A few days ago during an email exchange with a fellow runner, he mentioned his difficulty with transitioning from road to trail running. I can definitely relate to his frustration and reluctance to pursue the beautiful trails in the region after he told us about a few nasty falls and face plants he had experienced.
Trail running definitely demands more attention to the technical side of running. It’s not just repeatedly “placing one foot in front of the other” but rather “picking UP one foot OVER the other” while developing a feel for where the foot is landing and making those sometimes necessary adjustments once it does. It is a learning experience for all of us but one that is well worth the effort and investment in time.
As a kid, running was a secondary past time in order to develop conditioning for speed skating, my first sport of choice. Because of where I lived, all my running was performed on dry creek beds, deer trails, fire breaks and mountain trails. There was nothing else to run on in the Angeles National Forest in Southern California where I grew up. Eventually speed skating took me to Norway where 90% of our running was on beautiful, well maintained forest trails. Years later, my first road race was in San Diego, CA in 1985, and it was all road racing from then on. When we moved to Asheville, I thought it would be great to be on the trails again, but the transition was absolutely brutal. My stride had changed to accommodate the roads and my jumping, hopping, lateral moves and gear shifting were so terrible, that I could constantly feel something was amiss inside my anatomy, not to mention several wild mid-stride gyrations that looked more like Big Bird tumbling around inside of commercial clothes dryer and eventually experiencing the trail in a very up close and personal manner. To accommodate and learn the trails again, I had to slow down and take what the trails gave me. An increase in cadence was imperative, so now instead of two strides, it is three for the same distance. Body sensing as taught by our friend Danny Dryer, the founder of ChiRunning (www.chirunning.com), took on a new dimension. My body had to be in harmony and in balance, ready for the unexpected "trail snake" that grabs a toe or ankle.
I believe the trails also demand more attention to overall fitness with regards to endurance, strength and flexibility. Many moons ago when I was speed skating internationally for the USA , I could "dead-lift" twice my body weight which at the time was 70kg. That kind of strength was a definite advantage on the trails while handling a 30-35km per day running routine during the summer months. I guess it is combination of age and laziness on my part (not to mention a ruptured disc) that I no longer have that degree of fitness, but thanks to the motivation the trails have given me, I strive to bring it to a higher level. Plus, I simply refuse to give up which is probably due to a combination of Irish/German stubbornness and Blackfoot stupidity on my part (a gosh awful combination of genes for sure). Bottom line: if you find yourself struggling with the trails, slow down, relax, and let it come to you. Work on your technique, strength and flexability, and I promise you will have a more enjoyable trail running experience.