The soft thud of dirt underfoot, the subtle smell of spring’s final days and a glimpse of the lake are all working to ease the discomfort of pushing up the hill that seems intent on sucking the last gulp of air.
As the hill crests, the lake explodes into full view, setting the perfect backdrop for one more mile of trail pounding.
This is trail running in Lake Tahoe. This is not a shabby way to work out.
Aside from rewarding views, running on trails instead of concrete is easier on joints and a good way to spice up the old workout routine. And since Saturday is National Trails Day, this may be the perfect weekend to lace up the running shoes and give trail running a try.
Trail running is easier on knees and ankles. This is because running on dirt as opposed to concrete reduces the ground-reaction force that travels through the body with every heel strike, according to Dr. Daniel T. Robertson, of Tahoe Orthopedics & Sports Medicine.
“So if you are running on a surface that has a lower ground reaction force, there’s less force going through the leg each time you land on your foot, and then there’s thought that it might reduce those lower extremity injuries,” Robertson said.
Robertson, who is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with a certificate of Added Qualification in Hand Surgery, by no means considers himself a trail running professional. He is, however, probably more knowledgeable than most when it comes to injury prevention.
Novice runners, he said, are one of three types of runners at higher risk of injury. No discouragement to new runners intended, but do advance slowly.
“The general health concusses is if you only increase your distance by 10 percent per week and have adequate rest between episodes you can reduce your risk of injury,” Robertson said.
Start with three days a week so muscles have time to recover, and increase distance by 10 percent in a week.
Beginners aren’t the only runners in the higher risk category. Runners with previous lower extremity injuries or runners preparing for a competitive event are also at higher risk of injury.
Those three categories cover most runners, so safe to say running injuries are common. A hard running surface isn’t the only culprit behind these injuries. Turns out a runner’s gait can be just as detrimental — cue barefoot running.
“Barefoot-style running doesn’t mean you need to be in the community running barefoot. It’s more of a gait pattern,” Robertson said.
The idea behind barefoot running is to change the running gait from the old-school heel strike stride to a forefoot strike.
“A normal heel strike in a standard running shoe… you’re looking at three times the body weight passing through the limb each time there’s a heel strike. If you run a mile, basically it’s 1,000 impacts,” Robertson said. “But that impact can be cut down to body weight or much less with a forefoot style.”
This forefoot type of gait is already proving to be a good treatment for a common running injury called exertion compartment syndrome.
“I found a very interesting retrospective study looking at 10 patients who had exertion compartment syndrome, and they were treated by a six-week course of basically a gait program, where they converted from a heel strike to a forefoot running pattern, and they were all able to avoid surgery,” Robertson said.
Running with a forefoot strike, progressing slowly and sticking to dirt trails are all good ways to reduce the risk of running injuries. At the end of the day, however, the health benefits from running far outweigh the possibility of injury.