A run on the wild side
THE half a dozen or so trail runners push themselves up the single track trail, darting under a canopy of oak and eucalyptus trees, around burly sage bushes and over slippery stream rocks in Santa Ynez Canyon above Pacific Palisades.
It’s halfway into an 8.5-mile run and the sound of heavy breathing and pounding feet grows louder as the runners climb the final incline. The trail veers around a bend and onto a fire road near the ridgeline, giving way to a panoramic view of the blue Pacific, with Catalina Island floating on a bank of fog in the distance.
For an instant, the runners slow their pace to take in the vista -- the big payoff for their aching muscles and burning lungs. “You can hardly believe we are still in Los Angeles,” says Annalisa Peterson, a Pepperdine University law student, gazing at the sun-sparkled water.
Runners like Peterson know that, despite boomeranging tree branches, perilous tree roots and slippery stream crossings, trail running is a chance to commune with nature in a way rarely found on cold concrete or blacktop. Running on uneven dirt trails also improves strength and balance in a way that city running doesn’t.
These all-natural perks are helping fuel trail running’s surging popularity, with the number of trail runners increasing by 26% between 1998 and 2004, according to a 2005 survey by the Outdoor Industry Foundation, the nonprofit offshoot of an industry trade association. With 39.5 million trail runners nationwide, the sport’s enthusiasts outnumber skateboarders, boaters, aerobics exercisers and hikers. The sport’s coming of age has been heralded by the introduction of an assortment of trail running magazines, trail running shoes and corporate-sponsored backcountry races.
And trail runners are devoted to their sport. The average runner hits the trails nearly 30 times a year, one of the highest participation rates of any outdoor sport, according to the foundation survey.
California’s mild weather, miles of shoreline and mountain ranges make the Golden State a hub of trail running. During the recent Santa Ynez Canyon run, members of Pacific Palisades’ Trail Runners Club cross paths with half a dozen other regular runners on the mountain trails. They wave, greet each other and exchange gossip like old high school buddies.
In the 1970s, trail running was an obscure sport with few, if any, clubs or organized groups. Some early trail runners were holdovers from high school cross-country teams. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, backcountry endurance races -- including the Western States Endurance Race -- grew in popularity among ultra-endurance runners. The popularity of such races coincided with the nationwide jogging revolution, pioneered by bestselling author and running guru Jim Fixx.
But backcountry running only began to draw big numbers in the mid-1990s, when shoe makers capitalized on the trend by marketing trail shoes with extra insole support and beefier tread for better traction.
Dale Reicheneder, a lifelong runner and national trail running champion, recalls the early days of trail racing when he was among only a few participants. Today, such events attract corporate sponsors and hundreds of top-tier athletes. “The days of showing up and seeing only 20 people in the race are long gone,” he says.
Reicheneder, who traveled to 27 cities last year to compete, represents the serious, ultra-competitive side of trail running. For such runners, an 8.5-mile run is a leisurely distance, a warmup before a marathon or other long-distance race. For most local trail running clubs, a typical weekend run stretches 11 to 13 miles, lasting up to two hours.
Still, the sport imposes no mandated minimum distance or speed. Fall back on a long run and most trail runners will wait at the end of the route, offering water, food and encouragement. No one will judge a runner who walks up a steep hill or stops to take in the scenery.
A flexible jog
Trail racers and those who hit the trails simply to stay in shape say that the dirt, leaves and grass give leg joints a welcome break from the punishment endured on rigid pavement.
Several studies back them up, suggesting that running on rigid surfaces -- such as concrete or blacktop -- puts more stress on leg joints than running on softer surfaces.
In a 2002 study, researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology measured the biomechanics of eight men running on surfaces of varying degrees of stiffness. They found that elastic surfaces return some of the energy from a runner stride, increasing speed and reducing the shock suffered by leg joints.
