Today on the Doc On the Run Podcast, we’re talking about avoiding injury on mixed trail runs.
I love trail runs!
I think of it as dirt therapy. I really like to be outside. I like to run in the woods. I like to run an open spaces. I like to run anywhere that’s on trails, in nature where I can hear the birds. It’s no traffic, no noise, no nothing but nature. I just love it.
Sometimes it’s hard to do a run and have that run be only on a trail. Sometimes the adventure that I love, it actually gets me in trouble. I recently went for what I thought was going to be a trail run. I dropped my son off at a class, and I figured while he was there I had time to go run about six miles, and I made a mistake.
I just basically looked at a map. It was in an area where I don’t normally run and there was a ridge in an open space right behind where he was going to do his class. I thought, “Okay, great. I’ll go take him to the class, I’ll drop him off. While he’s in the class, I will run from there up into this open space on the trails on this ridge, and run about six miles, and have a great time.” Well that’s where I made my mistake. I didn’t know the area. I just looked at a map and thought I could easily get there. That wasn’t at all the case.
There was actually a canal that blocked where I was to the ridge, and I thought there would be some easy way to run across a bridge, or a street where there was a bridge, or something across the canal. It just wasn’t the case.
I was wearing my Brooks Cascadias. Those are shoes I like. They’re great for trails, but they’re not great for hard surfaces because I have a pretty stable foot type. Running on pavement in Brooks Cascadias, I think, applies a lot of force that might be too much force for me. They are basically, the Brooks Cascadia, is one of my favorite shoes when it’s sandy, muddy, soft dirt, any of that, but on hard surfaces, they’re too hard for me. I took off.
Then I realized about halfway through this run when I had had to zigzag around, and I ended up on a trail, but it wasn’t a trail. It was a paved jogging path where there were lots of people riding their bikes. There were lots of people running, but it was asphalt, not dirt. I realized, “This is not great. If there’s a way to get a stress fracture, this would be one way, is running in shoes that are too stiff for the surface you have chosen.” That’s what this episode is about.
I was running six miles on sidewalks, asphalt, jogging trails, and all that sort of stuff when I thought I was going to be running on a trail up on a ridge in an open space preserve. I made a mistake and ended up having to run on these trails just because I didn’t know where I was. That happens sometimes. I also realized while I was on that run that this happens a lot, that you can’t always run a trail run on just a trail. It ends up being a mixed trail run. What I mean by that is that you have some pavement, some asphalt, some road, or whatever, that you have to run on in order to get to the actual trail part.
That’s how runners get in trouble. I also thought about this while I was on the run because I’d done a virtual doctor visit with a guy who had gotten injured because primarily he was running on mixed trail runs. The shoes he was using were really inappropriate for a large portion of the run. The actual trail part was a very small proportion of the run, but he was running from San Francisco to the Marin Headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’s a long way.
He was wearing his trail running shoes so most of the run wasn’t really on trails, it was on asphalt or concrete. That led to an over training injury for him, but that was actually preventable. If he’d been running in shoes that were softer, that were more appropriate for that mixed run, he would have been better off.
I thought we should talk about that today just so you can understand a little bit more about the risk you may be incurring when you run in the wrong kind of shoes for that mixture of trail and road, or different types of trails even that could be a mixed trail run, in terms of the surfaces being mixed. The surfaces that you have to think of are, are they hard, soft, or loose? Loose surfaces like soft gravel, and sand, and grass are all really soft because they’re moving underneath you.
Hard surfaces, of course, are things like concrete, asphalt. In the middle of the summer in California, many of the trails that are normally wet in the winter, they just turn into these hard packed baked surfaces that can be extremely rigid and frankly just as hard as concrete when you’re running on them.
You have to think about where you’re running. Then you have to choose shoes that are actually appropriate for that run. For example, two of my favorite trail shoes that I run in are the Brooks Cascadia, which is fairly stiff. It really isn’t that absorptive in terms of forces. I like the HOKA Stinson, which is a lot more cushy. If I’m running on a really hard surface, or if I’m running something that has lots of steep descents that could be really abusive, I think the HOKA Stinson is a great choice.
In fact, when I was going to do the Grand Canyon run, the shoe I bought specifically in preparation of that was the HOKA Stinson, because of all of those HOKAs that fit me well, it was one of the cushiest ones, one of the softest ones. Running down hill in the Grand Canyon is going to be hard packed abusive forces. The Stinson, I think, does a really good job of absorbing those forces, whereas the Cascadia doesn’t absorb as much of those forces, at least when I’m running in them.
That’s the first thing is think about road versus trail where you run. If you run someplace and you have to run on the road a long way to get to the trail, then you might want to pick a shoe that’s a lot softer. In some cases, that can be something like the HOKA Stinson instead of something that’s really hard and doesn’t absorb much force.
You also have to think about how much mud there is versus dry baked trails. In the wintertime in California, many of the trails around here where I run, they can be really muddy and so they’re really soft. You have to have shoes that are fairly rigid to protect you from injury. If your foot’s sliding around that much, and it’s actually bending the shoe underneath you, that can lead to over training injuries.
