Like most people who don’t run much, I used to think that running sucked because it was boring. Back then I would gut through a couple miles on a treadmill twice a week and talk to my friends about how much I hated it. Then once the hamster wheel got so monotonous that I would work through my lunch break just to avoid it, I took my boring two-mile lunch hour outside. I liked running outside better; there were cute dogs, hills, some good people watching. But it didn’t take more than a couple years before that got rather boring too.
So I took my runs to different places; I ran around my neighborhood, sought out a different lake near my office to jaunt around during lunch, started going after work, got myself a dog to run with. In that time I started running barefoot/minimalist and grew to love it. I even mapped out a 10-mile loop around my town to train for my first half marathon.
But, soon enough, that got boring too.
It wasn’t until I signed up for my first spring 50K race last winter that I learned exactly how not to get bored of running. How? Well, you gotta run trails.
Because the 50K I’d signed up for was on trail, I knew that I probably should start training on them. And at first I wasn’t even sure I understood why it was so important; I mean, running is running, right?
What I discovered during my training is that trail running is a totally different animal. And trail running can turn you into a totally different animal. All of my ultra-running friends know this, but almost everyone else does not. Running trails can turn you from a lazy-ass who jogs around the block on the weekend just to work off Friday night’s beers and pepperoni pizza, to an ultra-marathoner who gets up extra early on Sunday mornings just chomping at the bit to get a few hours of undisturbed miles in. In other words, running trails has the potential to change your mind about running entirely.
Recently, I had a revelation of sorts. It was about 11 o’clock on Sunday morning and I was running down some rough, gnarled New Hampshire trails with my best friend, Kathy. We were aiming for somewhere around 10 miles, and we were already at mile 8. A couple miles back, we had turned off the main trail onto a 3-mile long fire road we’d never run before. It was unmarked, rocky, hilly and so narrow we had to run single-file. At a few points the terrain was so rough we couldn’t run without falling on our asses, so we walked. We tripped over vines and roots a lot. At one point I kicked a rock the size of a basketball that I should have seen but didn’t. Kathy laughed. In fact, we were both smiling and laughing pretty much the whole time, despite the fact that the rain had washed off our bug spray and we were being eaten alive by mosquitos and I-don’t-know-what-else.*
At one point during this run I looked up from my feet and noticed that we were traveling in a scene of utter beauty. The trees around us were tall and magestic, with all their branches way up over our heads. The undergrowth was lush and so bright it seemed to be lit from within. Everything was a shade of green so ethereal that it could never be replicated by any hi-def computer graphics in this world. This place, not more than 12 miles from my home, was timeless and magical, really something to behold.
I will say with complete honesty that I have never enjoyed a run so much in my entire life (one or two have come close, though, and they were also trail runs). When it was over I wasn’t tired, and I barely noticed that my hamstrings were sore and that there was a half pound of dirt in my brand new trail shoes. In fact, probably the only reason we stopped was because we were starving and tired of batting away the swarms of insects. After our feet were freed from our filthy shoes and the bagels and juice were gone, I think we both felt a little let down that the run was over.
That morning held all of the reasons I love to run. And I think more people who profess that running is boring should try running trails. I mean, try it in earnest. And I’m talking about real trails, too: winding, hilly paths of dirt that challenge your balance, not just those stick-straight and flat ones cut artificially into the land.
If you hate running, I think the right trails can change your mind. And here’s a few reasons why:
Trail Running Brings You Closer to Nature
Yeah, you’re probably thinking this one’s too obvious; of course, you’re not only going to be close to nature, you’ll be in it. But I’m not just talking about spacial geography here. I believe there’s a little part in all of us that needs to feel primal, animal-like. Many of us have lost that intrinsic part of ourselves, and running trails can bring it back.
This may sound corny to some of you, but when I’m flying over rocks and roots, splashing through puddles and sliding around in mud, I can feel the rich and layered history of my ancestors. Trail running calls to a side of me that is purely instinctual, a side which understands the movement of the wind and the growth of the trees. I feel the hunter and its prey, I hear my steady breath, I trust my legs. Running in nature is meditational in a way that doesn’t feel forced, but totally natural. Afterward my body sings and my mind is at ease. It’s better than years of therapy.
Mental Distractions Become Unnecessary
Used to be I had to have music in my ears on every run. In fact, I have skipped runs altogether, turned and gone back home because I forgot to bring my iPod with me. True story. And if you think running is boring, you probably have your head plugged in at all times too.