“Running on cement is one of the worst things you can do,” says Amy Kerdok, a graduate student and one of the researchers on the Harvard study. “Running on trails, however, dissipates the forces to your joints.”
Though treadmills generally provide good surface cushioning, trail running offers the added bonus of forcing runners to vary their stride and change direction at a moment’s notice, putting more muscles to work.
But running on uneven surfaces also improves stability by strengthening lower, peripheral leg muscles that get little use on flat pavement runs, according to trainers and podiatrists.
“Trail running helps improve balance and makes you a better athlete because you have to use the outer muscles of your legs,” says Perry Julien, a veteran trail runner and team podiatrist for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers.
Steep hills, a staple of most trail runs, also force runners to swing their arms more, giving them a better upper body workout, and the changing terrain compels runners to take shorter, more efficient strides, eliminating the likelihood of overstriding, the tendency to take excessively long strides. Overstriding eats up too much running energy and can lead to injuries.
An outdoors boost
Despite the hills, rocks and branches, trail runners say the serene beauty of the backcountry trails -- the cool streams, green shade trees and towering canyons -- rejuvenates a stressed and overworked mind.
“It allows you to get away from the city and smog, the honking horns and crossing stop lights,” says Pat Connelly, an avid trail runner and coach for the L.A. Roadrunners, the official training program for the Los Angeles Marathon. “It’s peaceful and people can commune with the environment.”
Charlie Brown, a Charlotte, N.C., psychologist who specializes in improving the performance of athletes, says part of the benefits of exercising outdoors comes from sunlight, a proven natural mood booster.
“Anyone who has been outdoors will tell you there is a centered and grounding feeling to being outside,” he says.
Since the 1970s, surveys and medical journal reports by environmental psychologists have linked even brief exposures to the outdoors with a reduction in stress, brightened moods and improved mental clarity. One of the most often cited studies on the greening of moods is a 1984 report by behavioral scientist Roger Ulrich at Texas A&M; University, who found that patients with bedside views of nature had briefer hospital stays and needed less medication than those with views of a brick wall.
More recently, studies have shown that the physical benefits of exercise and the mental health benefits of being outdoors are a “win-win” combination.
A 2002 study by researchers at Ithaca College compared the moods of college students who ran indoors with those who ran outdoors. The report, published at a conference of the American College of Sports Medicine, found the outdoor runners not only had brighter moods but ran faster than the indoor runners.
Research coordinator Sarah Hammel, one of the researchers in the Ithaca College study, says she expected to find improved moods among those who exercised outdoors but was surprised to find that they also ran faster. The faster speed, she says, may be a byproduct of the runners’ improved mood.
A 2005 study by researchers in East Carolina University found that people who walked outdoors were more likely to continue such exercise in the future over people who walked indoors.
Eric Edwards, an attorney from Brentwood, has been running for 30 years and credits trail running with aiding his battle against work-related stress. “I just love getting out in the wilderness after a long day in the office or in the courtroom,” he says after the Santa Ynez Canyon run.
Benefits outweigh risks
But trail running has its drawbacks, namely injuries caused by sharp rocks, protruding roots and perilous gopher holes that can wreak havoc on an unsuspecting runner.
During the Santa Ynez Canyon run, a veteran runner slipped while rock-hopping over a small stream, landing with a crash in the dirt. He suffered a minor knee scrape but was back on the trail quickly, barely losing pace with his colleagues. But other runners say the results can be more serious, including broken toes, cracked ribs and twisted ankles.
And while eyeing the trails for hazards, runners keep their heads and torsos pointed down, creating bad running posture. For maximum lung efficiency, trainers say, runners should look forward with their torso straight.
Still, the benefits far outweigh any hardship, runners say.
For proof, look to Stan Swartz, the director and founder of the Trail Runners Club.
Nearing the end of the 8.5-mile run, Swartz trots along a twisting dirt path, ducking under overhanging branches, stepping over roots and jagged rocks.
