"THE MOUNTAINS are calling, and I must go," said John Muir. If you too hear the call of the wild, consider trail running, a great way to get fit while connecting with the outdoors. "There's nothing like escaping present-day realities and heading out on a trail," says Dean Karnazes, a California-based ultra-runner and author of four books on running. "Getting lost [on purpose] rejuvenates the soul."
It's good for the body and the brain too. When you do something repeatedly, your body becomes increasingly efficient at the task. On a track or a treadmill, you may go farther and faster with time, but muscles and joints not assigned to that particular task will go unused.
Trails come in various shapes and sizes—some steep, rocky and narrow, others flat, wide and dusty—and climbing, cornering and descending on the inconsistent terrain forces runners to use different muscles and develop balance and coordination. "You can't zone out while running trails," says Mike Wardian, a professional trail and road runner based in Arlington, Va. "Engagement is mandatory."
Off-road romps test not only the muscles that stabilize the foot and ankle and those that control side-to-side movement but also your core, which keeps your body upright as you twist and maneuver along a path.
All it takes to hit the trail is a good pair of shoes—specific trail running shoes make sense, especially as you advance—and a spirit of adventure. Being surrounded by nature takes a bit of the work out of working out. As Wardian says, "It becomes running for the sake of enjoyment."
Dean Karnazes and Mike Wardian offer tips for beginning trail runners.
1. Time Out
"My best suggestion for beginners is to forget pace," says Wardian. Eliminating the pressure to beat the clock can be liberating.
2. Zero In
Uneven terrain increases the risk of falling, so pay attention to your footing. "Consider unplugging from music or other distractions," says Karnazes.
3. Carry On
There's a good chance you won't find water along the trail, so carry hydration.
4. Speak Up
There's no guarantee of cell coverage, so tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.
5. Slow Down
"Start with something gradual and work your way up," Karnazes says, adding that it's O.K. to walk when navigating tough obstacles.
For more athlete training profiles and tips, go to SI.com/edge