Trail running: Run away from life’s problems and into a healthy body

Not all runners hit the streets for their workout. Trail runners take to the dirt, bounding up and down hills and mountains on hiking trails, working legs and building cardio while getting a big dose of nature.

“All you know is that here are the mountains, and there’s a deer and you’re smelling the flowers and you don’t think at all about your problems,” says Stan Swartz, chairman of the 175-member L.A.-based Trail Runners Club.

Waxing rhapsodic about the sport isn’t unusual in this crowd. “This is the most time-efficient and effective way of eliminating stress and refreshing your mind,” says Elinor Fish, managing editor of Trail Runner magazine. “That is definitely a big draw of the sport, especially for people who don’t have a lot of time.”

Although trail running requires no special skills, there is a bit of a learning curve, even for experienced runners. Trails are often hilly, making for slower but more heart- and lung-taxing workouts. Running on soft dirt puts less stress on joints, but traversing uneven terrain — even streams — can make for a wobbly gait and ups the ante for injuries. Fish recommends that beginners not only work on strengthening their legs but also add balance training on a wobble board or balance ball to increase coordination.

Legs do the bulk of the work — and what a workout it is, as hamstrings, quads, glutes and calf muscles engage on the ascents and descents. The core works to stabilize the body as the arms continuously pump.


An infusion of younger runners and more races has invigorated the sport in recent years — the American Trail Running Assn. listed 55 races across the country for December alone. But the demographics are wide and include older runners, some of whom have made the leap from road running or do both.

Trail-running gear is straightforward. Fish recommends getting shoes specifically for trail running, with treads designed to better grip the ground and more reinforcement on top to provide extra stability for the foot.

Novices are welcome to join the L.A. group, Swartz says. Weekly runs are held in various parts of Southern California, but the group also does longer excursions in such places at Santa Cruz Island and Yosemite, where runners scale up to 10,000 feet. “The accomplishment of doing 10,000 feet is terrific,” he says.

—Jeannine Stein