I recently traveled to the United Kingdom and experienced trail running in Hampstead Heath, London’s largest ancient parkland. I’m used to pounding the NYC pavement so trail running was a new and very welcome challenge. Trail running is a scenic adventure and a great relief from busy concrete streets, pollution, trash, noise, and tourists who walk painfully slow. Hampstead Heath is unbelievably beautiful and not your typical park. It’s 3 sq miles of woodland, grassland, ponds, and hills, seeming more like natural countryside than city parkland. The Heath is known for its many trails that zig-zag through densely wooded, fairly dark and overgrown areas. Most of these dirt trails are stony, uneven and somewhat muddy from frequent showers. Believe it or not, this type of terrain is better on your joints than a running track or treadmill.
Dirt trail surfaces are softer and have a natural give. Sediment conforms to your foot causing joints less shock and putting less pressure on knees and ankles. I noticed a major difference in my footing while trail running. The muscles in my feet were more active and my toes felt like they were actually gripping the earth.
Trail running provides for a varied workout. I manuevered around fallen branches, jumped over puddles, ran sideways down steep gravel paths, and sprinted up hills that literally took my breath away. The Heath’s rough terrain amplified my runs and made my body work harder than usual to adapt to changing angles and surfaces. Unpredictable trails required me to stay alert and prepared. I wasn’t just running—I was using all my senses to make my way through nature’s obstacle course. Trail running is a liberating experience with the following benefits:
Provides a whole-body workout (using every muscle from shoulders to feet).
Increases strength, stamina and flexibility.
Improves proprioception (sense of balance and where your body is in space).
Requires contant adjustment and stabilization which burns more calories.
Builds strength in ankles and knees.
Exposure to fresh air and sunlight.
Engages core muscles and builds balance.
Improves coordination and agility.
Allows a connection with the outdoors
Increases emotional well-being.
Improves sense of direction and memory skills.
Provides relief from shin splints.
Facilitates breathing since the air is usually cleaner and less toxic.
If you plan on trail running, make sure you have the right footwear. I used normal running shoes for my trail runs and wished I had worn shoes with more traction and support for all the different surfaces I encountered. I wear ASICS running shoes and swear by them so I recommend checking out ASICS trail footwear (www.asics.com). Since you’re bound to get dirty on trails, go for a darker shoe with color accents.