I grew up in the southern part of West Virginia and since the Appalachian Mountains run through the entire state, pretty much the whole state is full of mountains, hills, and nature. I remember spending a lot of my childhood at state parks and walking on the trails with my mom, brother, or friends. My childhood friends and I would ride our bikes through trails and we would go for walks through the many wooded areas around where I grew up.
In other words, trails are nothing new for me. As an adult, I now live in North Carolina and have access to numerous trails near my home. If I get tired of the trails that are within walking distance of my house, I can always drive 30 minutes or less and get to many different trails at several different parks that I can run, walk, or ride my bike on. You should know when I say trails here, I mean everything from dirt trails that go past ponds, lakes, or creeks and have tree roots sticking out in random places to mulch-covered trails in wooded areas of parks that are less “technical.” I also run on asphalt trails, but that’s not what I’m referring to here.
About 2 or 3 years ago I decided to do more trail running and I have to say it did not go well. I was running along a very thin dirt trail that was lined with giant rocks on either side. From the beginning, I didn’t have a good feeling about running here and I should have listened to my gut but I kept going. After some time, I fell and hit my face just below my right eye on one of the rocks. Fortunately I didn’t hit my head or do major damage to myself but it did scare me and I had a nice scar on my right cheek for quite some time. I couldn’t help but think if that would have been just a fraction higher, that would have been my eye. I haven’t been running on that trail since then and I backed off running on other trails after that happened. I have to add that I recently had a pretty bad fall when I was running on an asphalt trail and I got bruised and cut up much worse on the asphalt trail than on this dirt trail.
Last year I began getting my courage back up to run on dirt trails and began incorporating about one trail run a week into my weekly runs. This year I’ve found myself running on trails or portions of trails about 2 or 3 times a week and I’ve gotten more comfortable running on trails. I’ve found trail running can be a great way to beat the heat, as they’re usually very shaded and feel several degrees cooler than running on the roadways.
I also started noticing that when I would run on asphalt trails or on roads, my times seemed to be getting better; I have been getting faster. Maybe it was because I started a new training plan but maybe it was because I have been running on trails through the woods. Without changing where I run and not running on trails at all, there’s no way to know. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.
Don’t just take my word for it that trail running can make you a faster runner. Runner’s World has an article on this very topic that you can read here. In addition to helping you increase your speed on roads, running on trails has many advantages such as helping to make your ankles and legs stronger, helping with balance, and helping to strengthen muscles that often get neglected with road running. Running on trails is also great for those runners such as myself that are over the age of 40 because the softer surface is easier on your joints.
If you’re a bit nervous about running on trails, you can gradually ease into it both in distance and trail difficulty. Find some nice wide trails near where you live that are pretty flat without big tree roots sticking out or big rocks on or along the trail and run there for a short run. Gradually increase how long you’re running on trails like this until you feel comfortable. Once this seems easy, branch out and try a bit hillier trails.
Another thing you may be concerned about when running on trails is encountering wild animals. If you live in an area where there are bears or mountain lions or other large wild cats, I strongly suggest you run with a friend (or a few friends), a big dog if you have one, and talk to other runners in the area about where the safest trails are. Fortunately for me, snakes are the worst I have seen on a trail when running. Last weekend in fact, I came across what looked like a juvenile copperhead snake crossing over the path. One time I remember seeing a giant black snake lying across the trail and it wasn’t moving in either direction. I certainly wasn’t going to jump over it even it was a nonpoisonous snake, so I just waited for it to slither off the path before continuing on my way. Generally if you leave snakes alone, they will leave you alone.
The funny part of all of this is, I’ve never run a race on a trail. The closest I ever came to a trail race is when I ran a race on loose gravel and dirt along a river in Nevada. It was perfectly flat and more what I would call a small dirt road than a trail. The race was one of my least favorites, though, because it was so hot, not scenic at all in my opinion, and I was just ready to be done with that race. You can read about the Laughlin Half Marathon in Nevada my 11th state of my quest for a half marathon in all 50 states. Not that I’m necessarily planning on running a trail race but I guess you never know. It seems like most races on trails are ultras and believe me, I have no intention of running one of those!
Do any of you run on trails but consider yourself a road racer? Have any of you run a trail race and if so which ones are your favorites?