As winter approaches, many of us are preparing our bodies for active outdoor adventure using a variety of techniques. Skiing and snowboarding – and other outdoor winter pursuits – require a few key fundamentals: balance; eye-foot coordination; cardio fitness; core strength; and timing. Of course, finding one sports conditioning program that addresses all of these fundamentals would be ideal, right? In fact, there are many people in the ski community that believe trail running can be one of the pillars of a strong conditioning program, and getting started is as simple as purchasing a pair of trail running shoes.
Trail running – running on a soft surface – is one of the best ways to get in shape for winter sports. In many ways, trail running mimics what you do on skis, a snowboard or even a pair of snowshoes, providing a natural crossover.
The true magic of trail running is that it is perfect for runners of all levels. Here’s why:
First, running on a soft, dirt surface gets you outside and that’s important for your overall wellbeing. Scientists now know there are measureable benefits to exercising outdoors. The combination of outdoor elements like trees, running water and sunlight produces negative ions. When we inhale them we experience a biochemical reaction that causes our bodies to produce serotonin, the “feel-good” chemical. Serotonin makes us feel awesome! And, when our bodies produce serotonin we reap amazing benefits, like relaxation, happiness and better sleep.
Second, running on a soft, uneven surface reduces impact on the body and helps develop those fundamentals I mentioned. Running on hard surface can produce a repetitive impact on our hip-knee-ankle chain and can lead to injury or chronic pain. When you run on a soft surface, you minimize impact, and every foot strike is different so each step is unique. Trail running also strengthens micro muscles in the feet, around the ankles and in the lower legs, which is important for building strength for any outdoor sport. Running on a hard surface does not challenge those muscles in the same way. As an added bonus, trail running engages core muscles and balance skills.
Third, trail running allows you to move at a pace that is not familiar, whether you’re a beginner or an expert. Beginners can start with hiking. As an example, I coach a group of 20 women who were not interested in running. During one of our cardio workouts, I encouraged them to move from a hiking pace to “slogging,” which is very slow jogging. Once they became more comfortable and realized they could advance at their own pace, many progressed to running. Now 18 of 20 participants have the confidence to run, and they enjoy it. Advancing from hiking to slogging bumps your heart rate up five to ten beats per minute, which is fantastic for cardio health.
Those who already are accomplished runners can add resistance to their outings. You can carry a loaded backpack, introduce intervals, or add striding or bounding to your workout to create new challenges. U.S. Nordic Ski Team members sometimes drag tires while trail running!
No matter your current level of fitness, trail running can help prepare you for a winter season full of outdoor activities. To learn more, please join me at the Vitality Center every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:30 a.m. for Outdoor Fitness. Tuesday classes focus on interval training – for all levels, including beginners – and Thursday sessions feature endurance and cardio training, again, for all levels. This is a non-competitive, one-hour to 75-minute, inclusive on- and off-snow experience focused on helping participants establish a solid training foundation. For information, call 970-476-7721.
Ellen Miller is a Vitality Center cardio coach and high altitude training specialist, a Certified Level 2 USATF Endurance Coach, and a coach/manager for the U.S. Women’s Mountain Running Team. She has summitted Mount Everest from both sides – Nepal and Tibet – and has climbed four 8,000-meter peaks in the Himalaya.