Runners offer tips for off-road fitness

Trails that wind into the forest and out of sight beckon to certain kinds of runners.

They don’t care as much about their pace or monitoring heart rates.

They’d rather leap over logs and splash through mud puddles. It’s a way to stay in shape, but with a twist — or make that a jump.

“Being in the wilderness, in the woods, I feel like you don’t just zone out,” says Jeff Beck, a 38-year-old graphic designer and avid trail runner. “You have to think. Running on the road, it tends to be rote, kind of boring in a way.”

On weekday evenings or Saturday mornings, trail runners gather in groups to jog through the woods on paths otherwise used for mountain biking or hiking.

At Hooper Road Park in Baton Rouge on Wednesday nights, a group of a dozen to 25 runners starts an hour before sundown. They run in pairs at their own paces, then go for beer afterward. They call it their Ale and Trails outing.

“The culture of trail running is really laid back,” says Beck, who began trail running in Tennessee while his wife was in law school.

Running off road can be easier on the joints, but the trails also present more obstacles.

“You fall, you trip, but you don’t get hurt,” Beck says. “The dirt’s soft.”

Donna Bryant, 23

Engineer

Growing up in the hills of Lynchburg, Va., Bryant hiked and ran on trails regularly. After moving to south Louisiana, Bryant discovered the trails in north Baton Rouge.

“I’m actually impressed,” she says.

Tip: “Grab a friend and go. It’s always fun to run with a group. There are a lot of people who run around here who don’t know about the trails.”

Another tip: “Don’t get frustrated by all the roots in the way or your first twisted ankle.”

Kyle Cassidy, 28

Chemical engineer

Running cross country in high school, Cassidy always liked running off the road, and as he aged, he found the dirt was more forgiving.

“There’s just something about the trails I enjoy more,” he says.

Tips: “Come out here without a Garmin (a GPS unit for tracking speed). Don’t worry about your pace. And come out without headphones. Half the fun is connecting to nature.”

On shoes: Trail-specific running shoes are heavier and stiffer than traditional running shoes. “You don’t need two pairs of shoes,” says Cassidy, who uses the same pair for running on pavement and on dirt.

Shane Walsh, 27

LSU student

A competitive runner in high school and at a college in Georgia, Walsh started traversing the trails around his home of St. Francisville while taking time off from school and racing.

Now he runs exclusively on trails.

“The concrete just tears my legs up too quickly,” he says. “People, I don’t think, were meant to run on concrete. I come out to the trails exclusively, and that’s what I race on. It’s a much more enjoyable run through the woods than a run through the city with exhaust and smog in your face.”

Tip: “Don’t be afraid. Come out and enjoy it and have a good time. You’re getting out in nature.”

Hydration: For long runs — 10 miles or more — Walsh always carries water, but for most shorter runs he hydrates before and after. To drink on the trail, he takes a handheld bottle (pictured above) that straps to his palm.