Trail Running: An Escape from the Doldrums and a Killer Workout
Running is a sport that appears similar on the surface, but it's easy to understand why the Western States 100-Miler has an appreciably different flavor than a track 10-kilometer or even a road marathon. We often view running as a necessity to put some distance between us and the Grim Reaper, and thus our running is a product of our environment. That environment is not as easy to escape as we would like to think it is, as even a mountain town like Dahlonega in North Georgia can have some appreciable difficulty in getting off the roads and onto trails without driving 20 or 30 minutes.
A trail is a sanctuary, and a place where you can go to get out of the rut of the boring running routine around your city block. Running on a local trail has psychological and physical benefits that cannot be achieved on more predictable types of terrain. One of the biggest benefits that trails provide is a fuller workout. Road or track running is a fairly predictably surface with a fairly predictable movement. Trail running can be anything but predictable. Depending upon the type of trail, there can be mud, large rocks, running water, unstable terrain, low-slung trees, and various other obstacles. While a bad step can more easily lead to a rolled ankle, the varied motion of trail running creates a core workout that tunes up your abdominals in ways that regular running can't. Each little tripping motion you make is a response to the instability of the terrain, and it is these minor responses that the muscles have to counter with increased effort. It means harder work, but it also means greater rewards.
Trails are not unique about having hills, but a curious thing about trails is that the hills can often be short and quickly revert to a downhill, and then another uphill. This is a step out of the ordinary. If you pay attention to the way your body behaves on extremely long runs up hills or during a hill workout, you may notice that your pace slows significantly and becomes less dynamic after a certain point. Trails can often avoid this pitfall, because the hills are shorter and allow you to complete the hill in a dynamic and energetic motion. Undoubtedly, there are plenty of trails with monster hills as well, however.
Trails possess some dangers that running in the city or on a track does not have. Trails are more often secluded, which means you are less likely to find help in the event of an accident. Accidents are likely in rough terrain, and fauna is more likely to appear further away from civilization (think snakebite). Know the risks and have a backup plan. Inform someone close to you where you are going and when you expect to be back. Keep I.D. on you in some form, and consider carrying your cell phone (they can sometimes work).
If you do decide that some trail running is for you, there are a great number of trail races likely to be found in your area. Distances can range from 5 kilometers to the vaunted 100-miler (eek!), and they can be cross country style or closer to a pure trail race. Check out your local race listings for some ideas. www.coolrunning.com does a good job posting races that exist around the nation. Train for a trail race before it by doing some long runs, or just be prepared to realize that your time is not going to be as fast on the trail.