From the minute I started running regularly, I’ve had a plan. In fact, a plan is what got me into running. We moved into our first home, conveniently near a bike path, and I began my recreational running career with a couch to 5k program. I’m sure I saw it in a magazine and figured, “What the heck, let’s put that path to use.” I’ll never forget the day I ran my very first 5k. All those endorphins were rushing through me. I felt strong and healthy, and exhilarated. On the drive home, I told my husband I would run a marathon someday. It was official. That 5k cemented my love for the run.
By now, I’m sure you can see where this is going. From the 5k to the 10k to a half-marathon to a marathon. That’s the progression, right? And to get there, you follow a training plan. A plan that lays out exactly how many miles to run each day, when to rest, and when to cross-train. It provides a series of incremental growth goals to get you to the next level. I lived by the training plan. Signing up for races and scheduling my runs according to a training plan would ensure I had the speed and endurance to finish the run strong.
And then 2020 hit, and everything stopped… including in-person races. Yet I clung to my training plan throughout the pandemic. I did a couple of virtual races over the summer to have a goal and something to work toward. It was something I could control. Something normal.
When in-person races came back, you’d think I would have been thrilled. But this time, it hit differently. Maybe it was the pandemic baggage. Perhaps it was that life got busy again quickly. My son being older meant more time spent shuffling here and there. Work had transitioned to what felt like all-day Zoom calls that drained my energy. And seriously, everyone was burned out after rerouting our lives for two years, myself included.
Instead of feeling motivated to get back at it and run more, I avoided running. And I got to the point where I no longer wanted to run. What had once been my passion, therapy, and “me time” had become my biggest enemy. I dreaded seeing notifications in my calendar for how many miles I was supposed to run. And that just made me feel guilty for not getting it done. So, I stopped running altogether. I thought perhaps it had run its course for me and that it was time to find another passion.
Then our local ski hill posted an ad for an in-person turkey trot 10k trail run. I can’t pinpoint exactly what drew me to the race. I loved hiking – jogging the trails couldn’t be much different, right? They kept the event small, and I was familiar with the trails. But the idea of it made me excited. It felt fresh and new. So, I signed up. And it was the most challenging race I’d ever run.
I struggled as a road runner and as somebody who was frankly out of shape. I probably had no business even running those six miles through the woods. I huffed and puffed through the ups and downs, tripped and almost fell countless times, and took plenty of walk breaks. But something profound happened. I found a new runner on the trail that day. And suddenly, the world of running came back to me. There was something about free flowing on the winding path through the woods. It was a different experience than a road race with spectators cheering and cowbells ringing.
It’s you against the trail. And at that moment, I thought, “Maybe this is where I need to be. Maybe in these woods, I need to find my way back to running.” And that’s precisely what I did.
While I road run and treadmill run (hey, you gotta do what you gotta do), most often, I try to get out on the trail at least weekly. I believe trail running has improved my performance as a runner overall, and it’s undoubtedly had an impact for the better on my mental health. I always feel better after time spent in nature. Trail running does take effort. Unlike road running, where I can walk out my front door, I must drive to a trail which adds time and planning. But the benefits make the extra effort worthwhile.
I run trails more regularly and have completed a few races, the longest being a 25k. While I still consider myself a beginner trail runner, I’ve learned a few things.
The Trail is Humbling
Lower your expectations. The trail often requires more focus, navigating rocks, roots, varied terrain, hills, and twists. I’m slower on the trail and trying not to fall (which I have, multiple times). The trade-off? The views, the solitude, and the engagement of all your senses.
Invest in Trail Running Shoes
I road run in minimalist sneakers, and I felt every rock stab me on the trail until I invested in some good trail shoes. They protect my feet and help me navigate the varied terrain with more agility.
Find a Group
Honestly, I’ve never been a group runner. Running was my time and still is. But I’ve enjoyed my runs with our local Trail Sisters group. It has made me a better trail runner, as I can learn from more experienced people. Joining the group has given me the confidence to run farther and be stronger on the trails.
Instead of pace or mileage, I focus on my surroundings and the present moment. I’ll stop and take in a view or grab a landscape picture. Even a familiar trail is constantly changing, so it always feels like there is something new to explore. Embrace that feeling and enjoy the time in nature discovering something new – maybe even a new you.