Trail running is booming worldwide. In the United States, the number of runners turning to the trails has grown 17 percent from 2012 to 2013, with participants in trail racers increasing three-fold since 2000, according to the American Trail Running Association.
“There are more opportunities than ever before for runners to experience the trails,” said Nancy Hobbs, executive director of the American Trail Running Association. “In addition to races of varying distances and level of difficulty, there are … group runs organized by specialty retailers, camps, clinics and how-to articles and books specific to trail running.”
And let’s not forget all those #trailrunning #trailporn photos.
“Publications and online social media posts help create the mind-body-spirit connection inherent in our sport, especially when they feature amazing photos of runners on the trails of a bucket-list location,” Hobbs said. “These images call people to get outside and on the trails to explore, commune with nature, and inspire others to do the same.”
In this increasingly digital age, as more and more of us feel chained to our screens 24/7, trails offer runners much needed solitude. A place to be quiet and contemplative – to simply escape.
“People have been running trails as long as they have been running,” said Paul Cuno-Booth, associate editor at Trail Runner magazine. “I often hear from people newer to the sport that it was a revelation when they found out trail running was a ‘thing’. They appreciate the friendly, low-key community of trail running, which can feel less competitive than the road-running or triathlon crowd. They find escape in the quiet woods and challenge in the steep uphills and rocky descents.”
Road running means dealing with cars, pollution, dirty streets, etc. – stressors that negate the positive effects of the endorphins running releases – while trail running closes off the rest of the world so you can just be.
But there’s more to trail running than just being outside. Below are the ways the sport can help you be stronger physically, mentally, and spiritually.
THE PHYSICAL BENEFITS
Trail running will transform your body in completely different ways than road running – while simultaneously lowering your chances of injury and making you faster.
“The stresses [of trail running] on the body improve strength, balance, and coordination as well as bone strength,” said Dr. Frank D. Dumont of Internal Medicine at Estes Park Medical Center.
Trails are softer than the road – and riddled with obstacles like roots and rocks – so to stabilize yourself, you need to keep your core constantly engaged. In addition, running on uneven terrain forces you to take shorter and quicker strides. You end up landing more on the forefoot than the heel, a practice that will improve your running technique – and speed – on any surface.
Then there are all the literal ups and downs of trail running – the climbs and the descents. If you thought your neighborhood hill was tough, try scampering up a nearly vertical mountain for an hour. Hello, glutes. And calves. And quads. Trail running strengthens these muscles, and makes that incline at your next road race seem like no big deal in comparison.
THE MENTAL BENEFITS
Generations of the world’s greatest minds – from Beethoven to Darwin to Buddhist Monks – have always known what studies have more recently proved: being in nature increases your creativity and productivity while decreasing worry, anxiety and negative thoughts.
That’s because “natural settings make us feel less threatened” and as a result, turn off our evolutionarily-rooted stress response.
“We are designed to be hunter-gatherers, traveling vast distances on foot through nature on a regular basis,” Dumont said. “Trail running is an ideal means of applying our understanding of metabolic and neuroscience to maximize health and quality of life.”
Then there’s the variety aspect. If you’re regularly running the same 3 mile loop around your neighborhood, sooner or later, you’re going to get bored. And that’s often when runners – from beginners to seasoned racers – start to make excuses and start skipping their runs. Hitting the trails can be a much needed change of scenery for city and suburban-dwellers, reigniting their passion for the sport.
THE SPIRITUAL BENEFITS
Put simply, trail running is good for the soul, and many runners have turned to the trails in their darkest times.
At the 2007 US Olympic Marathon Trials, Alicia Shay’s husband – American professional long-distance runner Ryan Shay – collapsed 5.5 miles into the race and died of a heart attack. To help her overcome this devastating loss and cope with her grief, she turned to the trails.
“Running is definitely therapeutic for me. I love having uninterrupted quiet time to think or not think, process, pray, cry or rejoice.” Shay told Trail Runner magazine in 2010. “Trail running keeps me curious and engaged in my surroundings. Rather than just looking at a beautiful landscape, I get to be a part of it and experience nature in an extremely satisfying way.”
Beyond just being quiet, beautiful, and peaceful, there are also scientific reasons why trail running feels so good. Trees release an invisible air molecule that studies have found increases oxygen flow to the brain, and this negative ion has been proven to alleviate season depression as effectively as Prozac or Zoloft.
“As a physician, I see trail running as an excellent means of bringing us back into alignment with regard to health and wellness,” Dumont said.
And it’s not just mother nature – it’s also the people in the trail running community.
“[The trail running community] literally saved my life,” said Chris Vargo an elite ultramarathoner in an interview with Competitor magazine. Vargo is a recovering alcoholic who turned to running to help battle his addiction – and found a support group in the process.
“On a daily basis I get hit up by people who are asking for advice and that makes life worth living a little bit more, it makes it a little bit better,” Vargo said. “And that’s kind of how the trail running community is: everyone’s there to help. It’s awesome and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
And trail running also led him to Vargo to his now fiancé: Alicia Shay.
“We’re coming at [trail running] from very different angles but I think that for both of us it’s much more than just competition and sport and running a lot of miles. It has a deeper root in where we are personally in our lives,” Shay said.
How have the trails affected you? We would love to hear about how the trails have changed your life.
Are you an avid trail or ultra racer or a wannabe trail running newbie? Join us for the annual US Trail Running Conference September 28 – October 1.
We invite you to come and find out why trail running is the new sexy!