Trail Running, Cross Training for the Road

Y’all, I’m running my first 50k on Sunday!! I’ve had this trip to Big Bend planned in my head for the last 4 years but for one reason or another (mainly Boston) I couldn’t get the timing to work out. This year it is finally happening! This is only my second trail race (Brazos Bend was my first) but I’m not new to trail running.

I started trail running a year and a half ago after stumbling across a group who met at our local trails every Saturday morning.

It’s fun. We run through the woods, in the dark, by the light of headlamps, dodging spiders, snakes, armadillos, and other unknown creatures. It’s very Blair Witch Project. After we’re done we eat snacks and drink beer…all before 8 am.

While we run we joke with each other, and talk about both the serious and not-so-serious aspects of life. I had no idea that first morning I showed up that I would meet some of my best friends that day. Running friends are like that, trail friends even more so.

There’s something about watching someone dive head first into a bush, do ninja moves to avoid a spider or slide down an embankment that bonds you in a way that’s hard to duplicate. My trail friends have seen me at my best – and undoubtedly my worst.

Every now and then I miss my Saturday morning trail runs due to training for a race (last week I missed because of the flu) but other than that I’m there. Ready for the spiders, snakes, random tree roots and attack armadillos.

But why bother? I’m not a trail runner. As much as I like to deny it, road running is what I do. It’s what I’m good at. Why waste training time doing something I don’t focus on?

Variety is the spice of life, y’all. Trail running keeps me healthy.

Our trails run through the flood zone of a local creek. They’re rooty and though flat (we live in Houston where everything is flat) the local mountain bikers have designed them to run through every creek bed they could find. Most of the climbs/drops are less than 20 feet but they’re steep and FUN.

That first day I was shocked at how much more difficult trail running was. I was surprised at how tired I felt and how SORE I was the next day.

It’s running, it’s what I do! Why am I so sore?!

If you think about it, trail running is a completely different animal than road running.

On the road every foot fall is the same. You work the same muscles over and over and over. 800 times per mile your body catches itself in the exact same way. You have the same cadence, the same footstrike, the same movement pattern for hours and hours and hours.

But on the trails no footfall is the same. The trails challenge your balance, agility, and mental focus. Your cadence is faster, you’re constantly changing your footfalls as you avoid tree roots, rocks and logs. Your body uses stabilizing muscles it doesn’t utilize on the road, including the oft over looked muscles in your feet and ankles. The varying terrain forces you to slow down and the softer dirt lessens impact forces.

What does this mean for you?

Trail runners have fewer repetitive stress injuries than road runners (though acute injury rates like sprained ankles are higher). Fewer IT band problems. Fewer shin splints. Fewer cases of runner’s knee. If you can keep yourself from face planting, trail running will keep you healthy.

Do you want to be a stronger road runner? Run trails.
Do you want to be less injury prone? Run trails.
Do you want to run happier? Run trails.

Trail running is cross training for the road.

Since I began trail running I’m more coordinated, stronger, more nimble, more agile and my ankles have become larger. Like noticeably larger.

Even during marathon training I never stop running trails. I do all my long runs on asphalt and speedwork on the treadmill but easy/recovery runs are done on the trails where the softer surface, curving paths and tree roots force me to slow down, allow my body rebuild, and help me remember why I run.

You don’t have to be an exclusive trail runner to run trails. You can be like me with one foot on the pavement and one foot in the dirt. I do road races because I’m good at it but I run trails because I love it.

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