So in a recent post I listed off things that marathoners need to be warned about going into their first 50K ultramarathon, chief among them being that most ultras are on trails instead of roads. And that trails are kinda hard if you’re not used to them.
While that might seem off-putting to seasoned distance runners, even some road runners who aspire to cross over from marathons into ultra land, there is, in fact, a lot to love about trail running. Don’t knock it until you try it!
So with no further ado, here are the top reasons to give the trails a chance:
You never have to dodge cars. This is huge, especially when you’re fatiguing around mile 15 or 17 but determined to run another 5. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, though, and you may find yourself running on a trail system that intersects or is shared with a dirt road for campers or kayakers to drive in toward a campsite or landing. Generally speaking, though, the worst you’ll have to deal with on the trails is a mountain biker coming up behind you at breakneck speed and having to move aside to save him or her from swerving, possibly into a tree, or screeching to a halt just centimeters from your ankles. Trail etiquette says that bikers should announce themselves to you (and how many more are coming along behind them if they’re riding in a group that has spread out) in time for you to move, and that you, the runner, should indeed move – stepping just to the side of the trail if necessary – for your safety and theirs.
Weekend adventure! The forest – whichever one you happen to live near – can provide a temporary escape from the noise of our everyday lives. Even though it may be slightly less convenient to drive across or a little ways out of town to the local trail system than to just lace up and head out the door on a Saturday morning, the extra time involved pays off handsomely once you’re out there experiencing the freedom, the fresh air and the sounds of nature. At Harbison State Forest, where I regularly run on the weekends, deer sightings are not uncommon, and at Congaree National Park, the wildlife gets more exciting the farther off the beaten path you go!
You’ll develop balanced strength. This happens for a few reasons. One, the uneven surfaces force you to recruit muscle groups you wouldn’t normally have to recruit while road running (and that you probably didn’t know you weren’t recruiting until you went out on the trails for the first time). This includes muscles around your ankles, calves and also your abs! You know that Bosu trainer thingy you see sometimes at the gym but have never used? It’s an unstable surface that standing on, especially one foot at a time, forces you to brace your core to keep from toppling over. My friend, welcome to your great big woodland Bosu. Be sure to brace your abs as you run and jump over puddles.
Trails are easier on your joints and feet. Why? Because when you run on trails, the ground, which is softer than your bones, absorbs the shock. When you run on paved surfaces, you –and your poor joints and feet – absorb the shock. If you’re like most runners I know (including myself in my pre-trail days), that means you’ll be popping more Advil as time goes on and icing after every run. And what do you graduate to from there? Full-blown injury. “Runner’s knee,” that persistent pain that some runners get on the inside and/or underside of the kneecap, can progress to chondromalacia (a precursor to knee arthritis) if you only treat the symptoms instead of the cause or think that “stretching it out” will help. (More on that and how I bounced back from an extended injury period in an upcoming post.) If your knees have been giving you trouble during or after running in the road but you’re not quite at the point of needing to take time off, do yourself a favor and get out on the trails this weekend.
So that’s my four cents about why trails are awesome – and they are! If you haven’t yet experienced the trails and haven’t been inclined because you’ve heard about people twisting their ankles and other bad things happening, then ignore them and go out and do it anyway. Live dangerously! The next time you have a weekend where you’re temporarily stepping down your marathon training mileage and only running 10 or so on a Saturday, check out a nearby trail. (Before you go, check their website to see if there are any parking fees: here in Columbia, Harbison is $5 per day or $25 for the annual pass, Sesquicentennial State Park is $2 per person per visit, and Congaree is free.)
That’s it, no excuses. Pick the date and DO IT.
And if you like what you’ve read so far, bookmark me and come back to visit often!
So, having read all of this, do you still have any misgivings about the trails? If so, let me know in the comments!
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