Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Head For the Trails!

By Todd Schemper, PT, DPT (Work Systems Rehab, P.C.; Des Moines, Iowa)

Autumn is here! The leaves are changing; the days are getting shorter; and the temperature is much cooler than our 90 degree summer. The great summer and fall races are past, and many runners are heading inside for the treadmills and tracks. A fun and adventurous alternative for your training program this fall and winter is trail running. The surfaces of your running trails can vary from dirt, to limestone, to grass, or woodchip .

Running on these off-road trails is a wonderful way to explore creation, and enjoy the beauty of the fall season. Breathing fresh air, seeing wildlife, and experiencing the stillness of the woods is a great break from streetlights and traffic. Trail running is also a wonderful activity for your joints and muscles.

The dirt, limestone, or grass surfaces of trail running have been shown to be better for your joints; especially your feet, knees, and back, as the forces sent up through your body are decreased compared to pavement. The terrain can vary, with up-hills, down-hills, curves, and minor obstacles, such as roots, branches, and rocks. Running in this type of environment gives your body a more balanced workout compared to running on sidewalks and streets.

This balanced workout can help you utilize some of those underdeveloped muscle groups that do not have to work as hard on the road. The fact that your feet have to adjust to the uneven surfaces causes you to work harder to balance. The hips are stimulated from the winding curves, uneven terrain, obstacles you may have to run around, and branches that could be hanging over the trail. Your arms and trunk have to work to stabilize as you go up and down ravines and around trees and sharp curves.

By running on trails you can help prevent injury by improving your strength, balance, and awareness of how your body wants to move in more directions than just straight forward. So where do you go to find these types of trails?

There are actually many un-paved trails in the Des Moines Metro. Some locations include Ashworth Park and Denman Woods, Brown’s Woods County Park, Raccoon River Park, and the Sycamore Trail. There may be other trails within forest preserves and state or county parks near your home. If going off-road is more than you feel you are ready for, running once per week on a grassy surface at a local park is enough to give your body some variety from the normal routine.

To get started, find a friend who is excited and willing to head down a new off-road route with you. I recommend taking it easy the first time out, expecting a slightly slower pace than normal because of potentially challenging conditions. If the trail is narrow, and allows only single file running, give the person ahead of you enough room so you can see the trail surface and terrain changes coming up in front of you. Be cautious of potential obstacles such as tree roots, mud, sticks, rocks, and wooden bridges. Also, make sure you have enough daylight to finish the route you are planning to run.

After training on some trails and finding you like what you have experienced, it is time to find an off-road or cross country race that will test your ability and adventure. The Living History Farms Race is a local favorite in November. There are new off-road races starting up every year, and there are even running clubs and national associations that cater to the sport.

Enjoy the trails! You will experience the benefits for your body, mind, and spirit.

Todd Schemper, PT, DPT is a physical therapist, co-owner and clinic manager with Work Systems Rehab, P.C. in Des Moines. He enjoys trail running and helping runners with injury prevention and treatment. Todd can be reached at (515) 309-4706 or todds@worksystemspc.com.

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