Six 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. Road­run­ners 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, but it also 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 an 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.”