Hit the Trails, Feed Your Mid-Life Spirit

Written by T.G. Rand

Run on outdoor trails, instead of tracks or streets, and the panoramic scenery makes miles fly by.

When was the last time you ran for pleasure? Does the idea itself seem oxymoronic? Thenthe benefits of running on trails versus concrete take some tips from Bob Holtel, an athlete and author who is one of the world's foremost ultra-distance runners.

Meet Bob Holtel
Author and Trail Runner
Age: 80
Occupation: Trains mid-lifers
Quote: "You get to stop and say `Hi' to other runners on the trail."

At 80, Holtel, who often trains men and women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, is in such good shape that he is being studied by exercise physiologists at the University of Southern California. His secret, he says, is that he confines his exercise to trails that are far from the cries of the city.

"Concrete, asphalt and pavement make ex-runners out of runners," says Holtel who once ran 2,600 miles of trails, from Canada to Mexico. "Streets hurt your body and they bore your mind." The terrain of off-road trails is not only more natural and forgiving to the body, but they also challenge and entertain the mind.

The key mental benefits of trail running, Holtel says, are the scenery and the people. "Your view changes constantly. Depending upon where you live, you get to see trees, mountains, canyons, and streams. Several miles on a trail go a lot faster than those same miles on flat concrete.

"You also get to stop and say `Hi' to other runners on the trail."

"As you get older," he says, "The mind becomes more important to fitness because it has to take up the slack you lose in performance."

Trails Make A Workout Great!
Feed your mind with the panoramic scenery of trail running, and the terrain at your feet delivers an extraordinary workout for your body, too, says lifetime trail runner and mid-life athlete extraordinaire Bob Holtel.

Tackle a hill, and you work your heart hard.
Trail surfaces are 20 to 30 times softer than concrete. That makes them easier on your joints.
The varied terrain of trails also means your joints are less stressed.

The author of Soul, Sweat & Survival on the Pacific Crest Trail, Holtel says because of the rolling terrain, trail running outperforms track or street workouts for cardiovascular fitness. "Hills are speedwork in disguise," is a truism among track coaches, notes Holtel. When you tackle a slightly inclined stretch of trail, your heart and muscles are in the anaerobic range - a higher intensity of exercise that makes use of your body's non-oxygen fuel system.

What's more, the surfaces of trail running provide more of a cushion for the precious joints of your feet and legs. Ergonomic studies show that the ratio in hardness and resiliency of concrete to trails -- i.e. dirt, wood chips and pine needles -- is 20 to 1. Even softer are grass and sand: the ratio is 30:1. This shifting terrain provides another benefit.

Because the ground varies in grades of incline, the way your muscles and joints are impacted varies as well. Repetitive stress injuries, which are a major cause of common running ailments like Achilles tendonitis and plantar fascitis, are most likely to occur when the impact is repeated identically over and over again, as when you're running on a hard, flat surface.

Holtel has run on trails all over the United States (and the world) and says good ones can be found in nearly every region of the country, even in or near most urban areas. You can get maps from your local forest service or city parks service. Two other great sources of information are running clubs and specialty athletic shoe stores (small, local ones rather than the chains).

Watch Where You're Going!

Trail-running does have its hazards. You have to keep your eyes open, warns veteran trail runner and author Bob Holtel.

Never race downhill! Your body is absorbing three times normal impact.
Loose gravel over a hard surface is dangerous.
Beginners should run with a buddy.
Carry water and an energy bar.
At the start, use well-trod trails.

The most obvious danger is the sprained ankle. Although many trails are actually well-tended and very accommodating, be cautious on sharply uneven surfaces, particularly when rocks and gravel are present.

"The surface you're most likely to slip on is loose gravel over smooth rock, particularly if you're going downhill." Wear shoes designed for trail running, advises Holtel. Models from Nike, New Balance and Reebok offer special support, soles and treads for off-road running.

"If you have a weak ankle, I'd recommend wrapping or bracing it before hitting the trail," Holtel says. And don't run when you're fatigued; injuries are most likely to happen when your level of alertness - physical or mental - is waning.

Trail running comes with other challenges as well. For beginners, it's always best to run with a friend or along trails that are well-trod by others. In fact, your local running club may sponsor or know of group trail-runs that take place during convenient hours.

On longer runs, wear a fanny pack or light backpack to carry water and an energy bar. Also, because of the occasional hills, learn to pace yourself. Don't hesitate to walk or even rest for a few moments during a run.

Never race downhill - fun as it may seem. The speed may be exhilarating, but running fast down hills is fraught with hazards and few benefits.

"When you run down a hill, your body is absorbing more than three times its weight in impact and you're more likely to slip," Holtel says. By contrast, running uphill involves less than half that in terms of impact. When going downhill, be safe:

  • Keep a moderate pace or walk. 
  • Bend your knees slightly. 
  • Keep your center of gravity as low as comfortable.
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