6 Mind and Body Benefits of Trail Running

You’re a runner, so you know this: running is good for you. What you’re less certain of is whether you should hit the pavement or head to the trail.

I’ve found trail running to be better for my body and mind. And since so much has been written about the benefits of road running, I wanted to share a few reasons why you should consider spending less time on the pavement and more time ambling along tree-covered paths.

Trail running works a wider range of muscles
A trail is often defined as a “path beaten” through “rough” terrain, which makes it innately more bumpy than the perfectly-flat road. It’s also not uncommon for a trail to be spotted with tree roots and rocks, so you’ve got to watch your step. More significantly, you’ve got to balance your body as you run over and around these obstacles, causing you to use those smaller, lesser-used muscles in your legs (as well as core and arms). While the terrain of any trail can differ, most often the surface of the trail is significantly softer than concrete or asphalt, meaning that your step depresses a bit each time, requiring you to lift your leg and use more muscle each time you take a stride. 

Your joints will take less of a hit on the trail
Running on any surface aside from a paved trail gives relief from the hard, unforgiving pavement. A Runner’s World Magazine article published in the summer of 2013 references Dr. Scott Levin, a New York-based sports medicine expert and orthopedic surgeon, who says: “Trails are going to take away a lot of stress from the impact that you’d normally get running on harder surfaces,” says Dr. Scott Levin, a New York-based sports medicine expert and orthopedic surgeon. “Some of the forces that would normally be transmitted from the pavement up to the ankles, knees, shins, and hips are dissipated when the foot hits the ground on the trails because there’s some give there.”

The fresh air is good for you and your lungs
One of the best reasons to run on the trail is to get some fresh air—literally. Road runners in rural areas may have less traffic to grapple with than those who run on urban territory, but for both groups, getting out into the woods for a run is better for the lungs. A bit of research conducted by Active.com summarized the health effects of running in polluted air this way: “A 2004 review of pollution studies worldwide conducted by the University of Brisbane, Australia, found that during exercise, low concentrations of pollutants caused lung damage similar to that caused by high concentrations in people not working out given what can be in the air, “people who exercise outdoors should probably be more worried” than many are, said Dr. Morton Lippmann, a professor of environmental medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.”

You can’t zone out, but you can get in the zone
Trail running requires intense focus. Even if you’ve hit the same six-mile path for years on end, it ’s going to require that you watch where you’re going carefully. This kind of focus is exhilarating and energizing. What’s more, the trail doesn’t have all of the roadblocks, stop lights and cars to watch out for, making it easier to get in the zone and enjoy a more streamlined run. You may even hit a new PR. 

Being in nature is good for you
Trail running takes us up the mountain, over the river and through the woods, and that often gives us a much more scenic view than we could ever hope for on an urban jaunt on the road. And if the scenery isn’t enough to sway you to the side of trail runners, perhaps the fact that nature is good for the emotional and mental well being of all humans will be. An article published by Harvard Medical School states this: “Researchers at the University of Essex in England are advancing the notion that exercising in the presence of nature has added benefit, particularly for mental health. Their investigations into “green exercise,” as they are calling it, dovetails with research showing benefits from living in proximity to green, open spaces. In 2010 the English scientists reported results from a meta-analysis of their own studies that showed just five minutes of green exercise resulted in improvements in self-esteem and mood.”

It’s quieter and calmer
Getting exercise is not only good for your heart, it produces natural endorphins that leave you feeling happier and calmer. But the calm of a good run can easily be snuffed out by the stress you feel in dodging cars or hearing the jarring sounds of construction. Trail running offers unmatched reprieve for runners seeking asylum from those everyday sounds. According to a Runner’s World article about the therapeutic qualities of trail running: “Trails just have a way of closing off the rest of the world and all of the chaos,” says Dr. Jerry Lynch, a Boulder, Colorado-based psychologist and author. “Trail running is quiet and contemplative.” Lynch even prescribes trail running to his patients who suffer from depression. “I’ve had several clients over the years who were depressed and taking medication and it wasn’t working. I steered them toward trail running and they became more at peace with themselves and found joy.”