Trail

Now’s the Time to Give Trail Running a Try

Whether you’re going for a run in your local wooded park or negotiating rugged single-track in the mountains, trail running is distinctly different from running the roads, treadmill, or track.

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How Hiking Made Me a Better Runner

When I was first getting into endurance running, I vividly remember how challenging the weekly long runs were. Not from a fitness standpoint, necessarily. Sure, my muscles and joints felt the impact of building up mileage. But more than anything, it was the pent-up restlessness I felt by trying to slow down and simply endure them. I was incapable of falling into a rhythm. My splits were all over the place. In my head rang a constant “are we there yet?” impatience. I got through them, but it wasn’t pretty—and I didn’t enjoy it.

But let me tell you something: Nothing, I mean absolutely nothing, compares to putting a pack (especially a heavy one) on your back and hiking up the steep side of a mountain. It is slowness in the most extreme.

I used to feel that same impatience hiking; I’d try to power to the top quickly as I could, “to get it over with.” But the difference was clear: I couldn’t speed up, even if I wanted to. I fatigued far more quickly, even though I was moving far more slowly.

Then in 2017, I got the chance to climb Washington’s Mount Baker with Melissa Arnot, an Eddie Bauer athlete who has summited Mount Everest six times (the most of any American woman). My eyes were opened. She went so slowly, so steadily. Each step was executed like a strength exercise: plant foot, squeeze glutes, push to extend forward. It wasn’t a race to the top. It was an act of seeing the bigger picture; it was an act of unbothered patience.

All of the typically touted benefits of hiking are true: The time in nature is invigorating, the time on inclines is strengthening. But coming back from that climb I found a new upside: It made me a completely different runner.

Now that my body knew a completely different level of “slow,” my long runs didn’t drag in the same way. They felt easier to get through. Almost instantly, that “bigger picture” perspective clicked; I started falling—physically and mentally—into a steady, unrushed pace. And those perks have continued. Hiking is one of my favorite cross-training workouts. It builds my legs, lungs, and mental strength, and puts an extra pep in my step when it’s time to lace up and run. — Jen Ator

Jen Ator hiking in mountains

Women’s Running editor-in-chief, Jen Ator, hiking in the mountains. Photo: Kimberly Strom

5 Reasons to Love Trail Running

  1. You’ll find your flow. For long training runs, nothing beats a stretch of trail. No traffic lights. No intersections. Just long sections of trail creating a continuous aerobic session. Without the distractions that come with road running, you can easily get into a groove, paying attention to your body, breathing, and running efficiency.
  2. You’ll reduce your injury risk. “When you’re on the road and you’re hitting that ground in the same place and doing the same motion step after step, that’s when you get overuse injuries,” says Lesley Paterson, coach and author of The Brave Athlete. On the trail, meanwhile, you’re recruiting slightly different muscle patterns with each step, which reduces your risk of common overuse pains and injuries, such as stress fractures and patellofemoral pain syndrome, also known as “runner’s knee.”
  3. You’ll sharpen your agility and focus. Running on trails requires focus and concentration, especially on single-track or uneven terrain. Paying attention to the way your body moves and works makes you a stronger, more confident runner.
  4. You’ll recover better. Trails offer a softer surface than pavement, reducing the impact on your body and helping you recover faster for your next workout. The other recovery booster? Trails slow you down. It’s pretty standard running advice to “take your easy days easy, and your hard days hard,” but ask any coach and they’ll tell you one of the biggest mistakes runners make is not keeping their easy days easy enough. On roads or treadmills it’s all too easy to be hyperconscious of your pace. The hills and turns and obstacles on the trail force you to slow down and focus more on how your body feels, not how fast it’s moving. Making it a grade-A option for active recovery runs.
  5. You’ll just feel better. Spending all that time out in nature can have a serious impact on emotional well-being. According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, spending quality time with Mother Nature can make us less prone to rumination, and reduces activity in a part of the brain that’s linked to depression.

The Right Way to Tackle Hills

When trails are steep, breathing becomes harder, legs fatigue more quickly, and you tend to feel every painstaking step. A few mental and physical cues can help the hills feel less mighty and more manageable:

  • Stand Tall. Folding over at the hips and dropping your head to look at your feet compresses the airflow from your diaphragm and lungs to your nose and mouth. Try to maintain as flat a back as possible by staying in an upright position.
  • Quick Feet. Shortening your stride and taking quick steps help maintain efficiency on climbs. Short strides also help keep you in a more upright position.
  • Drive Those Arms. Power and momentum come from a strong arm swing, so pump away to help propel your lower body.
  • Walk with Purpose. There is no shame in walking up a steep trail. Walking, in fact, is sometimes the faster and more efficient way to get up a hill. If you change your stride from a run to a walk, make each step powerful and purposeful, and continue to try to maintain an upright body position.

What’s Up with People Putting Their Hands on Their Knees?

While we just gave you certain ideal cues for conquering inclines, you might also catch fellow trail runners taking a different approach: bending over and pushing their hands into their knees with every step. While yes, you ideally want to keep yourself in an upright position as much as possible, switching it up—especially on crazy-steep or long sections—can help bring your heart rate down if it’s spiking, and also give tired legs a little assist to power up to the top. Think of it as a tool in your tool box.