opportunities’.

As a general rule of thumb when running on the trails, focus less on ‘pace’ and more on level of effort. This is particularly the case when it comes to hills. Your comfortable, conversational pace on a flat stretch of road might be 9:00/mile. But, there’s no way you can expect to maintain this same pace comfortably when you’re climbing up a mile long hill with a 5% grade.

In a scenario like this, your comfortable, conversational pace might drop to 11:00/mile (or slower). The key is to focus less on the pace reflected in your Sport Me Run Trainer and more on running at a comfortable pace. Don’t sweat running a bit slower. In fact, sometimes it’s a good thing to run slowly.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to take a walk break. Some of the best trail runners on the planet do it regularly!

 

Uneven Terrain

If you’re used to cruising on smoothly paved roads and trails, the trail might intimidate. Most trails include roots, rocks, twigs, and uneven terrain. Maintaining balance and staying upright is more challenging here than running on the road.

When you are running on the trail, try to keep your eyes trained roughly 5-7 feet in front of you at all times. You want to constantly scan the ground in front of you to identify where your next foot-strike will be. You need to be dialed in when you’re running on the trail.

This means listening to music, messing around with your phone, or doing anything else that might distract you from the task is unwise. Stay focused on the trail in front of you, and stay engaged with the act of running.

You also want to focus on shorter, quicker strides when running on the trails. Shortening your stride will make it easier to navigate any uneven terrain the trail presents. It will also enable you to make changes quickly if needed.

 

Shoes

Depending upon the terrain of the trail you’re tackling, you might be able to get by with a regular pair of running shoes designed for the road. If you plan on running on a trail with rocks, roots, and an abundance of uneven terrain, a solid pair of trail running shoes might be in order.

A quality pair of trail running shoes will likely have a slightly thicker outsole than a regular pair of running shoes designed for the road. They should have a more aggressive outsole pattern designed to help you navigate the uneven terrain most trails present. Many trail running shoes will also include additional support and stability to help prevent turning an ankle or losing your balance.

Trail Running

Benefitting from the trails

While there are a few hurdles to overcome before becoming adept at running on trails, there are a litany of benefits one can derive from running on the trails that you can’t get on the road.

 

Biomechanics/Form

Trail running pretty much demands that you run in a biomechanically efficient manner. You have to shorten your stride and increase your turnover to navigate most trails effectively. This results in improved running biomechanics as well as improved proprioception.

Improved biomechanics results in improved running economy and improved body awareness. Ultimately, you are looking at better running across the board whether you are doing it on the road, trail or treadmill (gasp!).

 

Hills are speedwork in disguise

While hills can be intimidating, try to think of them as ‘speedwork in disguise’. Every runner I know wants to run faster. Addressing the need for speed can be achieved by clocking intervals, doing tempo runs, or incorporating some fartlek into your routine. But, tackling the trails on a regular basis will help you develop speed as well.

Running hills can improve the elasticity of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. This allows for these tissues to do more work with less fatigue. Hill running also improves aerobic power which means improved knee lift and helps move each leg forward more quickly while running. Tackling hills can improve running economy as well.

 

A softer, more forgiving surface

Many who are trepidatious about the trails are afraid of falling. This is valid given the hills and uneven terrain. But ask yourself, would you rather fall on asphalt or fall on a dirt fire road?

Trails are a softer more forgiving surface. Falling is actually a bit more forgiving on the trail than it is in the concrete jungle. This softer surface means that recovering from a trail run is a bit easier than recovering from a comparable run on the road.

Additionally, the uneven terrain often encountered on the trails means every footstrike is a bit different. Different muscle groups are used in different ways with virtually every step you take. This means you’re getting more of a full body workout. You’re basically strengthening and stabilizing your entire body.

 

Nature

While running of any kind can help rejuvenate, refresh, and relax, there’s a big difference between banging out a utilitarian five miler in the city versus cruising blissfully through a forest for five miles in the middle of nowhere.

If you enjoy the sometimes zen-like, meditative quality of running, you will love running on the trails. The level of engagement required to run trails creates a scenario in which you can lose yourself in the act of running and find flow easily. Running on the trails is meditation in motion.

There’s also plenty of science out there that touts the benefits of getting out and connecting with nature. Spending time around trees, forests, and parks can increase immune function. Connecting with nature reduces stress.

 

So, if you can set aside any trepidation you might have around hills and uneven terrain, tackling the trails will reward you in a plethora of ways.

 

If you are interested in becoming a trail runner, Sasquatch Racing specializes in producing non-threatening, non-intimidating ‘trail parties’ that include distances familiar and comfortable to recreational runners including 5K, 10K, and the half marathon. Their events also include post race beer, massage, medals, and much more.

Their latest trail party, The Tick Trailblaze 5K/10K/Kid's Dash goes down on Sat, 7/14 @ China Camp State Park in San Rafael if you’re looking for an opportunity to tackle the trail. SportMe will be there! Will you?

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