He is so passionate about the sport that he has missed only two or three of the group’s regular Sunday morning runs since he launched the club in 1988 with seven or eight other members. Today, the club has 175 members and Swartz, at 70, is still running strong. He credits trail running for keeping his knees and ankles healthy after 45 years of running. It has also paid dividends on his mental health.
“After a run, the troubles and problems of the day just melt away,” he says.
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Where to hit the ground running
Where to run? Here are five of Southern California’s best. says Stan Swartz, coauthor of “50 Trail Runs in Southern California.”
* Ray Miller Trail (Ventura County): This 10.7-mile loop has an elevation gain of 1,050 feet along well-maintained trails in Point Mugu State Park. The exertion is worth it when you see the breathtaking views of the ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains. Directions: From Pacific Coast Highway, about a mile south of Point Mugu, turn north onto La Jolla Canyon to the trailhead at the northeast end of the parking lot.
* Santa Ynez Canyon to Michael Lane (West Los Angeles): This 9.5-mile loop has a 1,400-foot elevation gain in Topanga State Park. It’s a moderately difficult run with a rugged climb near the start and a three-mile descent at the end. The loop goes along the Trailer Canyon Fire Road to the Temescal Ridge Fire Road to the Eagle Road Fire Road and ends on the Santa Ynez Canyon Trail. Directions: From Sunset Boulevard, drive east on Palisades Drive, turn left on Vereda de la Montura and look for the trailhead on the right.
* Haines Canyon to Mt. Lukens (Angeles National Forest): For panoramic views, you can’t top this 11.5-mile, out-and-back run to the summit of Mt. Lukens, overlooking Sunland, Tujunga and the San Fernando Valley. Be ready to climb: The elevation gain is 3,100 feet. A fire road near the trailhead leads into Haines Canyon. A trail on the left connects to Mt. Lukens Fire Road to the summit. Directions: From Foothill Boulevard in La Canada Flintridge, take Haines Canyon Avenue north, turn right on Day Street and left on Haines Canyon Avenue, continuing until it reaches a dead end.
* Boy Scout Trail (High Desert): For desert scenery, try this 15.6-mile out-and-back run through Joshua Tree National Park. Bring lots of water and enjoy the desert canyons, boulders and majestic Joshua trees. Stay on Boy Scout Trail the entire way. Directions: Take Interstate 10 east to Highway 62 and go north to Twentynine Palms. Turn right on Indian Cove Road and look for the trailhead half a mile past the ranger station.
* Aliso and Wood Canyon Wilderness Park (Orange County): This 8.5-mile out-and-back loop in the canyons of Laguna Beach starts with a descent to the canyon floor and follows a tree-lined stream. From Alta Laguna Park, run along the West Ridge Trail north to the Cholla Trail, south along the Wood Canyon Trail, then back to the West Ridge Trail along the Rock-It Trail. Directions: Take PCH and go south from Laguna Canyon Road to Park Avenue. Follow Park Avenue east until it meets with Alta Laguna Road. Turn left to Alta Laguna Park and look for the trail at the northwest corner of the parking lot.
Group therapy on the trails
Don’t want to run alone? Join a running club. Southern California is home to many, including some that run exclusively on trails and some that mix in road running. Here are a few:
Trail Runners Club (Pacific Palisades). Call (310) 281-6083 or go to www.trailrunnersclub.com.
Santa Monica Mountain Goats Running Club (West Los Angeles). E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.mountaingoats.org.
Santa Clarita Runners (Santa Clarita). Call (661) 294-0821 or go to www.scrunners.org.
Orange County Track Club (Costa Mesa). Call (949) 863-6166 or go to www.octrackclub.org.
High Desert Runners (Antelope Valley). Call (661) 949-8197 or go to www.highdesertrunners.org.
San Diego Ultra Running Friends (San Diego). Call (619) 840-8212 or go to www.movinshoes.com/surf.