by T.J. Murphy
In the novel Once a Runner by John L. Parker Jr., Olympic champion Bruce Denton explains to miler Quenton Cassidy why he should take to the trails. "Connective tissue," he explains, "is what gets all runners in the end," meaning the endless jarring of the body with "miles of trials" on the unforgiving asphalt of American roads.
What Denton didn't explain is that trail running is not only easier on the musculoskeletal system (provided you don't crash) but, as Portland-based coach Patti Finke, M.S., will tell you, trail running will make you faster.
Finke, an exercise physiologist who has completed more than 75 marathons and 75 ultramarathons, loves the trails for scenery they offer, but also their gifts. "Because there are hills involved, trail running gives you an added workout, making you stronger," she says. "It works your VO2 max, your muscular endurance and your lactate threshold. Depending on the trail and the length of the run, you get 25-30% more training effect out of a trail run than you do a road run.
"What we've found in our marathon coaching is that 85% of the runners who do the trail trains we suggest come within 15 minutes of their goal, while only 50% of those who just do the road runs come within a half hour of their goal time. Those doing the trail running have been infinitely more successful."
In addition to the data, Finke points to the way the elites train. "Look at the Kenyans. They do their long runs - of up to 30 miles - all on the trail," she says.
Other benefits of trail running include improving your "proprioception" - the ability to sense rocks and roots by feel and not just by sight. Finke also says that time on the trail improves a runner's capacity to concentrate for long periods of time, something that comes in handy for long, psychologically demanding races like marathons and ultramarathons.
Let's not forget about injury prevention. Trail running, if performed correctly and in the proper shoes, has the invaluable benefit of reducing chances of overuse injury due to the softer surface. The higher the mileage, the more this benefit comes into play. Racking up miles and miles of running solely on hard surfaces carries with it the risk of high-impact injury, as the act transmits stress through the human musculoskeletal system, nailing human weak spots like the foot, the shins, the knees and the lower back.
According to Dr. Timothy Noakes, world-renowned running doctor and author of Lore of Running, common "nagging" running injuries, like plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis and runner's knee, can all be caused by running too many miles on surfaces that are too hard.
Shoes are another important aspect of safe trail running. "Don't do your trail running in an old, dead pair of shoes. We see that a lot," Finke says.
She also suggests using trail running shoes, which are designed for more flexibility and greater traction, especially if the trail is technically challenging or wet and muddy. "Trail shoes are usually designed with more flexibility in the forefoot, whereas road shoes tend to be very stiff."
This stiffness, Finke explains, might make negotiating trail debris too tricky.
The New Trail Shoes
For runners weary of the technical challenges of trail running but interested in safely getting into it, now's a very good time. Trail shoes offered have never been better - and there has never been a wider selection to choose from. Of particular note, likely due to the surge of adventure running and racing, the market for trail running shoes has attracted companies like Merrell, Salomon, North Face, Hi-Tec, Montrail and others with deep-rooted histories in hiking boot design. Even Teva, which has a loyal and emphatic following of their outdoor-terrain sandals, has stepped up to the trail-running plate.
Teva's Pat Devaney, a long-time runner and marathoner, has been involved in steering the company toward a new branch of shoes for trail runners. "Demand from our consumers spawned our introduction into the running market," says Devaney. "Look at a company like ours - one that's been in the outdoors, on trails and through streams, since its inception. Trail running was already within the company DNA."
Tips for the Trail
The following are tips and techniques Finke offers to help you get started with trail running:
In the Portland Marathon clinic that Finke helps coach, runners are advised to do one of their monthly long runs on the trail. "But we start them out with short distances: six, eight or ten miles, and build to 20," she says. When you first build trail running into your schedule, chop it down in scale and give yourself time to adapt to the surface.
Finke advises her runners not to worry about pace, because it's going to be slower. In fact, she sends them off with what she considers the golden rule of trail running. "We tell them not to fight the trail. You don't run as fast on a trail as you do on the road, and you have to accept this and trust that a slower pace on the trail is not only fine, but necessary. It's when you fight the trail that you end up getting hurt."
Plan for your food and water needs, as the last thing you're going to find in the woods is a convenience store. Get one of the fanny packs and water-bottle belts loved by ultra runners, and fill it with your favorite snacks and electrolyte drinks. Finally, don't forget the greatest virtue of trail running: really, truly getting away from it all. Many runners find time passes much more quickly on the trails than on the roads, which may explain why we keep going back for more.