Want to go off-road but can't find a trail? Try the interactive map of local trailheads at www.wildtrails.org/map.html, or view thousands of routes by downloading the free EveryTrail app from the App Store or Android Marketplace.
The Chattanooga Trail Runners MeetUp group (www.meetup.com/Chattanooga-Trail-Runners) has a current membership of 275 runners of all skill levels. The group's profile lists upcoming runs with directions, anticipated distance and suggested skill level.
When Shawn Feagans first laced up to go for a trail run in 2007, it was like taking the blinders off, she said.
"When you're out on a trail, you're exploring new areas," said Feagans, the chapter president of the Chattanooga/Knoxville branch of the TrailBlazers Adventure Racing Club. "It's almost like you're working out and aren't aware of it."
After years of pounding the pavement as a street jogger, Feagans said, trail running offered a refreshing change from urban monotony.
"You have to watch your footing and things like that, but you go around the corner and there's a waterfall," she added. "It's almost like therapy for me."
Feagans is one of a growing population of local runners who are going off-road on the nearly 60 trailheads comprising hundreds of miles of trails within a 30-minute drive of downtown.
On Oct. 6, about 600 trail runners from more than 30 states and several countries will gather at Signal Mountain Middle/High School for the Rock Creek StumpJump, a 50K race up, down and around Signal Mountain.
Registration for the StumpJump has been full for weeks, but trail-running enthusiasts said Chattanooga's variety of trails makes it an ideal place to take up the sport, competitively or recreationally.
Easier on the legs
The StumpJump 50K is closed to new entrants, but it represents just one event in the Rock/Creek Trail Series annual series of races. Here's what else is coming up this year:
Upchuck 50K -- A strenuous point-to-point ultra-distance race on the Cumberland Trail with steep ascents and descents into Soddy, Possum and Rock creeks.
Race starts at 8 a.m., Nov. 10. Registration opens 8 a.m. Sept. 1. Requires completion of another 50K within a year in 7.5 hours.
Lookout Mountain 50-mile/10K -- The series wraps up with one of Chattanooga's longest annual race, a 1.9-marathon-length trek featuring 6,300 feet of elevation change up and down Lookout Mountain.
Race starts 7:30 a.m., Dec. 16. Registration now open. There is a 10K option for less-experienced runners.
Feagans is not alone in converting from on-road to off-road. Based on "Special Report on Trail Running 2010" by the Outdoor Foundation nonprofit, trail running is a sport predominantly participated in by those with prior running experience.
About 83 percent of surveyed trail runners said they also ran on roads or other paved surfaces, about 62 exercised by walking and about 51 percent ran on treadmills.
Runners said the difference of hitting the trail as opposed to a road is as much felt as seen.
Unyielding paved surfaces such as asphalt and concrete are much harder on the body than dirt trails, said Randy Whorton, the race director for Rock/Creek's Trail Series and the executive director of the retailer's nonprofit trail conservancy arm, WildTrails.
Whorton ran his first marathon in 1979. Since then, he has participated in 106 marathon and ultra-marathon races, 60 percent to 70 percent of which have been trail races.
When the foot lands on a uniform surface such as asphalt or concrete, the stress of each stride is placed on the same joints and muscles thousands of times during an event. As a result, running a road marathon -- 26.2 miles -- can feel as damaging to the body as running 40 miles on the trail, Whorton said.
"If you think about how we've evolved in nature, there's nothing consistent about the surface of the earth except where people come in and pave it," he said. "If you want to run the rest of your life, you should get off the road.
"I think most people know that roads are not healthy surfaces to run on. It's vastly different."
The main advantage of trails, Whorton said, is that they are uneven. Each footstep on a dirt trail -- even a hard-packed, well-groomed one -- falls at a slightly different angle than the one before.
That variance not only helps trail runners develop their balance and work muscle groups unused by many road runners, it also helps distribute forces more evenly through the legs.
62 -- Percentage of trail runners who spend 30 minutes of less driving to a trailhead
98.4 -- Percentage of trail runners who also participate in another outdoor activity, such as hiking, fishing or running on paved surfaces
4.8 million -- Estimated number of trail runners in the U.S.
43.9 million -- Estimated number of paved surface runners in the U.S.
Source: "Special Report on Trail Running 2010" by The Outdoor Foundation
Trails' variety also can carry additional challenges.
Over the course of several miles, many local trail races feature drastic changes in elevation of hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of feet. That forces runners to challenge themselves in ways roads simply cannot. Uphill climbs make them slow their pace and, on particularly steep sections, engage upper-body muscle groups most road runners never put to use, said Rock/Creek's marketing director, Mark McKnight.
"You would never build a road to a 30 percent grade, but you face that when you're clawing your way out of Suck Creek," he said. "People who are used to keeping a steady pace on roads because roads are flat are going to find that a challenge."
Although trails lack car traffic and street crossings, they carry their own set of specific obstacles, including streams, protruding roots, fallen trees and the occasional wildlife encounter.
Most trail runners said that turning an ankle is almost unavoidable early on, but many hazards can be minimized if runners are properly equipped.
To counteract uneven terrain, trail runners often wear specialized shoes with rigid soles, heavy treading and increased ankle support. Local runners also stressed the importance of carrying a water bottle or bladders on trails, where the nearest water source can be miles away. For similar reasons, runners on unfamiliar trails are encouraged to bring a phone or GPS device as well as a headlamp for evening runs.
The great escape
On the trail, each corner brings a new vista, a stark contrast to running along a seemingly endless series of sidewalks or on a track loop, Whorton said.
"[Road running] is just not good for your head," he said. "On trails, you're out amongst nature, it's quiet, and you get to see things you wouldn't normally.
"Trail running is more of an adventure, whereas running on the road is mostly exercise. You're out there without a soul in sight."
McKnight said he enjoys the isolation of his daily treks on Lookout Mountain, where he can run the Kidney Trail or take in the panorama at Sunset Rock.
When he's on the road, he's driven by the distance his fitness regimen dictates he needs to run; on the trail, it's more about enjoying the scenery.
"Trail runners will be a little more concentrated on time on their feet and time in the woods because they enjoy it," McKnight said. "There's a big group of us who are just concentrating on having a good time in the woods."