Hello everyone, my name is Dr. Allan Buccola, PT, DPT. I am a physical therapist, and owner of Impetus Physical Therapy in Greensboro, NC. I specialize in sports rehab, injury prevention, and I am one of the top clinical running experts in the Southeast.
Today's post is about successfully integrating some trails into your training routine for all types of athletes and runners alike. It's almost Spring, and everyone is looking for an excuse to get outside so let's get to it!
TRAILS require different skills than roads
For those who are new to running, or maybe have yet to venture into the forest, trail running is quite different in a number of ways. First off, trails incorporate more cutting motions and sharp turns, which means the cruise control you may typically use on the road simply won't do.
All of those turns and ups and downs will incorporate greater use of hip and ankle stabilizers, which is absolutely a good thing for staying injury free. Trails also require fancy footwork to navigate rocks, roots, and the occasional box turtle, which science says improves your cognitive function and resistance to injury. Here are three things that will lead to a smooth transition is running trails is a new endeavor.
the concept of pace is less concrete
No two trails are the same. Let's take the Natty Greene and Wild Turkey trails in the Greensboro Lakeside Trails system. These two trails run almost parallel to one another, yet they are vastly different. One is narrow with packed clay, banked for high-speed mountain bike turns. The other is more rooty, rocky and uneven, with longer straight-aways.
This variant topography takes away energy that you are accustomed to expending toward forward propulsion, and redistributes it into cutting side-to-side, climbing killer up-hills, and descending quad-destroying descents. Any runner who is dead-set on keeping their typical 8:30/mile pace in the woods will find heartbreak readily available, especially if they add some serious vertical.
Additionally, trails with lots of narrow switchbacks have a tendency to cause GPS errors in pace and distance. The trails are a place to check your ego at the door...the car door. You're left with the option of listening to your body, and letting the trail guide your pace, as you pace your efforts. Save some energy for that last 385 yard sprint. Stop stressing if things seem slower than usual.
Shorten Your Stride
Runners with a typically long stride, or who prefer to 'stride out' are at a disadvantage on the trails. The successful navigation of rocks, stumps, and box turtles, requires sudden bursts of agility, and the best way to prepare for that is to shorten your stride.
Shortening your stride keeps your feet more closely beneath your center of mass, which means you can become more agile without the inevitable slip in the mud or worse, total wipe out on drought dry dirt. There is a misconception that to run trails, one must don fancy 'trail shoes,' but take it from me as someone who regularly wears minimalist shoes in the woods: shortening your stride and keeping your feet beneath you is far more beneficial.
This is especially true for the Greensboro trails that offer some great options for beginners: minimally technical single-track. Aim to keep your cadence or turn over at around 170-190 steps per minute, and you'll likely be able to prevent injuries and navigate obstacles with greater success.
Staying Limber will help you on the trails
If you're used to hitting the park, the Bicentennial Greenway, or just the treadmill, the trail will take your ankles, knees, and hips through ranges of motion that are pretty unfamiliar. The biomechanical demands of sharp cuts and steep climbs will take many of your joints to the limits of their normal range.
For flexible runners, this may go unnoticed at first, but for anyone who has relative deficits in mobility, this could result in sore muscles, back-pain, or sprained ankles. Be sure to maintain a regular stretching routine, especially if you have known mobility deficits.
Many runners lack the hip flexion required to sprint up steep hills, and the consequences can mean low-back pain, groin strains, or hip impingement. If you feel like you'd benefit from a mobility screening from an expert in movement dysfunction, contact me to get checked out.
trails force you to Live in the Moment
Above all else, enjoy the moment for what it is. There are few places within Greensboro city limits where one can truly escape the noise of traffic and the auto exhaust. Many of our trails offer candid encounters with wildlife galore and a chance to get to know the limits of your body. Take advantage of this great trails system, and reconnect with physical activity that's fun!