An REI instructor extols the virtues of trail running, with its softer surface that is easier on the joints.

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AS WE JUMPED over roots and dashed around rocks, Malcolm Dunn told me to look ahead 15 feet. If you look up while trail running, you can see obstacles and flow through them, he said as he ran easily through the woods.

I nodded as I huffed behind him and tried to flow through the trails at Discovery Park without falling over.

Dunn is a senior instructor for REI, and I went to him to get some tips on trail-running technique. Dunn is a longtime runner, and he teaches various running courses for REI, including a trail-running class with circuit training to build strength.

REI Outdoor School

He took me on an easy run through Discovery, where he extolled the virtues of trail running, with its softer surface that is easier on the joints.

Trail runners have to adapt more to handle conditions, he said, starting with the constant shift between up and downhill. On the uphill, he showed me how to lift my fists slightly higher than my elbows and pump my arms faster to move my legs faster. Sometimes it is more efficient to power walk uphill, he said, taking big strides, which also uses different leg muscles than running. During one particularly long, steady uphill, I was grateful to drop back to a power walk.

On the downhill, he told me to loosen my arms and let my fists drop a little below my elbows to open up my stride. You can lean back to brake on the way down, but leaning forward at the ankle takes advantage of gravity to churn down the hills, though it requires strength and agility, he said.

The flow was a little bit tougher. You move your legs and torso side to side on a trail, and you’re ducking, bobbing and weaving, he said as he dodged a branch. When we ran across a low fence that was partially down, Dunn showed me how, if you were looking far enough ahead, to hurdle the fence. I suggested that if you looked ahead, you could run around it without slowing down, too. He said that was an option.

Moving side to side requires lateral stability. Dunn showed me balancing exercises to strengthen ankles and knees, such as standing with one foot directly in front of the other. Some people have trouble with even that; he encourages them to work on it at home. Other exercises included stepping back into a low lunge, then stepping the same leg forward into a lunge without stopping.

We did another exercise, lifting one leg to the side and back until your butt muscles engage, and then slowly lowering the standing leg into a squat to challenge balance and build strength. It’s not easy. You also can practice lateral shuffles or standing on one leg and swinging the other leg side to side.

The lateral balancing work was my way of getting out of the tougher cross-training he does in class, such as push-ups on slopes both going up and down to build more strength.

On the way back, we had a long downhill stretch. Dunn had me try leaning slightly forward. I liked the speed and felt like it was still relatively low impact. Leaning back and braking felt like it would be more painful in my legs the next day.

I am rarely excited to run, but trail running felt different. I loved being in the woods. I liked the challenge of obstacles to keep me engaged. I am less concerned with distance. Trails might hold the key to me running, for real.