Dirt (or mud) is the most commonly abused surface by trailrunners and perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the most socially acceptable to use (by trailrunners). Most trailrunners use dirt trails with little difficulty, although a significant minority (10-20%) of trailrunners experience fairly serious problems managing their use. And most trailrunners who run experience at least some difficulty with overuse at some point in their lives. Before going further it may help to clarify some possible misconceptions about dirt/mud trail use and overuse.
Dirt singletrack trail use, like most human behaviors, exists on a continuum from no use to extremely heavy usage (daily consumption of high mileages of trails with addiction present). The potential negative consequences of trail use also exist on a continuum that, perhaps not surprisingly, fits quite well with the amount of use continuum. Incidentally, if the picture toward the right side of the continuum looks kind of bleak and muddy, that's because it is!
Singletrack Trail Use-Negative Consequences of Use Continuum
0 = No Use
1 = Some casual running or hiking
2 = Regular Use
3 = Frequent heavy Use
4 = Addiction
• No trailrunning related problems...an occasional picnic in the woods.
Some casual running/hiking and social trailrunning
• Occasional post-run tiredness and muddy shoes
• Embarrassing behavior (like going into restaurants covered in mud)
Regular use of trails
• More frequent post-run tiredness and muddy legs
• Agressive feelings toward pavement and the "idiots" who run on pavement
• Possible Fights with Equine folks
• More arguments with pavement-pounders and downright disdain for pavement and sidewalks
• Danger of addiction
Frequent and/or heavy use of trails
• 5 or more trail runs per week
• muddy legs and shoes that you forget what color they originally were
• Possible "trail psychosis"... and feeling the need to chase-down a deer
• Need more trailrunning to "feel it" (establishing a higher tolerance)
• Conflicts with others (that aren't covered in mud)
• Possibilities of blackouts - you find yourself wandering aimlessly on the Psycho Wyco course with no memory of how you got there.
• Likelihood of addiction
• Denial begins to develop
• Trailrunning is part of daily functioning
• Your shoulders are raw from bouncing off of trees
• You’re turned-on by members of the opposite sex only if they’re covered in mud and their legs are scratched and bleeding.
• You’ve named all of the large rocks on your regular runs
• You can’t take a crap, unless you’re in the woods
Photo by Dick Ross
As trail use increases toward the frequent heavy use range of the continuum, problems managing one's life become unavoidable—trails and being covered in mud becomes more important than our responsibilities, our activities, our friends (unless they're "trailrunning buddies"), and our families. Problems toward the left side of the continuum are much less frequent and much more manageable. By the way, frequent heavy use is defined as five or more trail runs per week; addiction may occur with very heavy use (8-10 or more, trail runs per week), only once or twice per week with heavy mileage (the binge trailrunner). If you fear that you are creeping too far to the right on the continuum, or one of your friends is, seek help or talk to your friend about what you see happening. Consulting with a counselor (or personal trainer) in either case is a real good idea; some valuable information and support become available once you take that step. And if you vehemently deny, or your friend denies, that trail abuse is a problem, that often indicates that it is a problem. To get one's life back under control requires using trails less (or not at all); if you can't do it on your own, seek help. If not, just join the Trail Nerds for one of our ten weekly group training runs. Yeah...we may be a bunch of "Trail Junkies," but we are a fun group.