Trail running for complete idiots

Thousands of people find themselves wandering up and down our mountain paths, captivated by the gushing waterfalls, the rhododendron-canopied trails and the smell of woodsy detritus on the air.

Then, without warning, their sacred bond with nature is broken by the galloping steps, the huffing and puffing, the funky ammonia bouquet left behind by a passing trail runner. And while many folks might slip back into their state of organic union with these ancient hills, others might find themselves questioning Gandhi and his whole “there is more to life than increasing its speed” philosophy by asking themselves, “Could it be possible to get more out of my wander-time in the woods?”

Yes, it’s true: Stepping it up a notch and becoming a trail runner gives outdoor enthusiasts more mileage to remember and a healthy kicker to the ticker, if you don’t mind all the twisted ankles, bloody nipples, sore legs and cramps.

In fact, most of these side effects can be avoided.

First, educate yourself on the hazards of running in the woods. Odds are, if you’re a hiker or outdoor enthusiast of any kind, you already know about the potential dangers of wild animals, human stalkers, poison ivy, extreme temperatures, dangerous weather and unpredictable terrain.

As a runner, remember that you’ll be moving faster and pushing yourself to exhaustion in places where medical care is not generally available. It pays to get a good physical and know your limitations before hitting the trails. Bring emergency items with you such as a cell phone, extra water and maps. Deck yourself out in the proper attire, and don’t skimp on the shoes.

Yes, running barefoot has become a trend in the last few years, but unless you want to cripple yourself, I would suggest getting fitted with the right shoes by an expert. As Scott Socha, a local pedorthist (footwear specialist) and trail runner, explains: “You have to take a lot of things into consideration when getting fitted, such as what sort of terrain you’ll be running on, foot size and shape, weight etc. Remember to allow for more toe room when looking at trail shoes because of ‘toe surge,’ which is the foot’s shift forward in the shoe when landing on downhill strides. This could help you avoid toe deformities such as hammer toes and claw toes, not to mention black toe, which is when a toenail eventually dies and falls off.”

And while it might not be the first thing you think of, consider a skin lubricant such as Vaseline or BodyGlide (available at specialty running stores like Jus’ Running in Asheville) a must-have as well. To prevent major chafing during longer runs, apply readily to thighs, nipples, armpits and any other hotspot subjected to rubbing while you run.

Take into account what you eat and keep it light before running. “Drink your six to eight glasses of water every day before 2 p.m., and avoid a large meal before you run,” suggests trail runner Anna Ferguson. “If you’re hungry and having a low-blood-sugar moment, try a banana or piece of toast. They won’t weigh your stomach down.” If you’re considering making a routine of running, it pays to consult a nutritionist and get a program for your specific metabolic needs, or to at least take the time to figure out what works and what doesn’t through measured periods of trial and error.

It pays to find a coach. Olympic-marathon-trials qualifier and veteran coach Randy Ashley of Asheville says that using a coach can be a good way to “make sure you don’t hurt yourself.” A coach will not only give you a training schedule, but will dispense some valuable tips along the way. For example, Ashley says, “Trail miles are a little harder than road miles, so focus more on time: Spend 30 minutes on the trail up to three days a week. Start by jogging the flat sections and walking technical uphills and downhills.” Of course, everyone is different, so how much mileage/time you start with may be different depending on your level of fitness.

Be sure to change it up and explore the woods. There are hundreds of miles of trails around Asheville: Mountains-to-Sea, Bent Creek, Pisgah National Forest, DuPont State Forest and other locales. (Maps are available at your local outdoor shop.) Trail runner Rachel Gauna offers this tip: “If you want a healthy dose of waterfalls and easy running, check out Dupont State Forest. My favorite route goes out to Hooker Falls.”

Although trail running doesn’t have to be practiced in complete wilderness, being away from the city does have its advantages. As Socha explains, “If you get hit with a killer need to take a diarrhea, nature will provide a shelter somewhere. This convenience is something you could never find in an urban setting.”

For Lloyd Basten, a 70-year old trail runner who logs roughly 70 miles a week, changing up the route is essential to staying engaged. “I don’t plan where I run for the same reason I don’t buy green bananas,” Basten says. “I don’t know how long I’ll be around.”

Above all, have fun and soak in the sights. “If you want to catch a great view, stop and take it in and then get back to your run,” advises trail runner Mike Piercy. “If you try to look around while you’re running, you’ll fall down. But taking in nature is different when you run. You just enjoy being outside and moving through the woods. At times it becomes effortless. You get into the flow of the trails, and it’s the closest thing I could imagine to flying.”

For some, life on the trail is what it’s all about. As Basten says, “If I die running on the trails, my final wish is for a passerby to put a beer in my hand and cover me up with leaves.”

Many folks have found that once they discover trail running, it’s hard to ignore the simple beauty it offers. “I have done a lot of other sports—biking, martial arts, soccer, baseball—but nothing has provided me with the sense of stillness I find passing through the woods with the mixing of my own breath and crunching leaves mingling in my ears,” says Asheville runner Wesley Miller.

Happy trails.

[Jonathan Poston, a certified USATF endurance coach, can be reached at his Web site –]


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