Running tips: Mix trail running into your training

Near the trailhead at Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness area in Tulsa.

Darting through the narrow paths that wind up and around Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain, the vegetation opens up and reveals that first big vertical section of the path. Rocks, tree roots and a steeper incline await me as I begin the toughest part of my run to the top of the ridge.

Without fail, this is some of the hardest running I do. I have to concentrate, making sure my feet don’t land in the wrong spot where I might slip and fall or turn an ankle. My strides shorten, even become choppy as I bound from rock to rock. The easy breath counts that normally accompany me when I run on the pavement don’t apply here. I’m not sprinting, but it feels something like it.

It’s hard work, but it’s also mentally engaging, scenic and a major change of pace from the normal park runs or city runs that I do on a nearly daily basis. Trail running has become an enjoyable and essential part of my training regimen.

There are obvious reasons why I like it. I love getting outside, and the hiker in me enjoys hitting trails that at least feel wilder than what I see in the city. The opportunities to see wildlife and be free of the noises of traffic and other man-made things make for a nice getaway.

But I realize not everyone is like me. Plenty of people are fine with sticking to their neighborhoods, their parks or other city streets. There’s truly nothing wrong with that – as long as you’re out there moving and getting your miles in. But there are compelling reasons to find unpaved trails on which to get your runs.

First, unpaved trails give you the double benefit of softer running surfaces. A softer surface like dirt, grass or even gravel is easier on your joints than asphalt or concrete. A good, hard run on these surfaces will actually give your feet, ankles, knees, hips and back a break. The second half of that double benefit is that the give in more natural surfaces actually makes each stride a little more difficult. You get more work per mile running on trails than you do on paved surfaces. I noticed this quite a bit, even on an easy track like Tulsa’s Haikey Creek Park. This is a mellow path with only a couple mild inclines. But the bulk of it is gravel, and each mile there is a little harder than on the pavement.

Second, unpaved trails in wilder areas combine different fitness movements that make for an incredibly challenging workout. The description at the beginning of the post illustrates an early stretch of Turkey Mountain’s ridge run. I’ve described that particular run as a combination of running, stadiums and agility drills, all in one. Running strengthens the legs, but this type of trail running will work different parts of your legs than what you get on a typical paved run. Slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscles all get worked. The steepness of the trail, plus having to dodge trail “hazards” will blast your calves and glutes. There’s no way to mimic this type of cross-training in the gym. A trail run like this is a dynamic, muscle-confusing workout that will hit your legs from top to bottom and give your heart and lungs an added push.

What this means in the long run is that your “normal” run performance will only improve. The same will likely be true of race performance.

Third, trail running breaks up the monotony. I enjoy running, but I admit to needing some variety to keep my mind engaged. My typical running routes do the trick, but a weekly trail run makes it even better. If you’re consigned to running around a track or the same route all the time, there’s a good chance you’ll get bored. A trail run is just the fix. Scenery, wildlife, fresh air and natural sounds are a good tonic for boredom.

There are things to consider, though. First, many trails are rife with tripping hazards and can easily lead to twisted ankles. It means you have to focus. If your trail run is in a wilder area, you need to be sure that people know where you’re going and how long you’ll be gone. Even in a place like Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area, the area is big enough that if you got injured on one of the side trails and it was close to dusk, then there might be a chance you could be stuck there for a long time before you were found. Just imagine how much more acute that problem would be on a trail run somewhere in the Rockies or in the vast desert paths of the Southwest!

That said, I can only offer encouragement to check out trail running areas where you live. The training benefits are awesome, and the overall experience is on another level from your typical run.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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4 thoughts on “Running tips: Mix trail running into your training

  1. Good post. I total agree about the same route all the time. I try and change it up about everyday or every other day. Doing the same thing over and over again is boring. The only extra benefit for running in town is it gives me a chance to jam to my favorite music. No music on the real trails, kinda defeats the purpose.

    • Exactly. I’m not a headphones guy when I run, and particularly on the trails, I like to be immersed in the surroundings. One thing about the trails where I’m at — seems like there’s always a new route to explore.

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