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Hit the trails and beat the heat

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise Forum“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.” -Robert Frost

The purpose of this column is to present an alternative to traditional running that will allow training on more interesting and less stressful surfaces such as those used when hiking, mountain biking and horse riding trails in the beautiful woods of Northeast Pennsylvania.

Moreover, running in the woods on shaded trails is a better alternative to asphalt roads. A few years ago during a heat wave in NEPA, my family and I went kayaking at Lackawanna State Park. As a typical runner, after a few hours of relaxation on the lake, I needed to do something different. Of course, I had my running gear in the car (just in case) and went for a run. As I set out on State Road 348, the sun was beating down on me. I happened to see a sign that read, “Orchard Trail, Bull Hill Trail, Tree Line Trail.” I thought it might be a good idea to find some shade and decided to run on this path normally used for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. It turned out to be a great decision because I was forced to run 25% slower due to the uneven terrain. I was able to practice “light running” techniques by running with short strides on the balls of my feet. I felt much more refreshed as I avoided the direct sunlight under the cover of the trees. Furthermore, I enjoyed the up close view of nature as I ran by cool streams and wet mossy rocks. I saw beautiful flowers, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. I observed deer, chipmunks and birds. In my quest to avoid the hot sun, I discovered the beautiful underworld of “trail running” – a growing trend in today’s running community. If you, like me, have been running for many years, trail running can help you rediscover why you love to run. It is beautiful, peaceful, natural and unique. It is fun to get in touch with your inner child as you run in the woods and get muddy. Trail running makes running fun!

The trail running community purports that trail running is popular because it satisfies a primal need for man to move through nature, derived from hunter/gatherer days. Others who promote trail running feel the popularity is due to the many advantages it offers. One, trail running prevents impact injuries due to soft surfaces. Two, the training style of running with shorter strides on the ball of the foot, lessens impact. Three, this type of running will develop stronger ankles and trunk core muscles while improving balance, coordination and proprioception from running on uneven surfaces. Lastly, the ability to release copious amounts of endorphins while breathing fresh air instead of roadside fumes is invaluable.

Trail Running Gear

  • Clothing – Trail running clothes can be the same as those worn for road running except be sure you don’t mind if they get dirty and a little torn or snagged.
  •  Shoes – While you can begin trail running in the same shoes you road run in, you will find that a different pair is necessary due to excess dirt and water. Also, if you decide to get into trail running, it is worth purchasing trail shoes which are stronger, more water proof and offer better traction (Salomon Sense Pro Max;
    Asics Gecko XT; New Balance FuelCore NITREL Trail).
  • Water – a hand held water bottle or a water bottle belt is essential. The belt offers little pouches for money, keys, ID, and power bars for longer runs.
  • Insect Repellent – a must to prevent bug and tick bites.
  • Headlamp – necessary for evening runs because it gets very dark in the woods. Also, it gets dark earlier in the woods than on the roads and you need to see the terrain clearly.
  • Change of Clothes – it is a good idea to have a first-aid kit, towel and change of clothes in your car to change into before you drive home.
  • Light Pack – because your running slower than normal, carrying a light pack is not a problem and allows you to tote your supplies.

Tips to Begin Trail Running

  • Find a Trail – Start by asking around. Hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders are a good start. The American Trail Running Association has a website with a free directory of trails in the United States. PA State Parks such as Lackawanna State Park in Dalton, offer many options (www.visitPAparks.com). Learn the difference between “non technical trails” which are wider with a paved, dirt or gravel base and much easier than “technical trails” which are narrow, rocky, hilly and challenging.
  • Run Slowly – To be safe, run 25% slower when running a trail in the woods. Use a short stride and land on the ball of your foot. Forget about the pace, feel the dirt under your feet, work on balance and stability. It is a different type of running.
  • Walk – Don’t hesitate to walk when necessary, especially up rocky and slippery hills.
  • Keep Your Eye on the Trail – Pay careful attention to the terrain by looking 5 to 10 feet ahead.
  • Anticipate Slippery Rocks and Stumps – Pick your feet up higher and bend your hips and knees more when necessary to avoid tripping over a log. Walk over obstacles if necessary.
  • Keep a Distance – Don’t crowd the trail. You may have to share it with other runners, bikers and hikers. Pass with care.
  • Be Safe/Be Prepared– Remember the first-aid kit, cell phone, extra clothes and food in the car and make sure someone knows where you plan to run. Run with a friend.

Sources: American Trail Running Association, Trailspace.com

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum!”

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email: drpmackarey@msn.com

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at GCSOM.