Get off the treadmill and hit the trails

Staying fit can only help you enjoy the outdoors more, but there is also a way you can use the outdoors to either stay in shape or push your fitness to peak levels. Trail running is an activity that can be as low-impact or as grueling as you want it to. When the thwack-thwack-thwack of the treadmill becomes too mundane or the usual route around your block becomes too routine, there are trails off all lengths, terrains and difficulty levels waiting for you and your workout to join them.

Whether you’re looking for an alternative for your usual before-dinner light jog or you’re wanting to step up your training for a race like the Dipsea (google it, it’s pretty interesting), taking your workout to the great outdoors is a great way to enjoy nature while staying fit. While most hiking trails are meant to be savored and enjoyed at a slow pace, they are often made up of a terrain that’s simply perfect for pushing a cardiovascular workout to the limit. But a good cardio workout isn’t the only thing you can find on the trails. Find yourself a good uphill, and you’ll find yourself developing more strength and power in your legs. That can make the hikes you take for leisure even more enjoyable as you’re less focused on fatigue and more focused on the nature you’re taking in.

The degree of difficulty trail running offers can be tailor-fit to meet your needs, as well. Whether you’re looking for a simple alternative to your usual suburban route or something to push your abilities to the limit, there’s little doubt that Mother Nature has something to offer you.

Take Scott Honecker, for example. The wrestling coach at J.H. Rose High School in Greenville, N.C., sometimes likes to mix in training techniques he developed during his time as a professional athlete. One of his most memorable tasks while training as a mixed martial artist is running the hills at Taughannock State Park near his home in Ithica, N.Y.

“A gym can become too comfortable, and you can get too complacent on a treadmill,” said Honecker, who used trail running not only for its physical challenge but for the mental strength he gained. “There’s something to be said for the mental toughness you get for attacking the mountain, which is always going to be above your weight class. There are challenges in nature that can’t be replicated in a gym.”

But while you may not be looking for the same physical challenges as a professional athlete, you can still find exactly what you’re looking for on the hiking trails near you. There are a few things, however, that you must keep in mind before heading out. Aside from the usual warming up and stretching one should do before every workout, there are trails specific safety precautions you must take.

First, you must realize that you are going out into nature. Especially if you are going alone, there are things you must do before even heading to the trail site. There should always be contact with a loved one or a trusted friend before you start your workout. Make sure they know where you are and how long it should take you to finish your run or jog. As a courtesy, make sure you contact them to let them  know you’re all right when you finish. Secondly, to avoid distractions, make sure you don’t run with anything in your hands. This will help you in case you need to reach out and touch a tree to maintain your balance as you pass by. It’s probably best to carry a small fanny pack or even a hydration pack with a storage area to carry your items. If you need to get anything, feel free to stop. Don’t try to reach into your pack on the run. This will help you avoid injury.

As with any workout and any jaunt into the outdoors, there is always some risk of injury. Make sure to take with you a first-aid kit. Some things to keep in mind for that kit are band-aids, an ace bandage wrap, athletic tape and cleansing wipes. Of course, the more you want to carry, probably the better. There are also a few things to keep in mind when you’re dealing with the terrain.

“You know, going up isn’t the biggest issue,” Honecker said of dealing with the changes in trail elevation. “If you’re going downhill, you should zig-zag on the way down. I’ve seen guys just try to go straight down, and physics take over. Before you know it, they’re at a full sprint trying not to fall over.”

Also, don’t be afraid, or even ashamed, to slow down completely to a walk or stroll to get through rough, rocky or root-filled portions of the trail. If you’re unsure, always err on the side of safety, especially when going downhill.

As for what shoes to wear when you hit the trails, your usual running shoes should suffice. Even your hiking boots will do if you’d like more ankle support. There are, however, shoes made specifically for the purpose of trail running.

“When we first started doing it, New Balance made an all-terrain shoe. Those are the ones we always wore,” said Honecker, adding that trail running shoes offered the support you need and the non-slip soles that took some of the worry about running on a trail instead of a street or treadmill.

A final thing you must keep in mind when using the trails for a run is that the trail is likely being used by others. If you come upon a rather congested portion of the trail on your run, slow down and take it slow until you get through the crowd. In fact, never think twice about slowing down if you need to. Remember, you’re out there to enjoy yourself and get a good workout. There’s no reason to sacrifice safety for speed. Above all, make sure you have fun while you’re out there. If you have room in your pack, toss in a camera. It’s always worth stopping if you see a sight so beautiful and worth capturing.