By Aaron Burrick
I first learned about trail running shortly after moving to the Pacific Northwest. After several years of pounding the pavement in Boston, I was intrigued by the intensity of uphill sprints, vaulting over trees, and flying descents. I couldn’t fathom the alternate reality of running thirty, fifty, or one hundred miles, and completing an ultramarathon felt like an unattainable goal. I thought of trail runners as a rare breed of superheroes with vests instead of capes, crossing terrain that most wouldn’t dare hike. And never had I ever imagined that these gazelle-like adventurers would walk.
All new trail runners, myself included, eventually learn the best-kept secret in trail running: despite the name of our beloved sport, walking and hiking are essential skills for our movement in the outdoors. Within our community, overcoming the mental barriers to hiking can lead to not only tremendous benefits in efficiency, but to finding your unique rhythm in moving through the outdoors.
- Break Free from ‘Walking is Failing’
For new trail runners, the act of running is often seen as success or progression. Walking, on the other hand, is often seen as a sign of weakness, giving up, or failing. The sooner we break free from this dichotomy, the sooner we can appreciate our full experience as trail hikers, skippers, climbers, walkers, and runners.
Trail running celebrates this diverse range of movement, and hiking is no exception. In many situations, walking can be an intentional and superior choice. By slowing our pace, we can build strength and endurance, reduce our risk of injury, adapt to new or more technical terrain, and catch our breath amidst beautiful surroundings. Hiking also achieves the simplest yet most profound goal of our sport: whether we’re out for an afternoon with friends or taking on the final climb of a race, it keeps us moving forward.
- Hiking as Efficiency
Whenever my partner describes ultra-marathons, she mentions how “they’re mostly about eating snacks.” Though it sounds funny to the uninitiated, distance running is all about fueling and maintaining forward progress. As a newer runner myself, one of my greatest challenges is fueling my body so I can continue having fun outside. I’m also mindful of how much effort I’m exerting on any given route. For most trail runners, myself included, hiking is a key strategy for controlling our energy, prioritizing efficiency, and making time for a few extra snacks.
Professional coach Jason Koop explains that, for many trail runners, hiking and walking are “economical forms of locomotion” that lead to “substantially lower” energy output than running. Koop’s research shows a positive correlation between heart rate and cadence; the faster we move our feet, the “greater the cardiovascular effort.” These periods of higher effort burn more calories, weigh more heavily on our bodies, and bring us closer to fatigue. With this in mind, Koop concludes that most trail runners will benefit from “prioritizing effort and economy over short-term speed.” This means that, in one of the best mash-ups of research and rap music to ever exist, there is always a reason to walk it out, now walk it out.
- Finding your Rhythm
Trail running is a gift. In a busy world, running provides us with a finite moment to focus on ourselves, our needs, and our development as athletes and people. We can experience our moment, our solace, while hiking uphill, crashing through brush, or breaking into a dance that vaguely resembles forward motion. Comparison, to others or to our past selves, can detract from the brief, sacred time we have in the outdoors. When faced with thoughts of “slower than” or “I just can’t keep up,” we need to remember that trail running isn’t only about running; it’s about so much more. In owning our experiences on the trails, we are practicing a rare form of unconditional self-acceptance. This acceptance builds on our core understanding of who we are, and it will bring us further than any workout or mile time.
For most of my life, I struggled to think of myself as an athlete. I felt slower, less coordinated, and less capable than my peers or teammates. I still notice these judgments from time to time, but my relationship with them has changed. Trail running, in all its forms, has helped me appreciate the legitimacy and the rhythm of however we choose to move our bodies. When we make all forms of trail running our own, we can be present as our most natural, honest, and authentic selves.