We were born to run. However, we were not born to run on man-made surfaces. Although modern athletic shoes have compensated for that, allowing many people to run pain-free on the road, there’s still something magical about running on natural surfaces. And more and more people are discovering this magic: Trail running has grown 11 percent over the last three years, according to the 2016 Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report.
If you’re one of the many Fitbit users who love to run (research shows it’s your favorite activity next to walking) but have never tried off-road running, I encourage you to strike out. Signing up for a trail race, can be a fun way to get your feet wet. Off-road racing has also proven wildly popular, with many well-known events filling to capacity very quickly.
The North Face Endurance Challenge Series, which launched in 2007, is a prime example. During the first three years, the series offered single-day trail-running events in four distances. However, it quickly gained popularity, selling out multiple events nationwide. Soon, race capacity doubled, and four more distances were added.
Today, the North Face Endurance Challenge operates in seven locations across the US and Canada—offering nine distance options from a 1K kids race to a 50-miler for adults. Each event is staged along incredibly scenic and natural settings, such as the Potomac Heritage Trail in Washington, D.C.; Kettle Moraine State Park in Wisconsin; the Blue Mountains in Ontario, Canada; and Park City, Utah, and draw both elite and everyday athletes.
I think there’s definitely a growing road-to-trail conversion taking place, and for many reasons. First, people just seem to like venturing into wild environments away from the traffic, pollution, and noise of congested highways. But I’m willing to bet they’re also enjoying the other benefits of natural surfaces.
Besides providing a softer substance upon which to land, many trail systems offer varied terrain, requiring the use of a broader set of muscles to navigate the topography. Unlike the repetitive footfalls of running down a roadway, running on trails and natural surfaces changes things up. Using my Fitbit Surge, I can measure the number of steps I take per minute (my cadence) and compare that to running on roads. Typically, I take more steps per minute on trails because I have to navigate uneven surfaces and dance around rocks and other obstacles. All of this results in a more complete workout and a more enjoyable one as well.
I urge you to put a trail race on your schedule this year. Whether your goal is to run a 5K, bust out a marathon, or tackle an ultramarathon, the thrill and satisfaction of testing your limits will be the same. Best of all, you don’t need any special equipment to get started in trail running—just an open mind and a sense of adventure.