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February 16, 2017 5 min read

Trail Running and Hiking - It's All Good

Have you noticed how kids take a straight line from A to B regardless the terrain? Across the lawn, through puddles, over rocks and roots, no matter. Adults, on the other hand, use smooth surfaces whenever possible even though the distance may include a winding path and twice the distance.

What is our aversion to uneven surfaces?

Okay, I understand not wanting to muddy the shoes, but I think it's more than that. It has to do with feeling unstable, the chance of twisting an ankle, falling. Maybe it's because it requires more effort maneuvering on rougher terra firma.  

We are creatures of habit. We prefer a smooth sidewalk or road we can count on. The path of least resistance. Adults like consistent stride length, even speed. We like the sureness of treadmills, spinning. We like consistent hill work. We don't like a slippery or uneven ground. We like predictability.

We like the smooth highway

As we get older, starting at about 35, we begin to lose our keen sense of proprioception. Proprioception is the awareness of our body position and body movement. Balance is the foundation of proprioception. It is one of those things we don't think about until we take a flip and land on our keister (shoulder, hip, knee, wrist....).

If you want to check your balance and proprioception here's an easy test. Stand on one leg, wrap the other foot around the standing ankle and see if you can hold the position for 30 seconds. No holding on. Only about 10% of the population can do this. And decreases in 10% increments as we age.

 Neurophysiology 101: Proprioception 

PurePosture posture muscles spine alignment

Muscle spindles are propriceptors and provide information about gross motor skills - whether we are sitting or standing, leaning forward/backward and all big movements. They work by picking up and processing exact joint angles, muscle length and muscle tension. In combination with visual cues, we know whether we are walking up hill or down hill, how to manage stairs, etc.

A good example of how sophisticated proprioception is think about kicking a soccer ball without looking at it. We know how to precisely time our approach to the ball, the angle of the hip, leg, and foot to get the ball to the desired destination, and at what velocity needed to kick the ball. Very cool.  

Use it or lose it

Starting at about 35 we begin to lose about 1% of our muscle mass*. Loss of muscle mass also means loss of proprioception. This occurs about the same time we prefer to take the sidewalk over the lawn. Can we do anything to stop this?

YES! There are many studies that show regular balance training, in combination with weight training, can slow and in many cases, reverse the loss of proprioception. As with all preventative programs, the younger you begin, the better the outcome.

Test the Rocky Road

Runners have good quads partly because they are moving in one direction - forward. Unfortunately many road runners have underdeveloped glute muscles, especially the gluteus medius (on the side of the butt) and weak inner and outer thigh muscles which are fundamental in balance. These muscles are all needed for moving on unstable ground.

Running, walking, or hiking through the forest takes a bit of practice, but once you start, running on the track or a treadmill is just plain boring. There are so many benefits of cruising through the woods and here are some:

  • Retraining proprioception, regardless of the terrain you are stable. Always beneficial.
  • Uneven surfaces help to strengthen ankles, feet, and calves. Your lower extremities must adapt to the environment. Increased strength coupled with adaptation will help to prevent ankle injuries.
  • You use your whole body: abs, hamstrings, glutes, back muscles.
  • The ground is softer than asphalt or treadmills, so less impact on your knees and low back.
  • Running through the woods is better for your lungs. You breathe clean, oxygenated air filtered by vegetation.
  • More visually beautiful than watching tv at the gym. Looking at nature is calming and elevates your mood.
  • Improved vision. Your eyes are continuously assessing the terrain and sending information to your brain for physical adaptation.
  • Varied training: walking, running, leaping, bounding, jumping down.
  • Plenty of places to stretch.
  • A great way to spend time with the family, and the dog!

Let's Get Started!

posture hiking runners spine alignment

First, Get Those Knees In Shape. Click Here For Help

I hit the trails 2 to 3 times a week and have for years! Here is what I do to get a great workout.

  • I put in my ear buds and run/pace to the beat of the music regardless of the rocks, water, roots, uphill, downhill. It also helps to vary my stride length.
  • I tighten my abs and push from my butt.
  • I try to use the full range of motion in my hips. The hips are ball-in-socket joints, and feeling the ball rotate in its socket makes me happy. I have to admit this took a bit of practice.
  • I maintain an upright position. Shoulders down, chest open, arms swinging, chin up - looking forward.
  • I invested in a good pair of running shoes specially made for the trails, these are light weight and have deeper treads.
  • Weather be damned! I use wind pants and parka, and if it is icy I slip on lightweight cleats.

You may want to check out walking poles for increased stability and confidence.Use a lightweight backpack for water and snacks, better than carrying them in your hands.

Don't forget the bug spray. It is good to liberally spray your boots and lower legs first, to ward off ticks. Spray your hat, wait a minute before putting it on your head. Try to avoid going out at dawn or dusk when mosquitoes are out in force.

Hit the trails, love mother nature, improve balance, a great workout! Click here for HIKES NEAR YOU 

* If you consistently weight train and practice yoga, you are ahead of the curve. Studies show a combination of these slows down both the loss of muscle mass and a decrease in proprioception.

To have an even better experience, try PurePosture before you hit the trails. This one-of-a-kind device aligns the spine, increases flexibility, and solves neck and back pain. It is easy to use, safe and quick. Most of all, it's effective. Check it out today!