AMC Outdoors, April 2004
By Michael Lanza
You love hiking and want to find an exercise activity that builds fitness and gets you outdoors, but provides more of a workout.
You’ve been hitting the gym for years (or it seems that long) and are getting a little tired of the rat-on-a-treadmill monotony.
You’re a dedicated runner, but your body’s feeling the wear and tear of pounding asphalt.
Three scenarios, one solution: trail running. Surging in popularity since the late 1990s, the sport now counts some 40 million occasional participants and about 6 million regular enthusiasts in the U.S., according to a study conducted in 2002 by the Outdoor Industry Association. The explanation is simple: It’s cheap, accessible to many people, and gets you outside, marrying the buzz of aerobic exertion with the uplifting feeling of taking off into the forests or hills.
“The biggest thing about trail running,” says Michael Benge, editor at Trail Runner magazine, “is it will put you out in the woods in a totally different state of mind than running on the road, not to mention it’s easier on your body than pounding the pavement. If I have to run six miles on a road, it seems so much longer than a six-mile trail run.”
One thing feeding the sport’s growth is a proliferation of new trail-running events, especially in the West. Trail Runner’s calendar lists more than 700 organized trail races around the country in 2004, and Benge says he sees race times continually going down, an indication that more serious runners are pounding the dirt.
On Your Mark, Get Set…
To go, you don’t need much gear, but the minimal outfitting for trail running should be appropriate for the sport’s specific demands. For starters, forget about wearing street-running shoes, which are built for cushioning and motion control, and designed to prevent overuse injuries such as shin splints, overpronation, and knee problems. Trail-running shoes, by contrast, are built for stability, to guard against the sport’s most common injury: ankle sprain. Trail-running shoes also sport a more aggressive tread for traction on mud, rock, and loose terrain; a stiffer, beefier insole and midsole for support as well as protection underfoot from rocks and roots; and more durable materials in the uppers. Consequently, they’re usually a few ounces heavier than road shoes. Still, trail-running shoe models vary greatly to accommodate both runners who prefer a lighter shoe and those who want more support.
Some trail-running shoes are waterproof-breathable — good for use in mud and puddles, which can linger in the woods long after a rainstorm passes. Gore’s XCR membrane is commonly used because of its superior breathability — just know that any membrane makes shoes warmer, which generally isn’t desirable if most of your runs are in hot, dry conditions. You can also find models designed specifically for added grip on ice, or for wintry temperatures. As with all footwear, remember that the most important feature is a good fit. Your toes shouldn’t hit the front while going downhill, your heel should be locked in place, and there should be minimal extra space around your foot. Custom footbeds — separate insoles sold by many manufacturers — beef up the support and cushion of any footwear. Just make sure you find a model that fits running shoes, which have less interior volume than hiking boots and other oversized footwear. And try different styles to find one that feels good.
When do you replace running shoes? Don’t wait until your knees ache. Look for telltale signs of wear: creasing or wrinkling in the exposed midsole, or a loss of cushioning for your feet, which indicates the midsole has been compressed. Some runners simply keep track of the miles on their shoes — many models will last between 350 and 500 miles, which, if you’re logging 15 miles a week, means buying new shoes every six to nine months. If you start feeling pain in your feet and ankles, get new shoes.
Beyond shoes, you also have to dress for the conditions. For a 45-minute run in a city park, your garb may consist only of a synthetic T-shirt and shorts that are lightweight, breathe well, and dry quickly. For a multi-hour run in the mountains, though, a little more preparation is smart, beginning with a lightweight jacket (many weigh only four to 10 ounces). Get one that emphasizes breathability over weather protection — good wind protection and water resistance are adequate. For weather protection, add a long-sleeved synthetic jersey and tights, windproof gloves and earband or a warm hat, and low gaiters that fit snugly over running shoes (for puddles, pebbles, etc.). A compact headlamp is often a good idea just in case — modern LED models are tiny and weigh next to nothing, but make sure it’s bright enough to illuminate the trail several feet ahead. Energy bars or gel packets and a powder electrolyte-replacement drink mix are a good idea on runs exceeding an hour. Carry it all in a convenient hydration pack. (See related article.)
The good news is that running on packed earth is far easier on your feet, leg joints, and muscles, even your back, than hitting the pavement. But it still taxes your body, so take Michael Benge’s advice: “Like road running, you want to build up a base of strength and endurance, and ease into it, before you go on a long run. You need to become more accustomed to the obstacles and uneven terrain.”
As for “technique,” well, running is running, right? Not quite. Backcountry hills tend to cause runners to drop into a round-shouldered hunch when going uphill — keeping your chest erect allows your lungs to fully expand and can mean the difference between reaching the top and bonking halfway.
Running hill laps is a tremendous aerobic and strength workout, especially fartleks (see below), but only if done infrequently, perhaps on alternate weeks. Otherwise you risk over-training — breaking down leg muscles too often, or hitting the anaerobic zone too frequently — which can result in injury or diminished strength and stamina.
Street runners may be familiar with a tempo workout — a shorter-than-usual workout (or shorter than a race length if you race) at slightly faster than your normal (or race) pace. Tempo workouts build endurance and strength, and are a good mental exercise because they demand concentration to maintain the effort. Ideally, do tempo runs on familiar terrain; if you have to, run several laps up and down the same hill. Begin with tempo runs that are about one-quarter your normal distance and gradually increase them—a mile a week or less, backing off if you feel like you’re overdoing it—to about half your normal distance.
Fartlek workouts, developed by Sweden’s national running team coach in the 1930s, alternate sprints with slow running to improve endurance, speed, and recovery time. For stamina, go on longer-than-usual runs and intersperse several sprints of a minute or so with slower running. To improve your speed, shorten both the run distance and the sprint intervals. Use hills to make it harder, sprinting uphill and recovering on the downhill. You can determine your own run and sprint lengths and “resting” intervals at a slower pace. Whatever your pace, fartleks will train your body to recover from near-exhaustion while you’re still running. Just don’t push so hard that you can barely keep moving during the recovery period.
—Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.