Back to Fitness: The Healing Power of the Trail
By John Andersen
Running and walking tend to be the staples of most people’s regular fitness routines. These are our natural gaits as humans and our bodies were uniquely designed to do this. Besides a pair of shoes and some comfortable clothes, running or walking requires no special equipment and most of us can do this from our front door, making good use of our precious time.
The vast majority of running/walking training plans focus on slowly increasing your miles and monitoring your pace and effort. Good advice; however, there is an unfortunate lack of discussion of where you get in your miles. I bring this up because one of the most common reasons a “back to fitness” plan gets derailed is that you get injured and then all that motivation you had built up deflates like a balloon. The paradox is that newer runners are at a substantially higher risk for overuse injury than more experienced runners whose bodies have adapted to the stress that running places on your body (it’s good stress!). More experienced runners will tell you they’ve been running for so long not because they’re lucky and have never been injured, but because they were patient and persistent and learned how to get their bodies to the next level. Thus, the holy grail of running and walking advice should be on how to reduce your chance of injury while increasing your mileage.
Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to introduce you to the trail. For many, hiking seems like something neat to do every once in a while and for most runners, trail running sounds like something risky, unpredictable, and likely to produce an injury. Allow me to argue all points!
Regular (weekly!) hiking and/or trail running should be considered as part of the running/walking fitness plans of both newer and older runners.
Consider the typical runner (n.b., I mean no offense to anyone; the majority of my training miles are on roads!): Let’s say he runs for 45 minutes, 4 days a week, knows his pace and has a goal of increasing his mileage. Most likely, 100 percent of this running is on the roads/sidewalks. The number one cause of running injuries is not falling. It’s repetitive stress injury. So, if we’re running 100 percent of our miles on the same hard surface, all of our foot strikes and the stresses we put on our feet, legs, and back are the same. The average runner will take about 900 steps with each foot per mile, or nearly 3,000 steps on each foot for a 5k jog. Perfect form, strength, and stability can limit repetitive force as a problem, but who has perfect form and stability? We are setting ourselves up for repetitive stress injuries, especially when we’re new at running.
Back to the trail, the rocky, rooty trail that we have loads of around here. With trail running, you’ll take about the same number of steps per mile, but the surface changes constantly. Rocks, roots, and uneven terrain, these apparent “hazards,” actually make you change up your stride and footfall. You’ll run, hop, and skip. Constant variation greatly decreases the repetitive stress forces on your feet and legs. Also, the hopping and changing in stride greatly strengthens your legs and hip stabilizing muscles, muscles that can be weak in runners, especially when the direction is forward only with no side-to-side variation such as you get on the trail. Your pace will be slower, but who cares!
Also, the trail is much softer than pavement and running on a softer surface clearly puts less repetitive stress on the feet and legs.
When I recommend adding trail running and hiking to an exercise regimen, the first remark I usually get is, “What if I fall?” or “I don’t want to twist an ankle.” These are rational fears, but from the runners I have spoken with, repetitive stress injuries exponentially outnumber traumatic fall injuries. I hang out with a lot of trail runners, and most of the broken bones stories have been of people who fell on the road. Fall on the trail and you’ll most likely get dirty and maybe scraped up. Trip on a curb and things can break.
Regular hiking and trail running takes you out of the developed world and into nature. That is therapy in itself. Without sounding too much like a hippie, it is good for your soul to connect with nature.
Here are some easy nearby places to get you started.
Mint Springs Valley Park – Beautiful trails, short and long loops, maps at the kiosk, and you’re never too far away from your car.
Sugar Hollow Reservoir – If you live in Crozet, you must visit Sugar Hollow. From the back of the reservoir, you can get on either the South Moormans River Trail or the North Moormans River Trail, which steadily follow the north or south fork of the Moormons river in Shenandoah National Park, gaining elevation all the way to the Appalachian Trail and Skyline Drive. Endless trail miles here, and the simply the prettiest place in Crozet.
The AT at Afton – Drive up to the top of Afton Mountain, park your car at the abandoned Howard Johnsons and you can hike/run on the AT North or South for as long as you want – beautiful trail, no turns to navigate.
Old Trail – Check out the great trail system starting at the soccer fields and wrapping all the way around to Henley, and across Old Trail Drive to the golf course.
Eastern Crozet Connector Trail – Starting behind the lower baseball field at Crozet Park, there are several miles of trail that either loop you around to Westhall as well as join the Western Ridge trail system, which is fantastic and well maintained.