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Go Off-road: The Ins and Outs of Trail Running

By Chris Saunders - Atlanta Sports Mag

The trail-running boom took off in the '90s as more and more athletes began trading in their road running shoes for trail running versions.

According to the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, over 8.1 million people hit the trails in 1998 alone, and that number has continued to rise in the years since.

There is good reason so many runners are venturing off road in training, seeking out trail races and even planning vacations and business trips around the most alluring trails.

Although related for obvious reasons, trail running and road running are actually quite different sports, and many runners itching for a change of scenery are making the switch from hard surfaces to softer and often more scenic trails.

Countless runners find trail running to be an escape from the rock-hard reality of the roads. It’s no secret that asphalt and concrete are much harder on your body than dirt, woodchips and gravel, and the sights available on traffic ridden roads are often less pleasing to the eye than those found in the seclusion of wooded trails.

Injuries and boredom are inspiring runners to abandon sidewalks and city streets in favor of remote locations that other road runners haven’t yet discovered.

Shoe manufacturers have also capitalized on the growing interest in this off-road adventure sport, taking big steps to meet the needs of the athletes pursuing it. You won’t find a shoe company today that doesn’t offer at least one trail shoe in its arsenal, and many have more than one model to choose from.

There’s no doubt that trail running is a great alternative to road running, but it is a completely different animal. Trail running is often much less predictable than its cousin, and preparing for its uncertainty is paramount.

So before you head out to the trails, keep a few things in mind:

1. Invest in the proper shoes. If you plan on spending any significant time on trails, a pair of trail running shoes will make all the difference. These shoes will provide the necessary support for off-road running. Visit your nearest running specialty shop to see which shoe is best for you.

2. Research the trail before running it. Its probably not the best idea to head out on an unfamiliar trail without scoping it out first. Many trails can be confusing, so take the time to locate a map, or bring a compass with you when you start. You can find maps of local trails in running specialty stores, on the Internet or from area running clubs.

3. Run with a partner or a group. Youll be less likely to get lost if you have two or more people running the same trail, and you may find the run more enjoyable, to boot. If you thrive in the company of solitude and the rhythm of your own breathing, be sure to let someone know where youll be running and when you expect to be back.

4. Always look two steps ahead. It is crucial to keep a constant eye out for obstacles that may be on the trail. Trail running takes a special focus. Taking your eye of the terrain for just a moment could result in a twisted ankle, or worse.

5. Wear the proper clothing. Regardless of the season, trail running requires a different wardrobe than road running. Long-sleeved shirts and pants will keep your arms and legs protected from the brush and branches that may be along the trail. A bright hat, which will keep bugs out of your hair and make you more visible on the trail, is also helpful.

6. Don’t forget the water. You wont likely find water on the trail, so bring some with you. You should aim for 6 to 8 ounces of fluid for every 20 minutes of activity. Consider wearing a waist pack or a camel pack to keep your hands free.

7. Think in terms of time rather than mileage when planning (or evaluating) your run. Dont worry about the distance of the trail, which is often difficult to determine unless it has already been mapped out for you. Also, because of unsure footing, sharp turns and unfamiliarity with the terrain, your pace may be a bit slower on the trail than on your regular running routes. Measure your run by time and effort spent on the trail.

8. Keep an eye out for other athletes. Mountain bikers love to hit the trails, and often pick up quite a bit of speed. Be cautious approaching hills and turns, and realize that bikers may not be looking for you. This is where the bright hat comes in handy.

9. Leave the trail in the same condition you found it. One of the most enjoyable aspects of trail running is the natural beauty surrounding you while you run. Please leave the area just as you found it for the others who may follow in your steps. Most of all, enjoy your time spent on the trails.

Chris Saunders is a freelance writer living in Illinois. He was a NCAA All American in Track and Field for the University of Illinois, and currently serves as an Assistant Track and Field/Cross Country Coach for the Fighting Illini.

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