What Makes A Trail Runner ?

by Patti Finke, M.S.



Trails, runners either love them or hate them. In 27 years of Portland Marathon Clinic training runs on the Wildwood Trail, runners list those runs as their most favorite or the ones they hated most. Runners who love the trail will tell you they get lots of rewards. Runners who hate them have lots of reasons. What makes you into a trail lover? Can I change your mind about being a trail hater?

Attributes of a Trail Runner along with their rewards:

1. Patience: yes, you need to slow down to run on the trails with their twists and turns, roots and rocks, not to mention the ups and downs. Runners who let the trail and the conditions set the pace rather than being clock watchers find that they have much more endurance. They know that it takes a series of trail runs to develop that endurance.

2. Self Control: trail runners know that, if they can start slower and let the trail work for them, they see great gains in muscular strength. Even if the trail is not hilly, more and different muscles are worked to run on the uneven and, usually, softer surfaces. The ups and downs translate to thousands of squats and lunges in the gym. Take a look at the developed calfs, quads and hamstrings of the regular trail runners, to see that strength.

3. Self Confidence: the ability to overcome different and difficult situations and terrain leads to self confidence. Runners with the confidence to brave the trails note that they can run more miles with fewer injuries because the lack of pounding on the trail is easier on their bodies.

4. Focus: endurance running and racing takes the ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Trail runners know that they need to stay focused on the trail since the minute they look away, a rock or root catches their toe and down they go. Consistent trail running leads to increased proprioception. This is the ability to stay in balance and recover from the encounter with the uneven surfaces. The feet learn what to do without the cues from the eyes.

5. Vision: a trail runner looks for the rewards and beyond the moment rather than worrying about the negatives. The results of questionnaires from years of Portland Marathon Clinic runners show that 85% of the runners who do the trail training come within 15 minutes of their goal times. Only 50% of those who trained on just the road runs could come within 30 minutes of their goal times.

6. Mental and Physical Toughness: trail runners deal with difficult terrain, wet weather and unpleasant conditions, tough uphills, death defying downs. They do this in the name of fun and enjoyment. It's easy to do an event if you've survived the training. Trail runners have learned to enjoy the process knowing that they get rewards.

7. Sense of Adventure; trail runners commune with nature see the mountains, the flowers, the trees, the lakes and rivers close up. How wonderful to run where there are no cars and, often, very few others.

Changing the negative thoughts of the trail haters

1. Running too slowly - research shows that about 95% of the gains a runners makes in VO@ max (horsepower) and aerobic or lactate threshold come from long slow distance. Most elite marathoners train on the trails because they know the benefits are there from a large base of long slow distance.

2. Fear of falling - focus is learned, it takes the confidence to slow down and run the trail comfortably to reduce falls. Start with shorter distances and work up since falls increase with fatigue

3. Hate the mud or inclement weather. Many manufacturers make shoes especially designed for trail running. They have increased traction to make running easier in muddy conditions. Running in the mud makes even greater gains in muscular strength. Sporting goods companies make clothing for all kinds of weather. Plan to invest in microfiber clothing to keep you either cool or warm depending on the weight. Microfiber wicks the moisture away from the body making the runner more comfortable.

4. Need to work harder. Trail running is hard work and running gains are not received instantly. This is where that patience and self control are needed. Start with short trail runs and as the strength and endurance increase, the runs become easier.

5. Hate to carry anything. If you are going to be running more than an hour, your body needs water and other fuel. Studies show that carrying extra weight increases the gains from the run. Use that weight as hydration and fuel as well as getting stronger. Consider alternatives such as stashing fluids. Run out and back where you can drink half a bottle and stash the rest to drink on return. There are many types of carriers for water. Try them on in the store to see which you think would be comfortable while running

6. Up hill is too hard, down hill hurts knees. Long distance trail runners quickly learn hill techniques. The most common mistakes are attacking the ups and holding back on the downs to rest. This is the opposite of what really works. For uphill, take short strides or baby steps. Use the arms in a straight forward and back motion. Relax the upper body and just float the hill staying in control of breathing. Use gravity and take advantage of downhill to go faster. Land on the balls of the feet with the knee bent. The hips should be directly over the foot when landing. This increases the stride length behind the body. Let the arms go outward and across the body to keep the balance.

7. You can get lost. The savvy trail runner takes a map or compass and knows that you can't always rely on you sense of direction. Most trails are in parks or forests that are mapped, get one before you run the area. Carry some supplies with you such as food and water and extra clothes just in case. Don't run alone in backwoods areas and tell someone where you have gone.

If you want to learn to enjoy the trails and run a good marathon, join the free training runs of the Portland Marathon Training clinic. The clinic has one run a month on Wildwood trail starting in April. Start at the beginning and work up to longer distances. See http://www.teamoregon.com/pmc for details.

Patti Finke, M. S. is an exercise physiologist and one of the founders and directors of the Portland Marathon Training Clinic. She is a Road Runners Club of America certified coach and has been coaching runners and walkers for 27 years. She is an avid trail runner.


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