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.
Looking for a place to start trail running? Give these five South Shore trails a try.
Rubicon Trail, Emerald Bay
The Rubicon Trail wraps around Emerald Bay and continues on to Lester Beach at DL Bliss State Park. There is low to moderate elevation gain along this trail and the Emerald Bay views and West Shore coastline make for some of the best trail running out there. Enter this trail from either Emerald Bay State Park, the Vikingsholm area or DL Bliss for a nominal fee. No dogs are allowed on this trail, and be advised it can get crowded in the Vikingsholm area on weekends.
Echo Lake stretch of PCT, Echo Summit
This three-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail rips along Lower and Upper Echo Lakes. The snow has already melted off this part of the trail so have at it. There is minimal elevation gain until the trail climbs away from the lakes. Dogs are allowed, but like the Rubicon, this segment of the PCT can be somewhat crowded on the weekends. This trail can be accessed from the Echo Lakes boat launch.
Powerline Trail, South Lake Tahoe
Know mostly for mountain biking, this is actually a great trail for running. The trail is easily accessible from several South Lake Tahoe neighborhoods, the top of Ski Run Boulevard and Cold Creek to name a few. There are a few ups and downs to keep the run challenging, occasional views of Lake Tahoe and plenty of wildflowers along the way. Just make sure to stay on alert for mountain bikers. Dogs are allowed on this trail.
Tahoe Rim Trail, Kingsbury Grade toward Spooner Summit
This segment of the TRT is perfect for trail running. The trail gently slopes up and down keeping Lake Tahoe in view along the way. If it happens to be near sunset, jam up to Castle Rock near the trailhead for an evening show. Dogs are allowed, and the trailhead can be accessed from Genoa Peak Road in a neighborhood off Kingsbury Grade.
Tahoe Mountain Trails, behind South Tahoe High School
This network of trails behind the high school is a cross-country favorite. There are some uphill options as well as mellower loop options. Dogs are allowed, and the trail can be accessed behind the high school or off Highway 89 about a half mile past the Y turnoff.
Kale Trail to Nevada Beach, short and easily accessible.
Van Sickle, starting from Pony Express and looping down (Dr. Robertson’s favorite).
Twin Peaks, good for quick uphill runs.
Gunmount Trail, relatively flat off North Upper Truckee River Road.