Trail Running, Trail Hiking
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 twice the distance.
What is our aversion to uneven surfaces?
Okay, I understand not wanting to muddy the shoes, but I think it's bigger than that. I think it has to do with feeling unstable, the chance of twisting an ankle, falling or possibly because it requires more effort maneuvering on rougher terra firma.
We are creatures of habit. We prefer a smooth sidewalks or roads we can count on. The path of lease 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.
Why we like the smooth highway
For one thing, we begin to lose our keen sense of proprioception. Proprioception has everything to do with balance and movement. Balance 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. This 10% decreases with age.
Neurophysiology 101: Proprioception
Proprioception is our "sixth sense." It is a sensory system that tells us, unconsciously, our body position and all body movement. This information is picked up through our skeletal muscles. These skeletal muscles have a subset of cells, sensory organs, called muscle spindles. Muscle spindles supply information to our central nervous system and are essential in fine motor skills such as buttoning clothing, eating, keyboarding and the like.
Muscle spindles also 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.
Proprioception is very complex and very sophisticated. Computer scientists have yet to perfect proprioception in robots.
A good example of how highly intelligent proprioception is let's think about kicking a soccer ball, without looking at it. Proprioception tells 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, the exact velocity needed to kick the ball, the sense of contact with the ball, swinging the leg through. 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 muscle spindles, proprioception. This is about the same time we take the sidewalk over the lawn. Are we doomed??
Absolutely not! 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 you will be in the future.
Proprioception: yet another thing to work on
We are all busy. We have to work on the abs, the arms. We need cardio for weight control. The list goes on. Honestly, if we had 3 hours a day to exercise, preferably with a personal trainer; a cook to prepare protein packed, fiber rich, pro-biotic balanced, low-calorie meals; a housekeeper; a work schedule allowing for spouse and kid time, all the while paying attention to friends and relatives, then training proprioception would be a piece of cake!
The solution: Take the Rocky Road
Runners may have good quads because they are moving in one direction - forward... but they usually have underdeveloped gluteus muscles, especially the gluteus medius muscles (on the side of the hips) and weak inner and outer thigh muscles which are fundamental in balance...especially when 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 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 breath 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 that information to your central nervous system for physical adaptation.
- Varied training: walking, running, leaping, bounding, jumping down.
- There are plenty of places to stretch
- Your kids and the dog will love you even more if you take them along!
To get your knees in great shape for trail running or hiking, take a look here.
I like to put in my ear buds and run/pace to the beat of the music regardless of the rocks, water, roots, uphill, downhill..this also helps me to vary my stride length.
I make sure my abs are tight, and I am pushing from the back end (glutes).
I like to focus on full range of motion in my hips. The hips are ball-in-socket joints, so feeling the ball rotate in its socket is a good thing. I have to admit this takes a bit of practice.
I use my core muscles to maintain an upright position. I tuck my belly in and feel it engage (this also helps with stabilization). 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 but have deeper treads. I also bought a pair of hiking/running/trail boots for more ankle stability. I use these when the trails are muddy, slippery or snowy. It is a good idea to buy your footwear where they will suggest footwear for specific tasks, Zumba shoes don't work well on the trails. Fortunately, I have a great store, Hawley Lane Shoes here in Connecticut where I buy mine.
Weather be damned! I use wind pants and parka, and if it is icy I slip on lightweight cleats
My good friend, Elizabeth, loves walking poles. She says it increases her stability and confidence. I agree.
It's better to use a lightweight backpack for water and snacks 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. If you wear a hat, spray the hat and wait a minute before putting it on your head. Try to avoid going out at dawn or dusk when mosquitoes are out in force.
So, hit the trails, enjoy mother nature, improve your balance and get one heck of a workout! Stomp On!
* 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.
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