About a month ago I posted ‘The Backcountry Isn’t Even’ and urged people to go off trail to get used to uneven surfaces. I then got a number of questions about that – after all, we have all been walking and running our whole lives. So what are we accomplishing?
To really get into the backcountry, you are going to have to leave the trails eventually.
Well the quick answer is two things.
The first thing is getting stronger ankles and knees. Unlike back when I was a kid in the age of the dinosaur, we now mostly walk and exercise on flat surfaces. We run on streets and running paths, we walk on sidewalks and in malls (Ok not me – malls freak me out), and we work out on machines. This means our muscles are not attuned to adjusting to varied surfaces. By working your way up from uneven trails to talus, you build the strength you need to get out and not get hurt.
The second thing you develop is coordination. Remember when you started riding a bike? You teetered and tottered around like a drunken sailor. Two weeks later, you were racing around the neighborhood. You developed the coordination – both mentally and physically to accomplish bike riding.
Trail running and hiking are similar. When you start to go out, your body is adjusting the 450+ skeletal muscles to keep you upright. Sure you have some basic skills in that you can get from your car and to your house, but the quick adjustments that are required to do it well need to be firmly ingrained.
By walking and running on progressively uneven surfaces, you are establishing patterns that your brain will enact without you thinking about it which allow you to smoothly wind your way through boulder fields or come screaming down the trails in the San Gabriel Mountains (and you know that is fun – super steep angle of incidence and rocky switch back trails at high speeds after a nice long ridge run!). The more varied terrain you can train on, the easier it will be when you get to new places.
Strength of body is super important, but the training of your brain is just as important for longevity in these sports.