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a woman trail running

When American Deena Kastor won the bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics marathon, the then-31-year-old had trained as diligently as she could. To prepare for the 100-degree, mid-August temperatures of Greece, she ran through her community of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., wearing a long-sleeved shirt, hat and tights. To prepare for the endurance, she spent upwards of 30 miles during her 140-mile training weeks running on nearby mountainous trails.

While the high altitude was important (Kastor’s runs regularly took her 7,800 feet above sea level), the trail factor was huge, too. “There are so many benefits to trail running,” Kastor says. “On the physical side, the trails absorb some of the shock that hits my joints when I run on asphalt and concrete, so trail running helps me stay fresh. But more importantly, there is a tremendous rejuvenation of spirit that comes from being surrounded by trees and animals.”

Kastor isn’t alone in her enthusiasm for trail running – those runs that traverse dense forests, open prairies and mountains on fire roads, single-track or other unpaved paths. In fact, according to a 2005 study led by the Outdoor Industry Association, nearly 40 million Americans hit the trails at least once in 2004, a 20 percent rise since 1998.

Some of those people are seeking more fresh air and sunshine, others are escaping a tried-and-true neighborhood route, while still others are looking for a more demanding workout. “Increasingly, people want more of an adventure than predictable pavement can provide,” says Garett Graubins, senior editor of Trail Runner magazine. “With trail running, spending time in nature becomes just as much a part of the experience as getting in a workout does.” So no matter how many miles you log each week, all of your wonderful self – from your quads to your mental clarity – will benefit from taking the trail less traveled.

Bonus Points for Your Body

Think of trail running as road running amplified. Like all running, trail running increases muscular strength and endurance in your quads, hamstrings, calves and glutes, in addition to giving your heart and lungs a workout. But because the trails serve up an unpredictable, rocky, root-filled terrain of hills, streams and other natural obstacles, trail running improves your proprioception (your sense of balance and where your body is in space). It also taps nearly every muscle from your shoulders on down, and builds strength in your joints. As a result, it provides a challenging whole-body workout.

1) Build Balance.
As you trot down a rocky, winding, single-track path, you have to constantly be aware of where each foot is landing and how it will affect your body position: Stepping on a rock that’s 10 inches tall with your right foot means your left leg will need to absorb significant impact upon landing (and be super stable) to keep your pace going.

Those constant adjustments are beneficial. Stabilizing yourself with nearly every step requires you to use more muscle fiber – and consequently burn more calories – than when you run on a treadmill or even on a road.

Staying balanced as you navigate mole hills and divots engages your core muscles to keep you vertical, explains Craig Crandall, a Life Time Fitness running-club leader in Champlin, Minn. At the same time, it engages tiny skeletal muscle spindles all over your body. Those muscles contribute to your neuromuscular control and help you improve your coordination.

Trail running also demands that your cerebral muscles work overtime. “Road runners often find it takes a lot more concentration to run on the trails,” says Adam Chase, president of the All American Trail Running Association and coauthor of The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running. “You can’t just put your mind on autopilot, like you can on the roads.”

2) Respect Your Joints.
The uneven terrain of trail running builds strength in your ankles and knees at the same time it provides a vacation from repetitive pavement pounding (the kind that can cause shin splints).

While your joints are enjoying a little ease, though, the rest of you is getting worked over. The reason? You’re working without the benefit of the “rebound effect.” Unlike rigid pavement, trails absorb some of the impact of each footfall. That means that “on a trail, you’re essentially losing energy with every step,” says Crandall. He points out that sand (often part of trails) is the most energy-absorbing surface there is. Net result: “At the end of a trail run, your joints feel refreshed and your muscles are exhausted.”

3) Find Fresh Air.
Some of the best benefits of being outside have as much to do with your mind as they do your body. Exposure to sunshine increases your body’s production of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that combats depression and helps regulate biological rhythms). It also elevates levels of vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus – two minerals essential for strong bones.

You don’t want to overdo it, of course. “To avoid unhealthy exposure to the sun, try to run in the morning, when it isn’t directly overhead,” advises Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, a San Francisco Bay Area–based physician who emphasizes integrative, holistic protocols.

Sunshine aside, Eliaz notes that merely being outdoors can also help reduce cravings and improve our mind-body connection. “People who spend their lives close to nature don’t long for concentrated sugars,” Eliaz says. “The reason we want so many flavors is because we become insensitive to smells and tastes. Spending time in the natural world can help you reconnect with your senses.”

Body-Mind Benefits

The most obvious plus of trail running is its setting: namely outdoors. You get natural light and a nature soundtrack (leave your tunes at home to maximize the experience). With no music or television blaring, and with a variety of pleasing, natural distractions to take your mind off its habitual worry track, you have the perfect opportunity to hit your brain’s “reset” button.

“There is no better meditation than to connect with nature and physically distance yourself from daily chores,” says Kastor, who admits that it’s for this reason some of her favorite runs are far back in the mountains.

“Exercising outdoors allows all aspects of our body – physical, emotional, spiritual – to synchronize with nature,” agrees Eliaz, who often prescribes walks outside for his patients. “Mental stress is naturally reduced because you’re away from the hectic rhythms of everyday life.”

“Preliminary research out of Europe suggests that when people exercise outdoors, they report significantly higher levels of emotional well-being,” says Howard Frumkin, MD, DrPH, director of the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Nature has such a soothing effect on the psyche, in fact, that studies have shown that postoperative patients who have a view of trees require less pain medication and fewer days in the hospital than those whose rooms have a view of a brick wall.

Trail Running Safety Tips

Sold on the idea of trail running? Before you lope down your local trail, here are just a few things to consider:

  1. You can go trail running on virtually any surface that isn’t paved, but dirt roads and gravel paths provide the most beginner-friendly terrain. Ask at a local running store for recommendations.
  2. If you opt to run solo, be sure you know your route, carry an ID, and tell somebody where you’ll be and when you expect to return. Be sure to bring enough water.
  3. Start slow. Because of the varying terrain, your pace per mile will be at least 45 seconds slower on the trail than it is on paved roads; it may be much slower still, depending on how hilly it is. As such, run for time, not mileage.
  4. Keep your stride short to maintain a rhythmic pace, and lift your toes to stay nimble on your feet, advises Marin County, Calif.–based athletic trainer Tina Vindum, a nationally recognized developer of outdoor fitness programs.
  5. When you climb, lean into the hill slightly, use your arm swing for power, and keep your weight on the balls of your feet. As you descend, keep your hands in your peripheral vision, which prompts you to lean slightly forward – a good thing.

And don’t worry if you end up with a little dirt on your hands or scratches on your knees. “Everybody falls once,” Vindum says. “It’s virtually a given.” Soon, though, you’ll be flying through fields and over terrain you previously thought fit only for a mountain goat – and reaping all the benefits trail running has to offer.

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