Trail running is great for building balance, ankle and leg strength and a beautiful setting can awe your senses

By John Aalberg

In the early 1970s, Americans discovered running and its numerous physical and mental benefits.

Trail running, in the car-crazy American society, became a daily meditation for many. As the Incas and other cultures (such as Scandinavians) already knew, trail or cross-county running could connect you with your soul.

Today we know that natural endorphins similar in function to certain narcotics are released during running, sometimes even causing new runners to be “reborn” or at least achieve critical mental breaks or spawn new ideas.

As a Scandinavian growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, cross-country running was a natural part of my upbringing. Since I was a budding endurance athlete, club coaches would make me take part in long trail and cross-mountain runs. Moving effortlessly along undulated and uneven terrain became an automatic activity, like driving a car is for many adults. Building balance, ankle and leg strength through the stress of curving trails, up and down, was automatic and fun.

Today, more than 30 years later, my favourite athletic activity is still cross-country trail running. I have found no better or more efficient way to stay in aerobic shape. After a 30-year athletic career, I never wanted to get fat, flabby or out of breath walking up stairs. A busy professional career does not allow much time for daily exercise, but by incorporating three sessions of 30 to 45 minutes of cross-country trail running into my weekly routine, I believe I can stay both physically and mentally sharp.

My secret to making this little effort go so far is that every run includes two sessions of four minutes each at a high heart rate pace (at about 90 per cent of maximum heart rate for those who want to try this).

In six months, I will use and need all my physical and mental capacity during the two months of demanding Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games — together with the rest of the Vancouver Organizing Committee of 2,000 staff and volunteers at the Whistler Olympic Park. Here, some of the very best endurance athletes in the world will compete, and I know that every one of them is using cross-country trail running as a main part of their summer training regimen.

The Whistler Olympic Park is, however, not just for Olympic athletes. Since its opening two years ago, more than 50,000 recreational users and competitive athletes have tested out the 50 kilometres of trails either with skis, bikes or running shoes.

The largest activities and events have taken place during the ski season, but the professional organization of the Whistler Spirit Run plans to change this. The annual two-day cross-country running competition in late September is slowly being built up with the same concept and smarts as the famous Vancouver Sun Run.

As the last event at the park before the 2010 Olympics, the running event will be in the shadows this year. However, the beautiful venue might cause a rebirth of cross-country running and racing in our region.

This specially built venue should have the capacity to host large-scale events both in summer and winter.

As most visitors already have discovered, it might challenge your physical ability, awe your senses or become a place where body meets soul.

John Aalberg is a two-time cross-country skiing Olympian (1992, 1994); a five-time U.S. national champion; a two-sport All-American College athlete (cross-country skiing and cross-country running); and director of nordic sports, Vanoc.