The last few years I have been slowly turning into a runner. It wasn’t until I found trail running though, that I was full on hooked. Below are some reasons you should consider lacing up your shoes a little tighter and hitting the trail.
After a steep climb up, a short flat run, the downhill is coming up. You’re huffing and puffing and your legs are burning. There is no thinking about a to-do list, no work stress, no thinking about the beer you’re going to have later. You need pure focus. You start picking up speed on the downhill, step on the big rock, dodge the roots, hop over the stream, pick your feet up and step carefully over the slippery technical section, cut to miss the mud pit and continue cruising along, staying focused.
The technical aspect of trail running puts you in an instant flow state. Flow is defined as the mental state of operation in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
I was first introduced to the flow state while trying to improve my own mental game while playing hockey. It was like trying to figure out a magic formula of proper sleep, superstitious food selection and always making sure that I put my left skate on first.
Since then, I have been a flow junkie, reading books on how to achieve it, how to focus more and be more mindful of what I’m doing. Flow isn’t just about sports, it can be about productivity and feeling accomplished too.
I was instantly dropped into a flow state the first time I ran on some muddy, technical trails. Many runners talk of the runner’s high, that is the flow state. Running on the road, I could get there, but it would take longer. The chaos of road running – cars, other runners, intersections and being in a familiar place – all make it more difficult to reach this delicate state.
On the trail, you must always be mindful of your footing. Hopping from rock to rock, careful not to slip, how many steps should I take between here and there? You’re always computing the next move, losing focus isn’t an option unless you want to fall.
In his book, Go Wild, Dr. John Ratey goes into detail as to why trail running is important to us as humans. Running on trails makes our brain compute while we are moving (which, Ratey argues that movement is the reason we have a brain in the first place). It isn’t monotonous, repetitive motion over and over again – it is constantly varied, each turn being different from the next with new obstacles to overcome.
The technical trail surface forces us to shorten our stride, land more on the mid foot and gives us better cushion than hard pavement. These trails can also slow us down, which I think is a good thing. Runners can become obsessed with pacing and distance, sometimes to their detriment. You can’t compare trail times to road times. This shifts the focus from the distance ran, to the quality of your run. How did you feel? Were you floating over rocks and tip-toeing through roots. Or did your feet feel heavy with a lack of agility?
The most profound benefit of running on the trail, the trail itself. Getting out into nature and immersing yourself in the quite of the woods. A goal of mine over the past couple years has been to get outside more. Trail running has allowed me to check two things of my list at once. I can train/exercise and also spend time outside, instead of being in a gym. The nature aspect of trail running is another reason why I find the flow state much easier to find than on the road.
If I’ve convinced you to give it a shot, here are a few tips for you:
Start by setting a time-based goal. Measure your results not by how far you when over the duration, but how did your running technique feel? On a good day, I feel like I’m on a roller coaster, easily floating down the trail.
Keep your headphones at home. How can you expect to focus while you’re concerned about Spotify’s song shuffling? Seriously, ditch the headphones and watch your performance skyrocket. This goes for road runners, too. Before everyone asks, “what are you supposed to think about with no music, it’s so boring,” exactly. It’s boring because you have never been able to focus on what you’re doing – running! Think about your stride, your breathing, what muscles are burning. That’s how you become better, deliberate practice.
Don’t just look at your feet! Keep an eye out in front of you so you know what coming next. Don’t let anything sneak up on you.
I recently re-read (listened) to Christopher McDougall’s amazing book, Born to Run. In it, ultramarathon runner and friend of the Tarahumara people, Caballo Blanco, tells Chris, when choosing to take 1 or 2 steps between an object, take 3.
If you’re interested in learning how to take your running to the next level, GAIN endurance, a weekly, drop-in style class kicks off in August. GAIN endurance is a strength and conditioning program to be used as an addition to your current training plan. Learn how to feel better, move better, go further and faster.
GAIN endurance kicks off on Tuesday August 8th. You can find out more information or book your first workout here: gainsc.com/gainendurance