Trail Running for Mental Health, Better Balance, and Overall Happiness

Trail running is often a reprieve from more than just the hard-impact roads and tracks that I occasionally run–it’s also a respite from noise, traffic and congestion, and a welcome back into nature, soft trails, technical terrain, and peace. Even if you don’t run, walking along trails can often be a far more serene experience than walking on sidewalks or along the road. Don’t believe me? Here are 7 reasons why you need to get off the concrete and back onto trails.

1. Trails Reduce Impact

Running on roads can be detrimental to the health of your joints, especially if you tend to land on your heel–a repeat of which can cause injuries like plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, and Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS). Running on trails significantly reduces this impact since the ground tends to be softer. Think about running on the sand and how different that feels from running hard on concrete. Trails are often comprised of sand, soft dirt, and even grass, all of which are preferable options.

2. Trails Slow You Down

Have you ever tried running on a trail filled with lots of twists and turns? How about a trail that goes uphill or downhill? Running on trails generally means running slower. While it might seem like running slower is a negative, especially for those who want to improve to win races and set new personal records, taking it easy can be better for both your long term healthyou’re your performance. This article, published in Training Peaks, discusses the benefits of including easy runs in your weekly schedule. Trails take the pressure off of going fast, not to mention they help with your gait, as discussed below.

3. Trails Change Your Gait (For The Better)

Did you watch Eliud Kipchoge come close to breaking the 2-hour marathon mark last month? Even towards the end of the race, when he was pushing a pace of 4 minutes 35 seconds for 26.2 miles, he landed under his center of mass, on his forefeet, and with his arms swinging comfortably by his sides and not back and forth in front of him. These are all trademarks of a solid and healthy gait. Most runners have problems when it comes to landing under their center of mass, tending instead to overstride (thereby causing the aforementioned heel striking injuries above.) Technical trails, which are usually defined as trails with rocks, roots, and other unexpected objects, generally force a tighter, quicker turn-around, meaning that overstriding is much less likely to happen. This article provides plenty of proof for why overstriding can be dangerous

4. Trails Improve Balance And Proprioception

Trails are often pebbled, twisting, uphill, downhill, and every which way but flat and smooth. While this can be more challenging, it also means that you’re working harder with every step–and using your body to its fullest. Jumping over and between rocks, boulders, roots, sticks, and other objects means using your stabilizing muscles (including your core!) to brace. This article breaks down the benefits of running trails to improve your balance and proprioception (the way you’re conscious of your body in relation to the world around you). 

5. Trails Work A Wider Range Of Muscles

Running on flat ground feels nicer because you don’t have to work as hard. Try adding a hill into the mix and your glutes are likely going to be on fire. Meanwhile, downhills require extra stabilization, and often result in burning quads by the bottom of the hill.

6. Trails Better The Brain (Thanks To Nature)

A 2015 New York Times article titled “How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain” discussed the benefits of taking a walk in nature. It wasn’t entirely the action of walking, per say, that bolstered the brain, but instead movement in a green, outdoor area. The subjects who were studied showed improvements in their mental health following a walk in nature, whereas those who walked next to a highway or busy road demonstrated no improvements. Trail running versus road running can be looked at much the same way. Whereas road running often means cars, traffic, noise, and pollution, trail running generally means solitude, birdsong, wildlife, and serenity. 

7. Trail Running Can Be A Form Of Meditation

The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami wrote a book several years ago called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. In it, he describes running as a sort of meditation, a way for him to set the tone of each day (and counter all of the sitting he does as he writes.) I, myself, have used running as a form of meditation, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s far easier to get into a meditative state while out on the trails than next to a clogged road. Another New York Times article explained a study that used both meditation and running as a way to combat depression. Not convinced? Next time you head out on a (trail) run, leave the headphones behind and listen to the sounds of nature. Try to pick out as many bird calls as you can, or try to notice how many different types of flowers, bushes, and trees you see. You might be surprised at how good you feel post-run–and we’re not talking about exercise endorphins!