It recently occurred to me on a long run (80 minutes in, right when the runner’s high kicks in per usual) that although I train solo most of the time, I have taken a lot of tips from the runners around me. And when I mean “the runners around me”, I mean the deer, bobcat, coyotes, fox, etc., who live in the Open Space Preserves and parks I am fortunate to call my home trails. The wildlife run and bound across the forest floor with a grace only known to wild, four-legged creatures that live every day in the wild. I have learned a great deal about trail running by watching each animal closely. Perhaps it is time for me to admit that Mother Nature is my coach.
The Bobcat – “Run Quietly”
Bobcats are the masters of “running quietly”. Every part of their body is moving deliberately, no energy wasted, no sound. Running quiet is an essential skill to a bobcat, quite simply because they kill their breakfast every morning. But it also has a lesson for trail runners too - running quietly means running efficiently.
When you try to minimize the impact (and thus the sound) that you make with each foot strike, you will find that you naturally shift your body position forward and recruit more leg muscles. Each foot strike reaches out to softly touch the ground mid-foot, thereby engaging more foot and calf muscles for strength and stabilization. I also find my core gets more engaged to keep my center of gravity moving forward at a constant rate. I’m not sure if it’s any faster, but it sure feels effortless. Plus it’s an added weapon in your arsenal should you need the element of surprise when passing somebody.
The polar opposite of “running quietly” is running with an iPod. If you’ve ever had an iPod-wearing trail runner cruise by you, then you know this (I am also guilty as charged). If you have an iPod, you’re going to need to turn it off for a while to get the feel for it. I mean, you’ve never seen a bobcat go running by with earphones on his big fuzzy ears, right?
The Deer – “Be Confident and Leap”
Deer are fascinating to watch when they bound down the hillside, especially when you give them a good scare (see previous note on iPods). When watched closely, you can see that deer “leap”, propelling their full weight forward in one motion, with only a rough idea of where they plan to land. I think trail runners can gain two insights into this. First, take a leap of faith that your skills are better than you think and stride with confidence. Second, use this confidence to throw yourself down the hill a little farther than comfortable.
If you’ve done your training, you likely can run downhill much faster than you think you can. Try leaning forward just until you can feel gravity pulling you down the hill. and allow yourself to leap a little farther down the hill with each stride. This takes practice, but can take some serious time off your descents. Plus it’s a lot of fun when you get in the groove. This is also a great match to “running quietly”.
The Fox – “Have Fun”
We have this crazy fox that moves into the neighboring forest every winter. I call him Loki (the Norse god of mischief), because he loves distracting me from my workout with a game of chase. Loki is all about having fun. He jumps out in front of me about 40 feet ahead on the trail, gets low and playfully jumps side to side, and then takes off at blinding speed while looking back at me. I pursue in full sprint, futilely trying to keep his huge tail in sight. He loses me every time, but will usually pop up on the trail 10-20 minutes later, taunting me with more yips and jumps.
Loki definitely has the right mindset for trail running. If you can’t have fun, why do it at all? And if you’re grumpy, try throwing in some sprints or a game of chase to get you back in the mood. There is nothing quite like a smile rooted in pure adrenaline.
Thank you for your wisdom, bobcat, deer, and fox. You show us that Mother Nature has plenty of coaching to share if we just open our minds to it. I will run quietly, leap downhill, and do it all with a smile on my face as instructed!
See you on the trails.
(bobcat photo courtesy of Bay Nature magazine; deer photo courtesy of Bowhunting.net; fox photo courtesy of gdargaud)