Monday, August 17, 2009

6 reasons why trail running will make you a better runner

Boston Triathlon Examiner Claire Lunardoni

Add a few trail runs to your schedule, and all the power and good technique that you developed on the trails will have you running faster. Here's what you're missing if you never run on trails:
  1. Trails make you strong. The terrain around roads has been flattened out to accommodate houses, mini malls, and parking lots. Trails have hills as nature intended them, as steep as they darned well please. Having to run up a few 20% grades will give you a great hill workout without boring repetitions, and give you the aerobic capacity of a steam engine. Also, since trails are riddled with rocks, roots, twists, and turns, balance comes into play much more than on the road. Don't be surprised if after a trail run, muscles are sore that you didn't even know you had.
  2. Trails are injury prevention. Although you might turn an ankle in the woods or get a boo-boo on your knee, trail running will probably prevent more injuries in the long run than it causes. First of all, you are always using your muscles slightly differently on the uneven terrain, helping to prevent repetitive stress injuries and strengthening muscles and muscle fibers that are neglected on the road. Having legs that are strong all-around will make them practically bullet-proof to most repetitive stress injuries. Also, the soft surfaces on the trails give your legs respite from the hard pounding on the pavement.
  3. Trails give you a break. You need to add variety to your routine to keep from plateauing or simply getting stale. You can't get bored on the trails like you can on the road, because the second you zone out you'll be eating dirt. I do most of my trail running on the same 5.5-mile loop, but I never get tired of it because there is always so much to think about. The scenery changes from day to day, and it seems to become a whole new trail every few months. Since you have so many obstacles (hills, rocks, roots, slippery descents), trails also give you a break from thinking about your pace, and shake up a stale routine. Eventually you'll learn to stop looking down at your watch (because that's a great way to get a branch to the face), and just enjoy the ride.
  4. Trails are cool. With the 90ยบ heat that we've been... enjoying/suffering through (take your pick)... these past few weeks, I don't need to tell you how nice it is to get off the steaming hot pavement. Heat can not only ruin a tough workout, but it can also be dangerous. Trails are generally around water and shaded by trees, which cuts the heat down considerably and gives you a chance to get in a tough workout on a hot day. Even if you are not running on a shaded trail, sunny trails are cooler than the road where the tarmac soaks up the heat and radiates it back into the air even deep into the night.
  5. Trails can be long. There's a reason why there aren't many 100-mile road races. You can get away with running much, much longer on the trails than on the road because of the slower pace and soft surfaces. Try doing all or part of your next long run on the trails and your muscles will probably feel fatigued, but your knees, shins, feet, and other problem areas will probably feel better. You will also recover more quickly from a long trail run than a road run. If you really start getting into trail running, try a trail race. You'll find that trail runners are a laid-back and welcoming group (which can be refreshing if you hang out around tri-geeks too much). Trail races tend to be longer than road races, and can even be substituted for a long training run if you wish.
  6. Trails make you pick your feet up. Have you ever noticed the people around you in a race shuffling their feet, and then seen your race photos and found that you were one of them? Picking your feet up (knee drive) is a key part of running faster, but it's usually one of the first things that falls apart when you're tired from riding your bike or just running for too long. Trail running will teach you to pick your feet up even when you're tired. If you don't pick your feet up on the trails, eventually you're going to go ass over teakettle and wind up with a pine needle sandwich. When picking your feet up becomes a habit, it will translate to better running form off road as well as on.

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