Why Do People Do Trail Running? | Hikers University

Even with all modern-day gyms and tracks, many people still choose to work outdoors. If you’ve been wondering why people do trail running, you’re not alone.

Trail running is one of the most common sports that people choose to indulge in during the summer season, and rightly so. It is a great way to get your heart pumping while breathing in the fresh air of Mother Nature.

People choose to invest their time in trail running as it is an excellent way to get your body moving while being out in nature. It is known to significantly improve both your physical and mental health.

Unlike other sports, trail running doesn’t just challenge the body but also the mind. While the activity enhances your physique and keeps you fit, it ensures emotional stability and stronger mental endurance.

But the advantages of trail running don’t end there. As research continues, scientists remain baffled by how an activity so simple can cause so many significant changes within the human body. Anyone who studies these effects in detail and their influence on overall well-being will undoubtedly want to become an avid trail-runner.

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What Is Trail Running?

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t necessarily have to travel to the mountains to do trail running; instead, it is an activity that anyone can do almost anywhere. Like regular running, trail running too is an endurance sport, but instead of opting for sealed, paved, surfaced, or asphalt roads, trail runners prefer to run out in nature and even in the wild. They choose natural, rough and undeveloped terrains like deserts, wooded or mountainous areas with unpredictable and unseen routes. Most individuals who partake in running focus solely on their stats like heart rate, speed, elevation, and distance covered. In contrast, trail runners must monitor their physical stats while actively utilizing brainpower to navigate unpredictable terrains and make on-the-spot decisions. This element of uncertainty makes this sport challenging and highly invigorating.

Trail running combines the aspects of both a traditional hike and run. Since trail runners must also focus on maneuvering rough irregular paths, comparing the time required and difficulty level of a regular run with a trail run is impractical. The obstacles individuals face while on terrain are constantly changing. Trail runners must encounter several elements from grass, mud, rocks, and even roots while on their journey. As a result, both the body and mind must constantly remain on high alert.

Trail running isn’t just a past-time activity but also a professional sport where trail runners compete in intense races varying in length and locality. Pro trail runners even participate in advanced events called ultra-marathons, including complex trail running races over 26.3 miles longer than any traditional marathon. This sport isn’t for the weak-minded as it requires great toughness and mental endurance. Even avid trail runners must train for years to develop the proper form, stamina, and strength necessary for participating in an ultra-marathon.

Who Do People Trail Run?

With the increasing awareness about the tremendous impact of trail running on physical and mental well-being, many individuals are now choosing to swap their gyms for mud and grass. Humans have the inherent tendency to find tranquility in the presence of nature, and avid trail runners agree that trail running brings them more peace of mind than any mundane workout. From managing your emotional health to giving your bones a break, replacing your treadmill with footpaths and bridleways in the open countryside has many benefits.

It Gives Your Brain a Workout

All exercises and sports stimulate your body, but trail running does far more than that. It vitalizes your mind and soul, enabling you to build a strong conscience and higher endurance levels. Time and time again, science has backed up the claim that trail running can significantly strengthen your brain and keep it young in the long run. Trail running requires individuals to cruise through nature’s path and deal with an environment that isn’t always predictable. From slippery mud and overhanging branches to weather changes and wild animals, there are many hidden obstacles trail runners must encounter on their journey. They must stay alert and keep their mind sharp to make micro and macro adjustments to their route as they move along. This exercises your brain, triggering a brain region called the Hippocampus.

What is Hippocampus, you ask? It is a vital part of the Limbic system responsible for the formation of episodic and long-term memories, maintaining spatial orientation, helping with navigation, and is the site for neurogenesis – a process characterized by the formation of newer and healthier brain cells. Often with age, neurogenesis slows down and causes a significant lag in memory. It can lead to the onset of neurodegenerative disorders like amnesia and Alzheimer’s in severe cases. Frequent trail running oxygenates the body and stimulates blood flow toward the brain, keeping the functioning capacity of all its regions intact. Therefore trail running keeps the brain healthy, reduces atrophy, increases plasticity, and prevents cognitive decline and neural diseases.

