Why you should start running off-road

Trail races are good for your body and brain.

My friend Andy calls them the “pizza hobbits.”

They are pizza makers and servers pulling steaming pies out of the oven on their trailer. The guy who is serving is wearing a shirt that says “Positive Vibration,” screened over a picture of Bob Marley’s face, and is humming as he slices into the pie.

The pizza smells better than anything I’ve ever smelled before.


The views are only one of the good parts. Photo: Courtesy of Unsplash

I just spent 10 minutes, thigh-deep, in the frigid Yakima River, waiting for my legs to go numb. I had, for several hours prior, been running up and over a mountain and then back down.

I hobble out of the water to get in line for a slice and grab a beer on my way. Welcome to the after-race party at the Yakima Skyline 25k, a trail race put on by Washington-based Rainshadow Running.

This kind of party is becoming increasingly common. The number of trail races has tripled in the past 10 years, and more people are undertaking longer runs in wilder terrain.

Agility work. Photo: Unsplash

Agility work. Photo: Courtesy of Unsplash

Trail races, for all their uphill grinding, tend to be low-key and off-kilter from the typical road race. And they have way better snacks: My pizza slice was studded with roasted garlic and zucchini. I had another.

And then another, which I justify with the fact that I’d just run 15 miles.

Actually, calling it a “run” might be an overstatement. I walked a lot of the steep uphills, stopping and gasping for air on a couple of them. By the last downhill, I was hobbling and prance-walking on my toes, trying to avoid putting pressure on the blood blisters that were forming on my heels.

But in between the gimping and the billy-goating, I ran along a ridgeline that split between the North Cascades and the volcanic peaks of Rainier and St. Helens to the south. The slopes were layered with purple and yellow wildflowers and wind turbines turned in the distance.

It was scorchingly beautiful, which helped to dull the pain in my legs and lungs.

Looks solitary, but trail running and racing are on the rise. Photo: Courtesy of Kalen Emsley/Unsplash

Looks solitary, but trail running and racing are on the rise. Photo: Courtesy of Kalen Emsley/Unsplash

And I’m not the only one taking to trails. It might sound surprising that more people are signing up to run miles over tricky terrain for minimal glory (aside from pizza), but trail running, with its built-in challenges and beauty, is good for your body and brain.

Running on trails, with elevation changes and obstacles, builds agility and strength. You have to work stabilizer muscles. You have to vary your stride often, which is good for your biomechanics.

Pounding dirt instead of pavement is easier on your joints, so you’re likely to recover faster from long, hard runs.

And then there’s the mental benefit. Being in nature is good for your brain. Your neurons like it when you look at green things, and running through nature releases endorphins.

Fresh air doesn’t hurt, and having to concentrate on your footfalls is good for your focus.

Those reasons, along with a side of scenery and camaraderie, are what draw people to trail races. I was exhausted by the time I made it back down the trail to the pizza hobbits, sore and dehydrated, too -- but I was certainly feeling good.

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