Jake Hegge runs the Winchell Trail along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis
photo by nate ryan
Like most of us who run, Jake Hegge used to do it on the road—it’s free and so convenient. But after getting multiple injuries from pounding the pavement, he started running on the Ice Age Trail, a 1,000-mile hiking path that winds through the state of Wisconsin. In time, his hamstring problems went away. Today, Hegge is a physical therapist in La Crosse, WI, who runs an online coaching service called Trail Transformation with his training partner Michael Borst to help other runners hit the dirt. Hegge and Borst are among the top ultramarathon runners in the Midwest and have traded off first- and second-place finishes at dozens of the region’s 50- and 100-mile races since they started competing in 2012. “On the road,” Hegge says, “if you have a faulty running pattern, it’s easy to keep loading that until the muscles get overstressed. But on the trail, with the uphills, the downhills, and all those turns, you’re working all those stabilizing muscles in your hips. The ground is softer, too, so you’re working different muscles in your lower extremities.” This is one reason trail running has grown: When the Superior Trail Race started on Minnesota’s North Shore in 1991, there were only 37 similar races in the country. By 2015, there were more than 1,000. “I get a lot of serious triathletes who are burned out on that scene and looking for a change,” Hegge says. “They see these trail runners who look like they’re having fun. It’s not just physically better for you. It clears your mind. You can get out there in nature and relax.” And you don’t have to run 100 miles for that.
Pick an easy trail with few hills for starters. Do calf-raises and one-legged balancing to strengthen your ankles.
Upper Midwest Trail Runners. Running stores often have trail-running groups. You can also volunteer at any trail race.
Shorter: Endless Summer Trail Run Series, St. Paul Urban Trail Series, Salomon City Trails Loppet (May), Afton Trail Run (July), Surley Trail Loppet (September), In Yan Teopa 10m (September), Harmon Farms 5/10m (September), Hixon 50 (October), Big Woods 10m (October); Longer: Zumbro 100/50 (April), Trail Mix (April), Superior Trail Races (May/Sept), Voyager 50m (July), Surf the Murph (Oct)
Trail shoes with a sturdier build and a deeper tread, water bottle, belt or hydration pack (five miles on the trail takes longer than on a road).
Stay on the trail. Be sure to share the trail with others. Pack it out: Don’t leave trash on the trail.
Watch your ankles on rocks and roots, especially before you’ve built up lower leg strength.
Lower injury rate, better strength overall than on pavement
Overlooks, wildlife, waterfalls, open fields, “forest bathing” (as the Japanese call time spent in nature)
5–10k: 2 out of 5 stars, 25K–Marathon: 4 out of 5 stars, 50–100 miles: 5+ stars