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“Hare and Hounds”: The Benefits of Trail Running

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15 year old athlete Riley Robitaille tells us why he runs trails to train his body and his mind…..

Riley Robitaille has played organized sports since he was three. Like most northern Ontario boys, he started playing hockey at about the same time he learned to walk! And while hockey is still a big part of his life, he’s also a serious cross-country/trail runner.

He’s been trail running since grade three and has no plans to give it up any time soon.

Trail running, or cross-country running is nothing new. It’s been around in organized form for at least two hundred years – in English public schools it started as a game for kids who enjoyed imitating their fathers on the fox hunt.

Two players would run into the woods first as the foxes, leaving a trail of bits of paper to simulate “the scent”. Hence the reason the game was called “The Paper Chase” or “The Hare and Hounds”. Minutes later, the main pack would pursue them.

In later years, it became an off-season training activity for professional runners.

Of course, in those days no one took it seriously and it certainly wasn’t organized into a competitive sport. It was a game with relatively short distances and poorly marked trails, if any at all.

However, as the years went by this activity did slowly evolve. Cross-country became a team and individual event at the 1912 Summer Olympics.

It was briefly banned after the 1924 games in Paris because several runners died due to heat exhaustion but in1928 it was back and included as the fifth discipline in the pentathlon.

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Today it is thriving, with an estimated six million people participating in organized leagues (just in the U.S.) and many more out there on the trails just on their own.

(Cross-country leagues and competitions are generally more formally organized and involve shorter disciplines. Trail running is more loosely organized and involves longer distances.)

But back to Riley. He started cross-country way back in grade three – as soon as it was offered as an organized activity in school. And he says he loved it right from the first day.

He’s kept at it since then, always finding time even though he’s still involved in hockey and is a championship track and field athlete. (One of his accomplishments is a gold medal win in the relay race at the Canadian National Track and Field Championships.)

We wanted to know what it is that draws him to trail running.

He says a big part of it is to stay in top shape and improve his physical endurance for playing hockey. But that’s not the core reason. For him, there are deeper benefits.

“I like that everyone can participate. There’s no try out, or entry requirement. It doesn’t take any money so any kid – even less fortunate kids – can run and show what they got!

“For me, this is perfect training to focus on my breathing and self-awareness. When I’m playing hockey or running in track it’s all about intensity and power. When I’m running cross-country I have to monitor and maintain my pace. I can relax and turn it down a notch but still perform”

In other words, for Riley it is about balance – not always focusing on intensity. He admits that he loves intensity but running in nature as an athlete is a great place to practice and focus on self awareness.

Some very impressive insights!

It goes without saying that at Tiny Big Adventure we love the idea of trail running because it gets people outdoors and in to nature. School boards around the world also understand this. Cross country/trail running is great exercise and there is almost no cost to it (besides having appropriate footwear).

In terms of physical conditioning, it’s great. Not only do you get the aerobic benefits of a runner, you also get a better leg muscle workout than jogging on a flat surface.

But being in nature provides more than that. Whenever we exercise, the body produces endorphins, which are mood enhancers. We feel good after a workout.

Research also shows that trees release negative ions and these cause increased oxygen flow to the brain – which is another “force multiplier” for increased positive mood. In fact, some psychologists are recommending trail running as part of depression therapy. Dr. Jerry Lynch, a Boulder CO based psychologist has written about this and says that trail running is often an effective treatment and alternative to medication. So trail running is good for the body and the mind!

Why wouldn’t you get out there and do it? Why wouldn’t you get your kids out there and involved?

When we look at Riley Robitaille and see the well balanced achiever he has become, the benefits of trail running are pretty obvious to us.

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