why trail running is better than regular running

why trail running is better than regular running

There's a desert wash near my house. It's about a quarter-mile wide, and runs for miles in either direction. These natural washes criss-cross the city, and carry water run-off (usually in the form of a flood) on those rare occasions when we see water falling from the sky for more than an hour or two.

desert wash in peoria az

Due to the size and use of these natural, dry riverbeds, it's very expensive for a city to develop them; they typically remain native desert, with minor enhancements for the structural safety of nearby homes and businesses. Instead, the cities use these natural corridors to build an awesome network of bicycle and walking paths. (at the top of the riverbank, obviously.)

I've been on these paths thousands of times over the years for running, biking, walking, skateboarding, riding scooters - basically anything and everything, exercise alone and recreation with my family. But a couple days ago I had a crazy idea:

What would happen if I actually ran IN the wash?

desert wash running through a neighborhood in peoria az

rocky riverbed in a desert wash in peoria az

a desert washes passes under deer valley road in peoria az

After running the wash for about 45 minutes, it was easy to make favorable observations comparing it to running on the regular sidewalk:

1.) Harder Work - easier pace. I found myself less worried about my pace and timing splits, and instead just enjoying my run. My pace was significantly slower than usual, but I could tell I was getting a good workout by how much I was sweating!

2.) Full Body Engagement. I had to adjust and plan for each step, using balance, dexterity, my core, and different muscles in my legs. (mostly to make sure I didn't break an ankle!) This was a significant departure from the repetitive, piston-like motion of legs pounding on smooth pavement. By the end of the run I felt rejuvenated and exhausted at the same time.

3.) Better Form. Small steps, feet underneath you. Easy, light, smooth, and fast - I could feel exactly what Caballo Blanco meant when he said "if you think you need 2 steps, take 3," while teaching Christopher McDougall how to run trails in the book Born to Run. "Easy. Light. Smooth. and Fast. You get the first three, and you won't have to worry about being fast." (I'm quoting from memory, so even if the quote isn't exact, I'm still giving credit with quotations.)

4.) Intense Focus makes time and distance pass quickly. I found myself focusing on the ground in front of me for a few minutes at a time. Then, I'd look up and see I had suddenly run for 5 minutes and had covered quite a bit of distance. That was so much better than the sidewalk, where I usually look ahead at the same streetlight for what seems like forever and wondering why I'm not getting anywhere.

5.) Changing Terrain. This is sort of a combination of the first 3, but the fact is every step is different. In 20 minutes' time, I ran over big river rocks, small river rocks, gravel, dirt, and sand as thick as a luxurious beach. Each surface required different muscles, and a different pace. And the surfaces changed every few minutes.

6.) Better Scenery. Short and sweet - trail running can get you further into nature, to places the rest of the joggers don't get to see.

7.) More Calories Burned per minute. The chart below is part of a much larger chart I found on the MyCaloriesBurned website. I'm not sure if I believe everything on the chart (ie: swimming laps and kick boxing burn less than cycling..?), but at least it's an objective 3rd party saying trail running burns more than regular running.

calories burned per hour for various exercises

So get out there and give trail running a try. Then come back here and let me know what you think..

-Chris Butterworth