Well, all that changed once I started running more trails. And it wasn’t like I stopped bringing music with me out of some hippy/purist sensibility to never run with it. I stopped bringing my iPod because it was a distraction to my run, and I didn’t want to be distracted. At some point I found the music irritated me, made me feel clumsy and blocked off from the experiences of my surroundings, which were renewed and different every second. I think it’s a lot like when you’re driving somewhere new, and once you’re close to your destination you turn off the radio so you can concentrate. You don’t need your ears to find the right place with your eyes, but somehow the noise still becomes an obstacle to your concentration.
With no extraneous sound pumping into my ears I can monitor my form, enjoy the sounds of my dog’s panting and happy frolicking through the underbrush, and take in everything around me with all five senses at once.
Another point I want to make is that running trails can be just as much a mental workout as a physical one. This makes it a lot harder to get bored. During the tougher trails my mind is on overdrive, constantly measuring distance and making thousands of calculations on where to land and how to maneuver around rocks, brush and roots without falling. It’s so much fun! And when I’m not watching my feet, I’m taking in all the minutia of my surroundings: the flowers growing just off the trail, the variation of trees around me, the way the sun casts shadows in the soil…my scenery changes every second, and I don’t need any other diversions to help me enjoy my run.
Trails Strengthen Your Feet, Ankles and Legs
Mental advantages aside, going out on trails can have a huge impact on your physical strength as a runner. When you’re traveling on smooth paved roads, your feet touch the ground in the exact same spot each time, without variation, for thousands upon thousands of strides. Roads may feel easier than trails, because in many ways they are. There’s just not much there on roads for your body to contend with or learn from. No wonder you’re bored.
Trails, on the other hand, tear up your muscles by making all of them work harder to keep you upright and moving forward. On such varied terrain, each and every landing is different from the last, which keeps your proprioception wide awake and in a constant state of practice and adaptation. The day after your first trail run your ankles and calves will likely be on fire for the first time in ages. And yeah, that’s because you actually used them the way they were supposed to be used. Muscle imbalances solved. How novel.
But Trails Are Easier on Your Joints
Although I have no real prejudice against running on roads for speed or for an easy short jaunt, I will say I have noticed that over longer distances (greater than 8 miles), trails are much easier on my hips and ankles. The constant, consistent pounding of the pavement makes me sore and achy the next day, while I’ll typically feel just fine the day after running the same distance on trail. I believe the lower impact on dirt and natural land, combined with the variable foot landings, is what makes all the difference.
No Traffic, No Fumes, No Noise
Sure, I tend to run in places where I’ll cross paths with a lot of cyclists, dog walkers, other runners and even folks on horseback (and, further down the path, piles of horse crap). But I prefer it to all those honking, fuming hulks of loud metal that populate all the roads on my dangerously sidewalk-scarce hometown. It’s pretty hard to relax into a nice run while you’re dodging oncoming cars and trying to keep your confused dog from running you into traffic. Besides, I don’t really think I want 20 people at a stop light to see me blowing snot rockets into the bushes, anyway.
It’s Better for Your Dog, Too
Like to run with your favorite canine? That’s wonderful! And I mean it. All dogs need plenty of exercise and not enough people take the time to do it (especially my neighbors). But physical exertion isn’t the only thing that makes a simple walk so fulfilling. Dogs need a mental outlet too. Just like us, being cooped up within the same four walls day in and day out can drive a dog to tail-chasing. And walking the same route around the block is just as monotonous to them as it is to you.
Dogs live for running in the woods, just watch yours once and you’ll understand. Whenever I take my Boxer, Oscar, out for a trail run, he embodies the mere definition of happiness. He is exuberant and beautiful. He holds his tail up higher, he bounds bigger, and he acts, well…like a dog is supposed to. When there aren’t a lot of people around I let him off his leash so he can chase squirrels up trees, pick up sticks to carry with him, sprint and stop and then sprint again (a running pattern that is more natural for dogs than our near-constant steady pace). I let him cool off and have a drink in the natural ponds. When we get back home Oscar is usually exhausted, panting and drooling up a storm, and I know he loves me for it.
I will admit that I do find road running to have its merits, and I spend a good deal of time on them. But if you don’t run, or don’t run enough because it’s boring to you, then really…try running out in the trails sometime. Just don’t forget the bug spray.
*nevermind the fact that at about three miles in, some bug bit or stung my forehead and drew blood. I cleaned it off and ignored it for the rest of the run, but by the time I got home, my entire face had swollen so much that I looked like Sylvester Stallone at the end of Rocky 2. Lesson learned: early morning rain makes bugs come out in droves, not hide in shelter as originally thought.
- Non-Runners: Stop Making Dumb Excuses Not to Run (barefoot-monologues.com)