Trail Running 101: Nature vs You

Photo credit: Alison Hoover

Photo credit: Alison Hoover

There are many reasons to go trail running. It gives you a good workout, immerses you in nature, creates community, and can make going out for a run a little more interesting.  

Unfortunately, New Orleanians don't have a slew of options when it comes to the sport—Bogue Chitto State Park and the Bonnet Carré Spillway being the two main options—but driving an hour or more to get to those trails just might be worth it.

While most anyone can try their hand at trail running, there are some things to consider. Therefore, Move Ya Brass turned to the experts who brought us hot weather running tips to weigh in on going off-road.

Take it Easy

Because the muscles used on a trail are different than on a flat road (even if the trail is deemed easy) runners should plan for shorter distances, maybe even go just half of what they're used to running.

"There is a big impact," ultra-marathoner and endurance coach Amanda McIntosh said of trail running. "When you are running on the road, you are doing the same motion over and over and over. There's very little change in direction or things you're doing."

"When you're on the trail you've got rocks, you've got roots, you've got things you're stepping over, stepping aside," she continued. "Your ankles are turning a little bit, the surface is uneven. So, you're using all these different little stabilizing muscles from your ankles all the way up even through the hips and the core and you'll find you'll be really sore from that."

Likewise, sports medicine specialist Matthew DesJardins, MD, advised easing into a trail run, especially since going downhill can be rigorous on the joints.

"You don't want to bite off too much too quick in terms of your distance," he warned, especially those living in flat cities like New Orleans who might not be used to the rougher terrain.

"Start easy and advance," he advised. "Just common sense."

Embrace Walking

Because it can be jarring on the body, trail runners should run the sections they safely can, but then walk the more difficult parts of the path in order to avoid leg and ankle injury.

"From personal experience, it was an eye opener going from roads to trails … as far as pace-wise," Move Ya Brass member, ultra-runner and running coach Wilfredo Aguirre recalled. "It's okay to walk. The trail dictates to you how you should handle it as far as elevation, mountains, trail conditions, mud, sand—whatever the case may be."

Warm up, Strengthen, and Cross Train

The day of a trail run, McIntosh likes to warm up with a few minutes of walking before hitting the trail. She also waits to stretch until after she warms up her muscles with an easy mile on the path.

To help prepare the body for a trail run, the ultra-marathoner is a proponent of strength training, especially bodyweight exercises including:

  • Walking lunges.

  • Single leg deadlifts.

  • Single leg balancing into toe raises, squats, and sits to stands from a bench.

Similarly, DesJardins stressed the importance of cross training.

"Trail runners—especially those [middle aged]—will have more joint pain particularly in inclines and declines," he explained. "I think if you're going to be trail running on a routine basis you should be extra concerned with cross training. Let's say you're running two or three days a week on trails, on your non-running days you really want to be making sure you're getting some lower body stability training."

Also an advocate of balance training, he suggested standing single leg hop drills:

  • Put squares on the floor and jump to each of them.

  • Single leg box jumps (a foot high or less).

  • Jump front to back and side to side.

DesJardins also gave yoga, Pilates, and certain weight training a nod for hip rotator strength, something runners are notorious for neglecting.

Aguirre, who also endorsed yoga for core and stride, is a fan of biking for recovery.

"Sometimes when you feel you had a hard week of running and your legs just don't feel it... it's ok to get on a bike," he opined. "It's almost the same kind of workout but you're not going to get that pounding of being on the pavement ... It's a good way to actually recover and stay fit at the same time."

Should trail running start to take a toll and cause pain (perhaps in the knees), as long as it's minor and not considered an injury, rushing in to see a doctor isn't necessary. However, DesJardins instructed to back off mileage and get in some of that cross/strength training.

"The older you are," he warned, "the more important that becomes."

Trail Running Footwear

McIntosh, who favors the Altra brand, mused that what works for one runner might not be ideal for another. She also pointed out that there are different shoes depending on your terrain needs – rocky, summer, winter, zero drop, waterproof, etc.

A runner's best bet is to talk to a professional experienced in trail running at a specialty running store. But if that isn't feasible, McIntosh recommended looking for a shoe with good traction and a toe guard.

Aguirre suggested looking into one's usual brand of choice, as most manufacturers have their own trail shoes or even a hybrid for both the road and trail. He also noted that trail shoes have a different fit than road shoes and encouraged doing some research before buying something online or shopping without the assistance of a professional.

Why Trail Running

McIntosh: "It's not about the race or it's not about the place… it's about the journey. It's about where you are and what you get to see and who you get to meet and it can be absolutely amazing. But it's no fun if you're uncomfortable and you're not having a good time."

DesJardins: "Trail running is one of those things where you can just try it. You don’t need a lot of prep or training for it, as long as you're not biting off too much at once. It's really fun. I think it's great cross training because you do hit so much of your stabilizing muscles. Once your body gets used to it if you're a runner it's a great way to do some running and get some other muscles activated that you don't normally get with flat surface street running. I'm a big fan of it. It's fun."

Aguirre: "The reason why I enjoy and love the trail running community is that there is no pressure of having certain running abilities to be involved. One of the cultures of the trail running community is that everyone is joined together by the journey of the trail or course. Regardless of how long it takes you out there, everyone will suffer miserably as one big happy family. The last runner who finishes is just as important as the first one who crosses the finish line. The 'family goal' is for everyone to finish out there!"

What's your favorite thing about trail running? Where do you like to go? Tell us below!

- Lori Wilson

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lori wilson

After moving away from her hometown, just outside of Detroit, Lori has done her best to stay out of her former constantly-working-to-make-ends-meet rut. Having lived in Los Angeles, Chicago and Denver, Lori began her writing career covering soap operas. While she will always keep track of the latest returns from the dead on “General Hospital,” she now focuses her writing on fun ways to stay happy, fit and out of the house. Recent adventures have led to her love of indoor cycling, getting pampered at the spa and her new favorite city New Orleans. A Midwestern girl at heart, Lori is back in Chicago, where she continues her quest to top the thrill she felt her first time on the trapeze.