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Moving Mindfully: How to Care for Your Body While Caring for Trails

Before you head out on your next work party, here are some key areas you can focus on to help minimize the risk of an overuse injury. By Holly Weiler

Long before I tried my hand at trail building and maintenance, I spent time on as many woodland trails as possible while training for long-distance running. From high school on I was serious about the sport, and I was fairly good at it. That’s why it came as such a shock when I learned that my running form was terrible.

My revelation came in high school, while attending a camp that included video analysis of each runner’s form. In my head, my form was effortless and perfect. On the video, however, my shoulders were hunched, my arm swing was weak, my knee lift was low, and I overpronated significantly. It was no wonder that I frequently experienced minor overuse injuries.

A group of WTA staff stand around a bundle of fallen trees and discuss the best way to proceed with cuts.A group of WTA staff on a team-building work party discuss how to deal with trees across the trail. Thinking ahead and moving carefully can help keep you safe and injury free on work parties. Photo by Anna Roth.

Over the next two seasons, I worked with my coaches to improve my running form. My race times improved and my injuries all but disappeared. By the time I was in college, my coaches named me “Most Durable” on the team.

Durability is a strange award but a good life goal, one that transfers well to trail building and maintenance, where strains, sprains and tendonitis are possible if you don’t pay attention to your body. The best way to achieve durability in the trail maintenance world is by remaining mindful of proper body mechanics for the different tasks required — as well as remembering the advice from our safety briefing checklist to change tasks when you start to experience muscle fatigue. 

Most of us know the main rules to safe lifting as they pertain to using weights in the gym: keep your feet shoulder-width apart; bend from your knees and hips rather than your spine; keep heavy objects close to your body; don’t lift a heavy object overhead; don’t turn or twist while carrying a heavy load. They are good rules that can also apply to trail building and maintenance.

It is also important to keep in mind that, just as I experienced as a high school runner, sometimes how we think we’re doing doesn’t quite match up to how we’re actually doing. Video analysis of your trail maintenance form might be a little over the top, but do ask your crew leader or an assistant crew leader to offer a critique if you’re experiencing any soreness or pain.

WTA staffer Rebecca stands on trail and smiles at the camera while using a grub how to flatten out the trail tread.
Taking care of your back while working on trail is key! Photo by Anna Roth.

Post-college, I transitioned into coaching distance runners. A key part of the daily workout routine was a warm-up period followed by stretching. I admit I’m not good at taking my own advice on this, but stretching before starting trail work can also help prevent injury. I have always preferred dynamic stretching (exercises that both warm up and stretch one’s muscles) at the beginning of any activity; I try to save static stretching (easing into a stretch and holding it for several seconds) for the end of the day, when my muscles are already loose and limber. Generally the walk to the work site goes a long way toward warming your muscles up for a day of work, but it’s also important to remember to pace yourself for a full day of trail work by starting slow. Add in some static stretching throughout the day: while enjoying your morning candy break, again while eating lunch, and finally before making the drive home at the end of the project day.

One thing that came as a bit of a surprise to me as I began to do trail work regularly is that my runner’s physique changed drastically. Runners are known for their similarity to T-rex cartoons: powerful calves, quads and glutes with scrawny stick arms. Suddenly I found that the sleeves of my favorite t-shirts were too tight for my trail work biceps and shoulders. 

I’ve also noticed a marked difference between my dominant and nondominant arm, so I have been concentrating on making more of an effort to not only switch tools and tasks throughout the day but also switch which side of my body I’m using as I perform each task. I haven’t built up to equal billing yet, but it is a good way to avoid overuse and add concentration on proper form throughout the workday. Anyone who has spent much time on a crosscut team likely already knows that it can be advantageous to be as ambidextrous as possible — so you can cut from either side — but I also find the practice valuable for dirt work.

Trail work tips

Before you head out on your next work party, here are some key areas you can focus on to help minimize the risk of an overuse injury.

Anna leans down with loppers in her arm, ready to cut back some overgrowth along the trail.
Brushing is an activity that requires a lot of repetitive movement. Careful positioning, such as sitting down to cut brush near the ground and switching up tasks when you get tired can keep your body happy. Photo by Zachary Toliver.

Brushing: My preferred method for brushing is to bring myself to the same level as my work, so I’m frequently working from a seated or kneeling position for low brushing. Knee pads can help make this easier. If you choose to brush from a standing position, remember to keep a straight back, keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and bend from your knees and waist. When tossing the collected brush to the downhill side, remember to turn your body in the direction you plan to throw before tossing, as opposed to twisting your body as you throw.

Tools and tasks for preparing a work site: McLeods and shovels have long handles, and I find it easiest to do most of the work forward of the balance point in order to reduce the amount of weight I’m lifting. A common tendency is to hunch your shoulders while raking with a McLeod, which is easily corrected by focusing on maintaining good posture. When working with a shovel, remember to avoid twisting motions. If you’re using a pick mattock, heed the advice from the safety briefings to not use it for an extended period, as this is among the heaviest tools and quite physically demanding. Remember to let the weight of the tool, plus gravity, do the majority of the work.

Tools and tasks digging in the dirt: For many trail maintenance days, the majority of your time is spent using grubbing tools, so always remember to pace yourself. Keep your feet at least shoulder-width apart, both to reduce strain on your hamstrings and to protect your toes. Concentrate on maintaining proper posture; try not to bend your spine or hunch your shoulders. Practice using your nondominant arm for tool control.

Holly Weiler is WTA’s Eastern Washington regional coordinator. When she’s not leading trail work parties, she’s skiing or running trails in Eastern Washington, often with her dog, Jasper.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.