What’s the Big Deal about Trail Running?
In a life dominated by daily demands and digital distractions, trail running offers a respite for the weary soul. If that sounded needlessly poetic, try this. Trail running not only improves your body but reconnects you to nature, providing an escape from the stress of our modern world. Better? As an avid runner raised in the inner rings of suburban hell, I’ve become passionately drawn to trails and look forward to every run in a way that I never did when running on neighborhood streets or even the straight black ribbons of “rails to trails” paths.
Crossing the Line
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy every aspect of running, even if I have to dodge selfish drivers and zombie pedestrians mesmerized by their phones. I am fortunate to have a variety of running opportunities nearby. When I grow weary of spending my running time assessing the threat level of every approaching car, I can loop around the baby strollers on the paved path at my small, local park or just put one foot in front of the other at the track at the nearby junior college. But none of those environments gives me the deep pleasure of running through a forest, green fields, and rolling hills. The connection with nature that flicks on like a switch as soon as I step on the trail is immensely therapeutic. The stress of balancing on the razor thin edge of my day to day finances, the pressures of my job and the personal struggles I have with some humans in my life never follow me onto the trail.
It may sound like my brain switches off when I go for a trail run. Far from it, the ever-changing terrain with each footfall excites parts of my brain that probably operate on autopilot the rest of the time. One part of my brain is fully occupied with scanning the trail ahead, planning each move to keep me from stumbling. Another part listens for the sounds of moving brush, crunching leaves, birdsong, and the wind in the trees. Did I just hear a deer dart away? Was that an owl in the distance? This change in electrical patterns does something to the rest of my brain. New thoughts emerge seemingly from nowhere. Solutions to problems I thought were hopelessly intractable pop into my head. An idea for a short story takes me on an unexpected mental journey as I cross a babbling brook. Why can’t I reach this mental state all the time?
Enticed but Wary?
You might assume that with all the potential tripping and slipping hazards underfoot that trail running will make you more prone to injury. Unconvinced road runners have asked how often I roll my ankles or break a toe on a root or rock. I may be jinxing myself, but I can’t recall ever being forced to take recovery time after a trail run. I’ve strained plenty of muscles while training for upcoming races on pavement. I’m no stranger to the drill of impatient recovery time and missed goals due to shin splints and other injuries.
Overall, trail running is kinder to my body compared to running on roads. Perhaps it’s the softer running surface. It could be that the uneven terrain under my feet builds up the smaller muscles in my feet and legs that make me stronger and more resistant to injury overall. Also, I run slower on trails than on paved surfaces even if the effort required is greater. With the right shoes for the terrain and a modicum of common sense, running on trails seems to not only cause fewer injuries but also improves balance, reaction time, and general strength.
A Woman Alone
So not only is trail running better for my mind and body than running on pavement, there’s the overall safety aspect as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly been hit by distracted drivers or stressed-out moms who treat stop signs as inconvenient suggestions. Even while running in boring middle class neighborhoods where kids play in the street, I’ve been shadowed by weirdos on bikes and targeted by perverts in pickup trucks who clearly think that I’m a piece of meat waiting to be purchased in a sex butcher shop.
Nothing remotely similar has ever happened during all the years I have run on even the most remote trails. Wildlife? They’re mostly afraid of humans. I caught sight of a black bear butt one time. I’ve startled countless deer, skunks, groundhogs, one porcupine, and a seemingly infinite number of squirrels and chipmunks. Humans? You might have it in your head that every rural trail is a setting for the movie “Deliverance,” but fiction is far from reality. All the people I come across on trails just seem happy to be where they are. I feel safer on a dusky trail lit only by the fading light of a late evening sun than crossing a suburban neighborhood street.
If you have never given trail running an opportunity to infect your soul, I recommend expanding your running horizons. If you are hesitant to plop down the dough for a good pair of trail running shoes (a requirement I didn’t really harp on about), then find a simple, graded trail or well maintained fire road to start and wear your trusty road shoes. If it becomes a habit or you desire a little more adventure, get a grippy pair of trail shoes with toe protection and a rock plate before you head out. Your body and soul (and maybe soles) will thank you.