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Trails are Not a Trial

Is your running in a rut? Are you finding yourself doing the same routes at the same pace? Is your motivation starting to lag? It might be time to hit the trails! The Capital Region has trails for all skill levels and a variety of races throughout the summer and fall when you need some additional challenges. While trail running offers new ways to enjoy our sport, get healthier, and meet new people, you’ll want to do it because it’s just a lot of fun.

Trail running is very popular in the Capital Region and for good reason. From the Albany Pine Bush ( to Tawasentha Park (, from Thacher State Park ( and Peebles Island ( to Saratoga State Park ( (to name a few), the area is full of trails that allow for an escape from the roads.

Now, you may have not tried trail running because of that voice in your head that says “But I’ll get lost, twist my ankle, or fall off a cliff.” You might if you’re not paying attention, but you probably won’t. Running trails keeps you in the moment and that is actually one of the benefits. Mindful running –– being aware of yourself in a new environment –– wakes you out of habit and refreshes your practice. You become more aware of your body because there’s not a lot of opportunity to “zone out” on a trail run. Allowing yourself to become more connected with nature and run with all your senses is also a great stress-buster. Listening to wind through leaves, bird songs, little waterfalls, and your own heartbeat and breathing is relaxing. The smell of pine trees, flowers (sorry, allergy sufferers), the cool scent of fog rising –– it’s a wake-up call for the mind. When I’m out on the trail, I like to run with a small camera so I can take the occasional picture. Remember, running is supposed to be fun. When you pay attention to your surroundings, you never know what you’ll see.

Trail running is also a great addition to your training for physiological reasons. Trails are softer and this is a great way to give your legs –– particularly your lower legs and joints –– a break from the impact forces associated with running on concrete and asphalt. If you’re suffering from shin splints, some time on a softer trail surface can provide relief. Because trails are marked by much more variety in terrain and surface than a typical road or sidewalk, your legs are subjected to a wider variety of forces. This will allow you to work on your agility and balance while avoiding repetitive stress injuries. Just about every step on a trail run is unique –– it’s the anti-treadmill. Because you are always avoiding roots and bounding over rocks, cutting your stride to get up short, steep hills, or navigating mud puddles, it is nearly impossible to get into a groove. This is actually a good thing: stride variation helps to increase running efficiency and the necessity of taking shorter, quicker steps will help you to improve your cadence. Trails force you do agility training whether you want to or not.

If you think that you might not be getting a good workout, fear not. Running trails puts a whole host of different stresses on your muscles. You’ll quickly figure out what muscle groups might require additional attention. The first time I ran on the trails this year, I was sore in places I didn’t know could get sore. Remember, as well, Frank Shorter’s well-known quote: “Hills are speed work in disguise.” If you want to do some “disguised” speed work, take a trip to Tawasentha, the Pine Bush, or Thacher State Park. You can’t go very far on these trails without experiencing some elevation. Trail running can contribute to some very intense workouts if you attack the hills.

If you decide to pursue some trail running, there are some safety considerations to keep in mind. It’s better when first exploring a trail to run with a friend or with a group. If you are familiar with the trail and prefer to commune alone with nature (and sometimes running is all about “me” time), be sure to tell someone where you are headed. Stick to your route. If you twist an ankle and are delayed, someone simply has to run your planned route until they find you. If you decide, instead, to take a detour, it’s time for search and rescue and the evening news. Some people advise taking a phone along. If you are running long, be sure to take some liquid refreshment and quick energy. Another safety consideration is protecting yourself from wildlife; while the chance of getting attacked by a bear or cougar is remote, ticks are everywhere. The symptoms of tick-borne Lyme disease are particularly irksome for runners because its symptoms (fatigue, joint soreness, achiness, and irritability) so closely mirror the effects of overtraining. Luckily, an insect repellent containing 20-30 percent DEET is a formidable deterrent against ticks. Just be sure to reapply if you are out for more than two hours. Finally, upon the completion of your run, be sure to complete a tick check (

It’s also a good idea to invest in some high quality trail running shoes if you are running on more technical trails –– “technical” being the word one uses to describe trails containing boulders, mud, water, roots, or surface issues. A good trail shoe will have a very aggressive tread so that you don’t have to worry about slipping on rocks and gravel. It will also have a stiffer, rubberized toecap to prevent stubbing your toes on roots, and it could also have a rock plate to protect your feet from pointy stuff on the trail. Less technical trails can be navigated with regular running shoes; but, inevitably, you probably will want to challenge yourself on more difficult trails and this will require specialized footwear.

After some training runs, you might want to challenge yourself even more and join up with others who share your passion. Luckily, the Capital Region hosts a variety of popular trail races. On five Monday evenings in June, July, and August at 6:15 PM, the Saratoga Stryders host a trail race series at Wilton Wildlife Preserve ( On Sunday, August 2, at 9:00 AM, the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club will be hosting its Twenty-First Annual Indian Ladder Trail Run 15K & 3.5 Mile at Thacher State Park. Then, on three consecutive Mondays beginning on August 10 at 6:30 PM, runners will meet at Tawasentha Park to race a very challenging cross country 5K. This is the course with a lifeguard…

Simply put, trail running is an enjoyable way to bust boredom and routine while building balanced strength. What trails do you like to run in the area? Have you done any trail races? Please tell us about them.

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  • John Williams-Searle

    I just ran across this article on Runners’ World website making some arguments about why it is sometimes a good idea to run hard on trails. (

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