Springing Back into Urban Hiking

Living Lifewise Tuesday, April 14, 2015 Written by

Living LifeWise is a regular column provided by LifeWise Ambassadors–LifeWise employees whose healthy choices are helping them live better lives. Today’s column is provided by LifeWise Ambassador Laura McLeod.

“Neutral spine, all the time.” In my mind, I hear my physical therapist as I hike up a hillside trail. While our Northwest winter was unusually mild, the recent warmer temperatures and brighter days make getting outside a more realistic option, and I am back to the trails.

Hiking urban trails is a good exercise for someone like me whose body no longer loves running on concrete, has little time for longer hikes, craves variety in a fitness routine and enjoys the sights, sounds and smells found among the trees.

My current favorite is Seattle’s Carkeek Park South Ridge trail. I start on the water side with the first big incline. When I get to the top, I use the bench for stretching, dips, and pushups. (My physical therapist would be pleased.) The rest of the trail has flat parts for running, stairs to amble up and down, and plenty of obstacles to maneuver.

Benefits of Trail Exercise

The benefits of outdoor exercise are many, no matter what activity you choose. Running on trails, however, differs from pavement running–the terrain is “softer,” your steps are smaller, and you often have to dodge obstacles. Your joints will thank you, and you’ll find you use new muscles, which improves your balance and core strength. Take in your surroundings and heighten your senses—you’ll absorb some much needed Vitamin D and get some evergreen-filtered air into your lungs.

Start slow

As with any other exercise routine, it pays to start slow. Injuries can happen fast so if you’re just getting started, paying attention to how your body feels is as important as where you put your feet. Watch for those obstacles, but also use good form to help strengthen your core muscles and ensure you use correlating muscles equally (e.g., quads and hamstrings). Keeping my spine neutral—a little harder on a trail—helps my posture, reminds me to use my glutes and stretch when I need to, and contributes to my overall well-being.

Notice your surroundings

Seattle and Portland have terrific trails in their many parks, but they aren’t always well-maintained during colder months. Areas may be overgrown, branches or trees may have fallen along pathways, and the ground can be slippery. While these factors can enhance your workout, they can also be hazardous. And while public parks are generally safe during daylight hours, it’s always good to know where you are, notice who’s around you, and stay alert. (Know before you go tip: Restrooms often close during cold months, so your only option may be a less-than-pleasant honey bucket.)

Helpful hiking tips

  • Wear sturdy shoes: On a trail, there are roots, rocks and more to trip on, there are mud patches and leaves to slide on, and the uneven terrain can play havoc with hips, feet and ankles.
  • Dress in layers, with wicking fabrics: If you’re varying your energy output, you may warm up, then cool off. I hate to be cold, but it’s better to feel a little cold at the outset. You’ll warm up fast going up a steep hill or whenever your heart rate increases. Be prepared for both. Cooler air also can feel warmer under a tree-covered canopy.
  • Bring water: Even in cooler temperatures, you can still get dehydrated if you’re sweating.
  • Stay on groomed trails: While it may seem appealing to take a side-trail, trails are planned to prevent minimal environmental damage and preserve soil health, vegetation and habitat.

Being outdoors has other benefits, too. I love the physical lift I get from exercise, and when I go outside, my energy feels renewed and I breathe a little easier. My perspective shifts and I can more readily focus on what’s most important.