If you’ve ever watched a trail runner sweep by you on a trail and fade off into the distance, you’re not alone. According to the International Trail Running Association, there are about 1.7 million trail runners around the world of all ages, so it’s very likely you’ll encounter them in whatever woods you choose to play in. And there are probably a lot more people across the globe that dabble in trail running who wouldn’t even self-declare themselves as an official “trail runner.”
But whatever the statistics say, if you lace up your running shoes and hit the trails (even on occasion), you are a trail runner. There are no official rules about how many miles you need to run or how fast you need to go on a nature trail to be considered a trail runner. The Cambridge English Dictionary describes trail running as, “the sport of running along trails.” To be a trail runner means to run along trails. Simple. As. That.
If you’re wondering if trail running is for you, you may want to start your journey after knowing the many benefits trail running offers. It’s a great way to get exercise while exploring nature and challenging yourself outside of the gym. Trail running can also be exhilarating and rewarding and help you connect with nature in ways you never had before while pushing yourself physically.
And as with thinking about starting any sport, do some research. Talk with people who are into trail running. And be sure to do things like warming up and cooling down to avoid injury, making sure you have appropriate shoes (with good traction) for the terrain, and starting slow to build your endurance as you become more experienced.
So, if you’re thinking of taking up trail running, these five benefits just might inspire you to get out on the trails and put dirt on your sneakers!
1. Offers Variety
Trail running offers a variety of scenery compared to road running or running indoors on a treadmill. Having so many things to look at — like trees, creeks, wildlife, rolling hills, or mountains — can keep you from getting bored and may help you stay motivated during an activity. And depending on where you live, you may even have a variety of trails in your area to try.
Trying different trails in your area can also add an exploration component on top of the scenic benefits of running on trails. You may even discover some trails you didn’t even know existed in your area through your research or word of mouth.
2. Provides a Lower-Impact Run
When you’re running on the road or on a treadmill, you’re running on harder surfaces than trails, and it’s a repetitive motion.
Running on softer, natural surfaces like dirt and grass is easier on your joints than running on hard paved or artificial surfaces. And since you work different muscles by adjusting your stride to navigate around things like rocks, roots and sticks, you’re using different muscles in your legs, ankles and core to balance (and avoid tripping) to maintain your speed.
3. Offers Mental Health Benefits
Being in nature in general can have a positive effect on your mental health. Paired with running, which produces endorphins, you’re getting a lot of additional health benefits.
In a Runners World article titled, How to achieve a runner’s high, K. Aleisha Fetters reported about endorphins — the naturally produced chemical released by our bodies that act like pain relievers.
“Runners have credited them [endorphins] for their feel-good effects for decades, but it wasn’t until 2008 that German researchers used brain scans on runners and were able to identify where they originated. They found that, during two-hour runs, subjects’ prefrontal, and limbic regions (which light up in response to emotions like love) released endorphins. The greater the endorphin surge in these brain areas, the more euphoric the runners reported feeling.”
And even on shorter trail runs, you may feel the runner’s high, experience a release of stress and enjoy an overall happy feeling as you breathe in the fresh air and free your mind.
4. Increases Muscle Strength
Trail running is a great way to build strength in your legs, core, and other muscles that are not as engaged when you’re running on flatter surfaces like your quads, glutes, and calves. Even on smooth gravel or a woodchip path, you’ll engage your legs more leading to increased muscle strength. This can help with your overall fitness and make you a stronger runner over time.
In a Men’s Fitness magazine article, sports journalist Lisa Jhung said, “The very nature of trails — soft, forgiving surfaces, sometimes riddled with obstacles like roots or rocks — requires you to engage your core muscles for stability. Each step you take works to tighten and strengthen your core.”
5. Improves Balance And Coordination
Trail running can be a great way to improve your overall balance and coordination. Since the uneven terrain of trails forces your body to adjust to different terrain and inclines, you’re working on your balance and coordination without thinking about it. The unstable surfaces of trails require your body to continuously adjust, which means your balance and coordination will naturally improve over time — especially if you stick with it!
Suzanne Downing is an outdoor writer and photographer in Montana with an environmental science journalism background. Her work can be found in Outdoors Unlimited, Bugle Magazine, Missoulian, Byline Magazine, Communique, MTPR online, UM Native News, National Wildlife Federation campaigns and more.