Something about hitting a pine needle-covered route or pebbly path for a couple of sweaty miles seems to get people hooked.
Trail running is thousands of years too old to be considered a new activity, but the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during periods of stay-at-home orders, has given many people a new appreciation for the exercise.
“I love living in Dayton because there are miles of trail to be explored!” said Chayna Rowland, an administrative assistant at Five Rivers MetroParks. “Running outdoors takes you out of the four walls of the ‘gym’ mindset and opens your eyes to the world around you.”
Enthusiasts’ trail running journeys begin and progress in as varied of ways as the trails themselves.
“I have run trails since I was little and my dad used to take me to Sugarcreek MetroPark,” said Jason Sullivan, a Five Rivers MetroParks trail technician. “I was not running consistently, however, until 2014 when I started to become a ‘real’ trail runner. I still run on paved surfaces, but prefer natural surfaces for a few reasons.”
For Sullivan, trail running reduces the impact on his joints and is more forgiving than asphalt or concrete.
Even on a windy, rainy, snowy or hot day, the changing elements of the outdoors keep Sullivan more focused and in tune with his workout.
“(The outdoors) makes it interesting and never mundane or repetitive,” Sullivan said. “Also, sunshine provides vitamin D and fresh air provides oxygen to your brain that increases serotonin and endorphin production, which can help boost your mood and energy.”
Lauren Lemons, Five Rivers MetroParks marketing and public engagement specialist, began trail running just before the pandemic. Then, when the outdoors became one of the safest places to be, it was a natural progression to dive deeper into the new hobby.
“Running on a treadmill and running on pavement is very different than running on the trail,” Lemons said. “So, when you’re beginning, it’s almost good to start on pavement and then work your way up to trail once you find a really flat, natural surface trail.”
A high school varsity soccer player and eventual college soccer coach, Lemons is a longtime athlete. Even so, that doesn’t mean she’s always had the running bug. Conditioning has always been Lemons’ least favorite part of sports because she would quickly get bored.
Taking running off-road and into the parks and forests has made running a joy for Lemons.
“A lot of gyms now, one of their main selling points is that there’s a screen (on their machines),” Lemons said. “But we definitely, in general, as people, need less screen time. … There’s something more exciting (about running on trails) — you feel more productive, you almost feel kind of stronger and (it’s) like, this is how we’re meant to be running, like we’re meant to be somewhat outside creatures.”
In addition to any mental benefits that trail running could support versus an indoor or treadmill workout, trail running is often more difficult due to ever changing terrain. When practiced in a safe way, trail running can provide a fuller-body workout.
“By focusing and reacting to trail obstacles, your body’s reflexes will become heightened, and the muscle groups of your lower body will be trained more than they would on a flat, hard surface,” according to a report from trailandsummit.com.
Experts say that in preparing to begin a journey into trail running, patience will be a runner’s best friend while making the switch from roads to trails.
“Treating the trails — which are often hilly, uneven, and littered with rocks and roots — like roads will make for a difficult experience to start,” according to the trail running report. “But with some trail running tips you can acclimate to the terrain in no time.”
On the trail, a runner’s mind needs to be at least partially engaged and tuned in to the environment so as not to fall on any obstacles. This required focus helps local trail runners like Sullivan get the most out of the workout.
“Most of all I really enjoy it,” he said. “Trail therapy is what I like to call it because it really helps me just focus on being present and feeling grateful that I am able to be out in nature and do something I love so much.”
How to start?
Most important, runners across the experience spectrum recommend investing in a good pair of running shoes. It’s not only important for runners to have an appropriate shoe to support the foot, but the right pair of shoes also provides more traction while on the trail.
Like Lemons advised, if you’re completely new to running all together, it’s a good idea to start with building a bit of endurance on regular paved paths or streets.
Being a beginner at any new endeavor can be daunting, but especially when that new activity is something adventurous like trail running.
“Even though it may seem intimidating at first, join a local trail running group!” suggested Cheyanne Harshman from the Dayton chapter of Trail Sisters, an all-female trail running organization. “As a beginner myself, joining the local chapter for Trail Sisters has provided many opportunities to talk and ask questions of more seasoned runners.”
Especially on new trails, don’t worry about your pace, Harshman said. It’s helpful to focus on the overall time spent on the trails and not the miles.
Where to start, according to the runners:
- “For beginners, I would recommend Sugarcreek and Taylorsville because each park has a variety of distances to try out, the longest being about 3 miles for each,” Harshman said.
- “I’d say the best trails for beginners are Possum Creek, Carriage Hill and Sugarcreek,” Sullivan said. “They all have a relatively consistent elevation and terrain. My favorite trail is Twin Creek for the technical aspect of rocky terrain, roots, and big, challenging hills.”
- “Possum Creek has the best trails for beginners,” Rowland said. “The trails are primarily flat which helps your body become acclimated to the switch from pavement to trail. My favorite running trails and the best for fall are hands down at Germantown MetroPark or Twin Creek MetroPark. The scenery is perfect and the trails at both parks offer a wide range of elevation change that gives you a nice challenge and makes for an excellent workout.”
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