Did you know there are almost 200,000 miles of trails on federal land in the United States? From steep and rugged terrains to flat, well-traveled routes, there is something for anyone who wants to get out and enjoy the fresh air. Not only is a trail run or hike great exercise, research shows that spending time outside is associated with good health and well-being.
Before you head out on a new outdoor adventure, though, there are a few things you should know. Trail running and walking aren't quite the same as traversing paved surfaces, so it's important to be prepared. With the right equipment and expectations, you can enjoy all the benefits that your local trails have to offer.
1. Invest in Trail Shoes
"There is a big difference between running shoes and those made for trail running or hiking," Lynell Ross, managing editor of Zivadream, explains. She recommends visiting a specialty running or hiking store to find shoes that fit properly and are designed specifically for your type of workout. "Trail shoes provide support and protection that running shoes don't [offer], as they are made for running on rough and varied surfaces. They also stand up to mud, gravel and other obstacles you may find on the trail," she says. Ross warns against wearing trail shoes on concrete or pavement since the road can wear down the rubber on them.
2. Strengthen Your Ankles
"Perhaps the most common injury for hikers and trail runners is the dreaded ankle twist," says Paul Johnson, founder of North Outdoors. "Reduce the chances of a twist by getting good trail shoes and shortening your stride so you have firm control of your foot placement." Add a few ankle exercises to your strength routine for additional stability, as well. Incorporating calf raises, heel walks or single-leg balances on a BOSU or Wobble Board will help protect from injury.
3. Know Your Route
"Often, trail markings can be a little confusing or non-existent," cautions running coach Heather Hart. "Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back." Many parks post their trail maps online, so check them out ahead of time to get familiar with the layout. It's also a good idea to carry a cell phone in case you need it.
4. Focus on Your Footing
Johnson recommends not wearing headphones if you are hiking or running on a trail so that you can fully focus on the path ahead. "Many single-track trails can only accommodate one person in spots, which means you need to be able to both see and hear oncoming traffic," he says. "A great thing about trail workouts is that they tend to be less boring because there is so much for you to focus on while you run, hike, walk or bike." If you want to look around at the scenery, slow down or stop to help prevent a fall.
5. Don't Stress About Pace
Hart reminds her clients that trail running typically takes more effort than road running, due to ever-changing terrain, softer substrate underfoot and, quite often, elevation change. "I always tell people to ignore their watch. Your mile times are likely going to be much slower for the same amount of effort, and that's okay!" Instead of focusing on time, consider tracking distance and modify your expectations.
6. Make It a Total Body Workout
Amanda Brooks, creator of Run to the Finish, often gives her clients a different kind of trail workout when they are feeling a little burned out or are in need a boost of motivation. "I like to incorporate strength training into the routine," she says. One of her favorites relies on a trail with benches or logs along the path. Whenever you come upon one or the other, stop and do one set of 10 pushups, 10 triceps dips, 10 side lunges and 10 in-and-out crunches. This adds variety and gives you a strength and cardio workout all in one.
7. Respect Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is the principle that as you increase the workload during a specific activity, your body will adapt and your muscles will become stronger. Michael Julom, founder of This Is Why I'm Fit, reminds his clients of this principle when they start trail running and walking. "This is training, and like any other type of training, you will be looking to adapt and strengthen your body," he explains. "Start off light, with simple, less-advanced trails, but make each training day slightly harder than the previous one. Your body will adapt in no time."
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