From Road to Trail

Stop relying on the road for your next adventure and take a detour to a trail. It could be the best road to trail experience you may have.

Have you run around a track so many times that you’ve developed a serious case of vertigo? Tired of car exhaust? Is the dreariness (or weariness) of another paved road keeping you down? Do you want to shave time from your personal best? Whatever your running hurdle, there may be a solution to break the monotony of a routine while increasing fitness and having more fun. What is it you ask? Trail running.

man and woman running on a hillsidePicture yourself moving through a green meadow on a soft dirt trail, jagged peaks to either side, while a soft breeze whispers through your hair. As people increasingly seek escape from urban sprawl, they are discovering it in their own back yard. And the chances are good that you’re pretty close to just such a place.

SEE ALSO: Stretches for trail runners.

Getting Started
Places to trail run are surprisingly easy to find. The abundance of fire trails, power line access trails, old logging roads, and local parks provide great places to run. Check out your local parks and recreation department or outdoor retailers. REI sells an excellent selection of guides and local maps. There are magazines dedicated to trail running (one of the best is simply titled Trail Runner) that offer suggestions on great trails for all levels of fitness.

What to expect
When getting started, trail running can be extreme. Try to pick something relatively flat (check the elevation drop and gain on a map). If you are moving from pavement to dirt, know that there will be some differences in how your muscles cope. The ground will be more uneven and inconsistent, the turns sharper and more frequent, and the terrain extremely varied from one mile to the next. Sound intimidating? Don’t let it. You got this.

Every journey begins with a single step. And when on the journey to fitness, there is no bigger step than the first one.

With a few tips and a little know-how, you will be on your way to some of the most beautiful trails and some of the best workouts in your life!

There are some general techniques in trail running that, while applying to all modes/genres of running, are particularly helpful. The most duress on your body occurs on the hills, both up and down. This is where technique becomes critical.

Going Up?
man running on the cliffRunning up hills is as much a mental battle as a physical one. The hills in trail running tend to be unrelenting and invariably will be the hardest, and most rewarding, part of your workout. You’ll want to keep your body erect and somewhat rigid (this translates into more efficient use of energy, much the way a rigid bike frame converts more pedal torque into forward motion), leaning slightly forward, and staying on the balls of your feet.

You will not often find yourself holding your breath while running uphill, more likely breathing takes the form of trashing gasps, as you slip further and further into oxygen debt. Instead, try to control your breathing—in through the mouth and nose and pushed out through pursed lips. This “power” breathing aids in concentration and will utilize your breaths more efficiently by being able to control the motion. Lastly, do not forget your arms. They are crucial on the hills. The movement of the legs is dependent on the arms, and pumping them will keep the legs going when the deep-down burn starts to settle into your legs.

Going Down?
Downhill, though less stressful on the lungs and muscles, is where the greatest risk of injury exists. The pounding that improper downhill technique delivers to the body can lead to an early grave for the knees, hips, and lower back. There is no need to go ballistic down a steep hill, so take your time; walk or switch-back down and use the respite to let your legs and wind recover.

trail runningOn gentler downhills try to stride out. Again, keep your body erect with a slightly forward lean. Focus on turning your legs over more quickly, landing on the ball (not the heel) of your foot. This motion keeps up your momentum and speed while keeping your legs under you and in control. Avoid landing on your heels, this takes the stress of your speed and downward force, and jolts it through your rigid skeletal frame. This alone is the primary cause of shin splints, knee, hip and lower back problems while landing on the ball of your foot puts the bulk of the strain onto the much more resilient muscular system. When applying the brakes it is natural to lean back and dig in the heels. Again, this is very jarring on your leg joints.

A better way to slow down and break is to, while keeping the line of the body upright, begin to squat down as if sitting in a chair. This will naturally lower your center of gravity, shortening your stride to make slowing down, and turning, easier, while keeping you on the balls of your feet. Remember that downhills provide you with time to allow your muscles to recover, and to that end oxygen is critical. Keep up the power breathing through the downhill to maximize your recuperation.

Always leave word with a responsible person as to your destination and estimated return time. One quick way to do this is to take a photo of the trail head on your phone, add some text about which trail you are taking, the distance you intend to cover, and when you plan on returning. Then text it to a friend (or two). Just remember to text them again when you get back to your car.

Remember, every journey begins with a single step. And when on the journey to fitness, there is no bigger step than the first one.

women running on a trail
Have fun out there, and tweet us (@columbia1938) to let us know how it goes!