Tips and Techniques for the Trails

By Patti Finke, M.S.

Do you love to commune with nature, see the forests and the mountains and get away from the traffic and the city? Try walking or hiking the trails within the city of Portland, the Columbia River Gorge, or any nearby mountain. The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the most fantastic trails and wonderful sights.

The major trick for enjoying the trails is to treat the walk as an adventure and not to be in a hurry. Stop and enjoy the waterfalls, the moss, the wildlife and the wild flowers. If you are compulsive clock watcher, you know you canít walk fast on the trail; plan to walk 45 seconds to a minute a mile slower than on the road. Or better yet, leave your watch at home.

Walking on the trail does require concentration. You need to keep your eyes on the trail. Watch for roots, rocks, mud and other hazards. The trail trolls have been known to grab your ankles, increase the slant of the hills and stretch the length of the trail when you are tired. To stay on track, you need to leave room between walkers; walk about a body's length behind the person in front of you. Your body and your feet learn to adapt to the variations in terrain. This concept is called proprioception. After a few trail walks, you will notice that it is much easier to concentrate on the atmosphere and forget about the obstacles.

The trails are easier and a lot more fun if you are wearing the right shoes. Unless you are carrying a 40 pound pack, leave the hiking boots at home. You want a running shoe or trail shoe with good traction and lots of forefoot flexibility and cushioning. You might like a light weight hiker if the trail is rocky, but make certain the forefoot bends easily where your foot bends, (where your toes attach to your feet).

Carry the right equipment with you. Water should be at the top of the list. You need a water bottle full every hour at the minimum. Check out different ways to carry it, from fanny pack to camelback. You also need food. Some of my favorites are energy bars, peanut butter and jelly bagels, rice krispie treats and animal crackers. Plan about 100- 200 calories per hour of exercise. Wear comfortable moisture wicking clothing in layers. Take sunscreen and sun glasses if you are going to be out in the open or up at altitude. Have insect repellent and a first aid kit tucked in your pack. Take a jacket or garbage bag just in case the weather gets bad. If you are unfamiliar with the area, take a map, compass and cell phone.

One of the common elements of most of our trails is the hilly terrain they seem to cover. I know a lot of walkers who hate hills: some get out of breath on the ups and others creep down in fear.

Hill Walking Techniques

Up: Take short quick steps (baby steps) as if riding a bicycle in low gear. Use your arms in a straight back and forward motion to help lift your legs and you opposite hip. Concentrate on relaxing your upper body and keeping your shoulders down.

Down: Go for it! Lengthen out your stride to take advantage of the hill. Land on the balls of your feet with your knees bent. Swing your arms more across your body to help keep your balance and to rotate your hips to improve stride length. Keep weight forward by having your hips over the landing foot. Concentrate on using the muscles in the backs of your legs and coming up off your back toe to push you forward. Remember you can go a lot faster than you think and still be under control.

Common Hill Walking Errors

Working Too Hard Uphill: This is a quick ticket to oxygen debt. You must concentrate on relaxing and metering out your energy over the hill. Many hills are steepest at the bottom and flatten out near the top. A well walked hill has you picking it up at the top and into the downhill transition.

Overstriding: Remember that the muscles of the legs are major pumps for the blood supply of oxygen and fuel while walking. A short quick stride helps supply more fuel and oxygen than a long slow one. This is the same reason that it is more efficient to use low gears and fast cadence when riding a bicycle uphill rather than high gears and a slow cadence.

Not Taking Advantage of Gravity: If you do not accelerate on the downhill, you will lose the opportunity to get something for nothing. If you don't believe this, try walking downhill with a pulse rate monitor and notice how much faster you can walk at the same pulse rate than on the flat. A sure sign that you are holding back is the sound of "plopping" from your feet as you walk downhill. Work on increasing stride length and using your arm swing for balance. Landing on the straight leg results in knee pain, so remember to keep weight forward and land on a bent knee.

Loosing Focus: Look ahead for variations in the slope up or down and adapt to them immediately. If you have to wait until you are tying up from lactic acid uphill or hear the "plopping feet" downhill to change your form, it's too late and you have already wasted energy. If you forget to concentrate, those pesky trail trolls will trip you every time.

Wearing the Wrong Shoes: Many walkers go out on the trails with their oldest worn out shoes trying to preserve the best ones. You need the most support, cushioning and traction for trail terrain.

Another feature of trails is an occasional mud patch. I will give you permission to get your shoes dirty. The best footing is in the middle of the trail, any "picking your way" or "pussyfooting around the puddles'' will result in mud all over (YOU WILL FALL DOWN!). Plant firmly, sometimes you need to pick up the pace a little to do this. If you slide, go with it and wait for the foot to catch before stepping forward. Some of us have been known to have splashing contests, to reward the muddiest person and just have fun with the conditions. If you've been in the mud, untie your shoelaces before they dry. You can rinse off your shoes with the hose or in the shower or wait for them to dry and brush off the mud with a stiff brush. The washer shortens the life of your shoes, the dryer is deadly.

If you live near Portland, start by exploring Forest Park and Tryon Creek Park for great adventures; in other locales find a park with trails in your area. When you're comfortable on those trails, break out to the whole outdoors. I'm out on the trails somewhere every weekend, come join me! You can splash me if you find me!

Patti coaches walkers through Team Oregon and the Portland Marathon Clinic. You can find more of her publications and information on Team Oregon coaching programs at www.TeamOregon.com.


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