The exact same trail when you’re running on it a few months later in the summertime, and it’s really rock hard, sun baked, looks like a dry river bed, and it’s really hard when you’re running on those, if you run in shoes that don’t absorb force, then that can hurt you. You don’t need a shoe that has a really, really rigid, stable platform underneath you when it’s hard and sun baked, because it’s not going to move like mud. A completely different shoe is more appropriate then.
The same holds true for when you’re running on gravel that’s really soft versus really stable fire roads. Fire roads are one of my favorite trails to run on just because the surface is so predictable. They’re usually fairly flat. They absorbed some force because they have some kind of crushed gravel, or granite, or something that gives a little bit. It’s not really loose so it’s not sliding around underneath you, and it’s a completely different amount of force when it’s really soft for gravel versus fire roads.
You really need to think about how much shock absorption you need in terms of running on hard surfaces versus how much stiffness you need in your running shoe in terms of providing a stable platform that’s not going to bend or tweak underneath you when you’re running on a really unstable surface like mud, or sand, or really soft gravel. The same is true with how rocky the surface is versus how soft it is. If it’s soft trails, then that’s great, but if there are lots of rocks that protrude, lots of roots that protrude, and they stick out of the trail, that could be really risky.
For example, I recently did a 50 mile trail race and there’s one section on that trail race called the meat grinder. It has lots of exposed rock. You’re running fast downhill, and you need something that will protect you from protruding invading obstacles like sharp rocks into the sole of the shoe that could injure you. Otherwise you can get a plantar plate sprain or bursitis under the heel just from having one of those rocks protruding when you land on it sharply running down hill.
Now you also need to think about your foot type. The flatter your feet are, the better they absorb forces, but the more support you need in the shoes. The higher your arches are, the less forces you absorb, and the more you need cushion to protect you from things like stress fractures. You have to keep in mind that there is a best shoe for you based on your foot type, and the percentage of hard surfaces versus soft surfaces, and whatever run you’re going to do.
You have to keep in mind that you don’t always need trail shoes for a trail run. If the trail surface is really hard and it feels like a road, maybe you should just run in road shoes. As long as it doesn’t have lots of mud, or grass, or other slippery surfaces, you don’t really need the outsole that is normally on a trail shoe that’s supposed to give you traction.
Many road runs, you don’t need traction on them, because it’s a forgiving surface it’s flat. If you’re running on a trail like a fire road or a hard packed surface that you don’t really need traction on, you could get away with road shoes and decrease your risk of injury potentially. You really have to think about clearly what you need. You have to pick the best shoe for you and for that specific trail run to make sure that you don’t get injured. Of course, if you go on a trail run and you feel pain, you feel some weird sensation or whatever, you have to pay very close attention to that.
Think about what that really means for you in terms of a potential injury that’s going to blow up on you as you continue training. It’s really important to track your pain, but it’s also really important to make sure that you’re watching out for it if something happens when you’re out on a trail run.
Again, I love trail runs. I think it’s one of the most fun things we can do when we’re out training and running, but it is a little bit risky. You have to pay attention to any pain you feel when you’re out on a trail run. Remember, there is a best combination of shoes and surfaces for you, and it often changes based on how hard the surface is or how soft it is. You really need to think about that whenever you’re out for a run.
Whether are you just went out for a long run today and started having pain, or you’re just getting back to running and you are concerned that you are going to re-injure yourself you may not really know the best way to keep track of the pain and weird sensations you have when you start ramping up your activity.
I can tell you that one of the biggest mistakes I see runners make over and over and over is that they aren’t tracking the pain when training and returning to running.
We have created several courses that help runners diagnose and treat their own conditions. We created courses specifically on how to run with plantar fasciitis, how to get back to running sooner if you have a plantar plate injury, how to treat your own Achilles tendonitis issues when you’re a runner and how to heal and run with metatarsal stress fractures. The reason I’m telling you this is not get you to buy those courses.
I am telling you this just to reinforce how critical it is that you keep track of your pain when training.
Think about it. You already track your pace, your heart rate, your distance, maybe even perceived exertion, and all of these other statistics that help you stay on track and help you in your training. If you’ve had a history of injury whether it’s now or in the past, you need to track your pain and discomfort so do you can make the appropriate changes in your training plan.
Tracking your pain is so crucial that I actually made the very first lesson and the very first action step in every one of the courses we created to help runners figure out how to diagnose and treat their own injuries.
In each one of those courses, in the very first lesson I tell runners who signed up for the course to download and print the PDF runners pain journal. I tell them to print out the runners pain journal before they do anything else or continue with any of the other lessons. It’s that important!
And you can get the Runner’s Pain Journal, too. We posted it at the bottom of the show notes for this episode. You can download it for free. So go get it now. Print it out, and use it to help you get back to running sooner!
To print out your copy of the pain journal, Download here:
If you have a question that you would like answered as a future edition the Doc On The Run Podcast, send it to me, and then make sure you join me in the next edition of the Doc On The Run Podcast. Thanks again for listening!