If you enjoy running but feel ready for a more extreme adventure, then it's time to hit the trail. Trail runners love their sport for its variety, for the incredible views and scenery, and for the freedom that comes from running in total solitude. This is a rapidly growing sport that lets people get out into rarely-seen back country. Plus, it's a ton of fun!
Variety is the Spice of Trail Running
Many road and track runners who complain of getting bored with their usual routes have turned to trail running. One huge benefit of trail running is that the trail is constantly changing, offering new challenges. You might have to scamper over rocks, cross streams, and deal with changing terrain like gravel, boulders, and sand. If the trail gets very steep, you may need to slow down and scramble. All of this variety keeps runners alert and on their toes.
Lessen the Impact
Another benefit of trail running is that a dirt surface is more elastic and forgiving than pavement. If you've had problems with shin splints or other stress injuries in the past, trail running could help prevent fresh injuries. In general, running on a trail provides more cushion for your feet and joints (which is why trail running shoes don't offer as much cushion as road shoes).
Hit the Hills
As any fitness guru will tell you, you work your muscles harder--and burn more calories--going uphill than you do on the flat. Trail runners often end up running up hills, and this helps them advance to the next level in fitness. Of course, you don't have to pick hilly trails. There are plenty of lake and river-side trails that are fairly flat and still offer fabulous views and all the other benefits of trail running. But if you continue on with the sport, odds are that you'll want to gain some elevation at some point. Those hills will do wonders for your fitness, stamina, and strength!
What to Wear
You can begin trail running in your usual running shoes, but if you decide to get serious about the sport, consider investing in some specially designed trail shoes. These have rigid soles and knobby buttons on the bottom that help with traction. The soles are stiff to offer good stability and to protect your feet from punctures and other injuries.
You'll want to wear clothing that wicks sweat away from your body, and always carry water with you. Some runners enjoy wearing CamelBak packs--these are packs with a bladder inside and a drinking tube that attaches to the shoulder strap. Sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, and insect spray are other things you may want to have. Dressing in layers is always smart, especially if you're headed uphill and might experience dramatic temperature changes.
Ready to Race?
You'll find a number of trail races all over the country, especially during the summer and fall, when trails are reliably dry. If you're looking for motivation, signing up for a race is a great way to focus your training. Races vary in distance, but the most common beginner races are 5K and 10K (3.2 miles and 6.4 miles). Once you sign up for a race, it's a good idea to run the race course as practice a few times before the actual event. This will give you an idea of how you should train. If your course has a lot of steep hills, for instance, you'll want to train on hilly trails.
Trail running offers freedom, beautiful scenery, and the chance to get away from it all while you exercise. If you love a challenge, you're going to have a great time hitting the trail!