Happy trails for great exercise -- Walk or run for an outdoor experience
By Lisa Ziegel
This year in many areas of the United States the weather reached record highs, thus making it too hot for all but the hardiest enthusiasts to brave the outdoors for a walk or a run. Thankfully fall is bringing relief in cooler temperatures, making it an ideal time to take up walking or running on many beautiful outdoor trails and hills. This would make it a good time to review the benefits of outdoor trail running or walking, along with the growing trend in hill climbing/trekking/hiking and related races/competitions.
First of all, how does running on a trail differ from road running (on pavement or a track) or running on a treadmill? Except for the obvious fact that a trail can offer unexpected surprises, such as twists, turns, rough terrain, smooth terrain, trees, brush, critters and snakes, uphill and downhill runs, and often beautiful scenery - - not a lot. Any type of running would require proper equipment (good shoes), but on the trail you may need to worry about bug bites or to be aware of what type of snakes may inhabit the area, so a familiarity with the locale would be advisable prior to embarking on your journey. This is why it may be a great idea to join a group, of which there are many in any given city. One easy way to find a trail-running group is to check out your local running shoe, sporting goods, or recreational equipment store. Another way is to check local newspaper or Internet ads since many groups are always recruiting new members. Even if you live in a very urbanized area, chances are you are still not far from a trail or area that at least looks like you've escaped to the great outdoors, even though in places such as Los Angeles, you can see the city skyline from the crest of a hill, but you can at least pretend.
If you are a beginner, one way to decide where to start is to go by trail ratings established by various organizations (Parks and Recreation Departments, Trail Cycling groups, etc.). In general, they go like this:
1 = flat or nearly flat
2 = rolling, total climb up to 50 feet per mile (2500 feet in 50 miles)
3 = hilly, total climb between 50 and 150 feet per mile (2500-7500 feet in 50 miles)
4 = very hilly, total climb between 150-250 feet per mile (7500-12,500 feet in 50 miles)
5 = mountainous, total climb more than 250 feet per mile
1 = paved or very smooth surface
2 = mostly groomed trail or dirt roads
3 = trail or dirt road with some rocks, root, and/or ruts
4 = trail or dirt road with substantial rocks, roots and/or ruts
5 = very rough trail
For example, to find out what a local trail near me is rated, I searched for "Trail ratings Malibu Creek State Park" and found that Venturacountytrails.org offers an extensive list of all trails within this park and ratings, such as for "Liberty Canyon Trail," (which was a T 1.5, so might be good for a novice). In some instances, the only rating is to denote that the trail is "moderate" (or whatever the case) in difficulty, but in the instance of this website, there is much detail about everything from the landmarks within to where to watch out for poison oak (VERY important)! Many websites and map-search sites also provide a downloadable GPS track that can be used on your smartphone or tablet computer.
Walking or running on trails can be as easy or as challenging as you want to make it -- just pick your trail and do it! However, when faced with hills, your entire strategy may have to change. There are those super-fit ultra-athletes who seek and run up the highest, roughest hills (or more accurately, mountains) for fitness and sport, but for the novice, hiking would be a more appropriate term. It can be challenging enough just to scramble your way up to the crest of a hill where the trail becomes nearly treacherous due to unsure footing. Even harder is getting back down! Therefore it is prudent to start with small hills. Master making it all the way up by hiking, and then try upping the pace at a walk to finally running all the way to the top.
If you get hooked on trail running, you can join the growing number of participants in trail races all over the country, such as the Mount Wilson Annual Trail Race held this April in Sierra Madre, CA. The race runs for 8.6 miles to an elevation gain of 2,100 feet and was established more than 100 years ago. There are several listings all over the United States and in other countries for the many trail races that are held each year. Just check your favorite search engine to find one.
Even if you are not the competitive type, trail walking, running or hiking can offer a break from the sometimes-dreary surroundings of a gym or your local neighborhood. Many trail runners find that they do not even need to listen to music, (which may be safer since you can't hear over the music when you need to at times) as they become more tuned in to the natural sights and sounds around them. You do need to be more aware of safety measures, such as carrying enough water and perhaps a snack with you, having a GPS or mapping device and cellphone to prevent getting lost, watching where you're running/climbing so you don't fall or run into something, wearing protective clothing appropriate for the weather (and dressing in layers in case the weather goes from cold to hot and vice/versa) and always letting others know you're going out beforehand in case something happens. As far as shoes, avoid wearing old, worn out shoes, and it helps to get fitted by a professional for the correct shoe for your foot type. Otherwise, unless you need waterproofing if you're going out in wet terrain, special trail-running shoes are not really necessary unless perhaps you plan to compete.
Go out and enjoy the fall weather, get an exhilarating workout, and find out what adventures nature has in store for you, whether you live near the woods or in the city!