Taking on Trails this Summer

Fri, 4 Nov. 2011 - 6:44 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Trail running is a great way to spice up your training, and, despite its reputation as intense or sometimes even dangerous, it can actually help protect you from injury. Ordinary road running causes stress on the tendons, muscles, and joints in the same places repeatedly. This is one reason it’s recommended you run common neighborhood loops in opposite directions on consecutive days. The highly regular pounding of road running can lead to overuse injuries like stress fractures, some of which require a complete break from running for 8 or 10 weeks in order to heal. Others, like patellofemoral syndrome or Achilles tendinitis, can plague you on and off for years. Trails with twists, roots, bumps, and obstacles force your body to use slightly different muscles with each footfall, causing you to absorb load differently and therefore to distribute the stress round-robin, keeping you less inclined toward these injuries of repetition.
As racing performance and frequency curtail somewhat with the onset of the summer heat, running trails is a great way to put some fun back into your off-season runs. Trail running requires a different kind of mental focus than running on roads, and you'll need to pack a bit differently than for a regular long run. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your day in the woods. If you're just starting out exploring this type of running, choose milder inclines or flat trails, and favor well-worn paths. The web is a great resource for finding nearly every type of trail near you, and the information tends to be more up-to-date than many books. Check the American Trail Running Association site at www.trailrunner.com for detailed information about slope, weather, distance, and navigating by car or even public transportation to trailheads.
General tips
Always let someone know the trail you will be taking before you head out for your run. It's best to run with a companion if possible.
Remember that it's okay to stop and take in the scenery. Part of what makes these runs special are the sights, sounds and smells of the great outdoors. Your run need not incorporate strictly scheduled, hardcore training, though it certainly can offer that as well.
When crossing streams, deep water will appear smooth. Ripples mean rocks, so you'll probably want to cross there, but watch your footing and always face upstream.
When you get to a crossroads, turn around. Take a mental snapshot of what the intersection will look like on your way back.
Trail clothes
Trail running shoes may be worth a look. They usually offer a toe bumper and superior traction. Just remember that, unless the trail is entirely flat, you'll be running downhill much of the time. You'll want extra room up front to keep your toes from cramming against the tip of the shoe.
The rest of your gear is no different from road clothing. Any moisture-wicking running clothes will suit you well on trails. As with any run, if rain is an issue, pack a light water-resistant jacket. The most important thing you can do is layer. As you move in and out of the sun, you'll be surprised at the changes in temperature. In summer, generally favor light-colored, loose clothing. If encounters with hunters might be an issue, avoid earth tones.
Trail accessories
A small fanny pack is the best way to store all you'll need with you. Some even come equipped with a water bottle holder. Alternately, a hand-held bottle holder with a velcro strap makes for an easy way to carry fluids. There are many excellent hydration packs on the market, too, which will free your hands and distribute water weight more evenly across your back. These are useful for harder runs when you want to take a sip without stopping.
In any case, especially at this time of year, hydrate well before you head out. If you plan to be out on the trail over an hour, bring sports drink instead of water.
Never begin hungry. If your stomach can tolerate it, eat a light meal an hour or two before the run. Still, it's always a good idea to bring along pretzels, granola bars and a few sports gels. Trail running is to some extent about following your whims and going where the day takes you. If you decide to stay out there longer, the food will come in handy. Just be mindful of remaining daylight.
Outdoor sporting goods stores can sell you a pre-fab first aid kit so compact you won't even know it's there—until you need it. To this you might add tweezers (especially in catcus country) and athletic tape in case of a twisted ankle. Insect repellent, sun block and anti-itch ointment are other useful items. Bring a few hand wipes in case you encounter poisonous plants. The best way to prevent rashes from spreading is to wash the skin immediately.
Finally, don't forget your ID, some cash and a cell phone. In remote areas, you can't always count on reception (that's the idea, anyway!), but it won't hurt to have it. Bring only the door key to your car; this will minimize unpleasant jingling and allow you to better commune with nature. Today’s GPS apps offer a great way to both navigate and calculate your mileage and exertion levels out on the trail, adding a new dimension of precision to these workouts in recent years. Other runners use the trail to purposely get away from precision training, a kind of wooded fartlek that can keep your running regimen fresh. Either way, trail running has a lot to offer and is definitely worth a try.
Runner's World Complete Guide to Trail Running by Dagny Scott Barrios, Rodale Press, 2003, 228 pp. $16.95
(RUNNING & FITNEWS®  May / June 2011 • Volume 29, Number 3)

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