Twenty-nine-year-old ultramarathon runner Sho Gray keeps busy as a cross country and track coach, minister, and volunteer, but he still makes time for the occasional “3 to 6-hour jaunt” through the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As an ultramarathoner, Gray has finished 8 races of 100 miles or more. He ranked eleventh in the world last year for the men’s 12-hour race, but his ultimate goal is to hold the world title for the 24-hour race (basically, you run as far as you possibly can in 24 hours). Gray is currently training for a handful of races leading up to the USA Track & Field 24-hour National Championships in September.
On average, Gray runs six days a week, and four of those days are spent on the trails. According to him, running on a treadmill or track may help you with speed, but trail running allows for more growth. As he puts it, “Treadmills teach you to build a rhythm, track workouts teach you to run fast, and trail running teaches you to enjoy the moment and build strength.” An ultramarathon runner wouldn’t choose to spend the majority of his training time on the trails if there weren’t numerous benefits. Here are a few.
1. The ground is soft on your feet.
You may think that if you’re new to running, a treadmill or track would be the easiest way to get started. In fact, trail running is far friendlier to new runners. As Gray notes, trail running “provides you with a softer cushion so if you do run incorrectly, the jarring on your joints is not as severe as road running.” Even if you lose your footing on uneven terrain and land on the side of your foot and twist it, “you’ll actually lessen the damage compared to if you had done that on something that wouldn’t give you that much leeway."
2. The uneven terrain helps you build strength.
Other forms of running don’t give you nearly as much variation as trail running does. As Gray says, “People don’t realize that uneven ground allows you to naturally strengthen your core. Speeding up and slowing down gives you way more physiological stimulus than anywhere else.” Because the terrain is constantly changing, your body is making quick adjustments with every step, and this builds you up into a better, stronger runner.
3. You feel compelled to run farther.
Treadmill running, track running, and even street running simply aren’t as exciting as trail running. As Gray says, “You can go farther on the trails because there’s always something new. A turn, a hill, a view … If you let it, it helps you enjoy the growth process, while also pushing you to go farther.”
4. You become a more well-rounded runner.
If you’ve ever gone from treadmill running to pounding pavement, you know just how dramatically that changes the way you run. You become an even more versatile runner when you hit the trails. As Gray says, “Each step you take, you’re internalizing information, giving yourself the opportunity to allow your body to grow, learn, and adapt. As you adapt and apply, you continue to make minute changes, evolving your own running.” To Gray, it’s this adaptability that is the key to achieving excellence as a runner.
5. You feel freer.
While Gray acknowledges track and treadmill running can be great for training and discipline, he loves trail running for the opposite reason: it allows you to be free.
“Some people like the track workouts because it gives a confined sharpness that allows you to grow, but there is another way for someone to grow, and that is to give your mind freedom," he says. "Trail running allows for that.”
6. You get to appreciate the natural world.
To Gray, much of the enjoyment of trail running is taking in your surroundings.
“You notice the ground and the roots that covers it. You notice the creek that's bubbling next to you. You notice the slight variations of elevation. Going up, down, left and right, the highest point, the lowest point. You speed up and slow down.... all while appreciating the experience you get from being in nature.”
Running out of energy and slowing down can be disappointing on a treadmill. When you’re in nature, though, slowing down just means you can shift your focus from challenging your body to sharpening your senses.
7. Trail running gives you perspective.
To Gray, trail running is fulfilling on a deeper level because it offers perspective. As he notes, “If you allow it to, trail running opens your mind, and that is an amazing feeling because it kind of jumbles your insides and shakes it around ... All the unimportant things are sifted out while you put together what is truly important to you and afterwards, you can move forwards with what is valuable and take steps towards a beautiful world and a better you.”
You can keep up with Sho Gray and his running journey at his blog Run to Finish here.
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