It Improves Your Physical Health

Frequent trail running doesn’t just improve your external physique but also strengthens your internal organs, transforming your body inside out. Hitting uneven and inconsistent trails activates muscles, tendons, and ligaments, the stimulation of which doesn’t happen when working out on a smooth treadmill. Running on undeveloped dirt roads, going uphill or down, and maneuvering through obstacles doesn’t just strengthen your cardiovascular engine but also helps build your glutes, calves, quads, and even the core. The more you run, the more enduring your body becomes. From your legs to your shoulders, every trail running session promotes muscular growth. Every step you take in the wild tightens your muscles and strengthens the core. With time your dynamic and intrinsic muscles develop, and so does your stamina. Soon you’ll be able to hit faster speeds and build a higher tolerance to embark on even rougher terrains.

One highly undervalued advantage of trail running is that terrains on the trail are far more forgiving than tarmac or pavement. They have a much lower impact on the joints and ligaments of your body, reducing excessive stress and strain on the bones. Since dirt roads and muds are softer when compared to sealed and asphalt roads or treadmills, the surface impact isn’t harmful to the body. Instead of weakening, trailing builds bone density over time and strengthens the ligaments holding them in place. Especially as we age, focusing on bone health becomes a necessity; the healthier your bones, the longer you’ll be able to indulge in the sport and remain active in your later life. An active lifestyle helps manage weight, reducing the accumulation of bad cholesterol and keeping hypertension at bay.

It Improves Your Mental Health

Exercise, in general, is known to help with stress management, but what makes trail running ten times more beneficial than any other workout is the fact that it is set outdoors in a natural setting. We live in a world ruled by science and technology; we spend a major chunk of our day in front of screens, be it television, computers, or mobile phones. Constantly being seated indoors, with little to no movement and interaction with nature, causes chronic mental fatigue, a condition characterized by burnout, loss of focus, and difficulty paying attention and maintaining concentration. Going outdoors helps us take a step back from our technology ladened lifestyle. It helps de-stress and temporarily detaches the mind from the everyday hustle and bustle. The peace and tranquility of the trail quiets the mind, encouraging moments of personal thought and self-reflection. Time away from our phones and in the company of our minds can bring much-needed clarity.

Many studies have shown that increasing urbanization has led to a massive spurt in mental health disorders, most of which are stress and anxiety. Both can tamper with the quality of everyday life and make performing mundane tasks a hassle. The most prominent psychological advantage of trail running is the rush of endorphins dubbed the ‘runner’s high.’ It is a sudden release of large quantities of neurotransmitters during and after the run that stimulate specific regions of the Central Nervous System. These regions control the production of our body’s wellness hormones, including serotonin – a feel-good hormone, and dopamine – a happy hormone. Together they monitor feelings of pleasure, well-being, happiness, and contentment. They play a vital role in combating mental health issues and chronic fatigue and reduce feelings of pain and discomfort.

Beyond this initial boost, sticking to a healthy trail running routine will also help boost your self-esteem. Often we hate to admit it, but body image can often impact our self-confidence, making us feel insecure and inferior among our peers. A healthy and fit body is a natural by-product of frequent trail running. The fresh boost of self-worth and morale that comes from seeing visible progress in the body’s external appearance and performance can help develop a positive self-image. Hitting the trail with consistency requires motivation; it takes determination to run faster and go farther. As the body’s endurance increases, so do the mind. Soon runners develop steely willpower that teaches them that they can do anything they want in life. This is an extremely useful asset, encouraging runners to remain dedicated and have persistence in whatever they do.

It Is A Good Way to Socialize

Most people view trail running as an individual pursuit and remain unaware of its vast social side. No matter where you go in the world, you’ll notice a strong sense of community among outdoor enthusiasts. You’ll find clubs, teams, and platforms dedicated solely to this cause. Many expert runners, hikers, and backpackers join these groups to share their stories and experiences, give feedback, and help newer members by guiding them, giving them tips, and teaching them ways to master the art of trailing. Whether you’re a casual or competitive runner, a seasoned pro, or a beginner, you’re sure to come across like-minded people in the well-knit community of running. Having the support of others on the same journey as you helps build encouragement and ensures your passion for the sport remains intact.

Trail running is also a great way to travel to new places, see new locations and witness the power of nature at its finest. Leave behind the endless circuit of everyday life and how unrealistically beautiful the world is. Meadows, landscapes, fields, forests, and mountains are just a few of the many places you can adventure while trail running. It is a simple way to unwind after a stressful week and encourages a strong state of awe. This emotion generates feelings of generosity, empathy, and gratitude, making one realize the true value of life.

So if your question is why people opt for trail running, then know they do so to better the quality of their lives in every aspect. Be it physically, mentally, or emotionally, you can strengthen yourself in every possible way if you choose to commit to this sport.


Peter Brooks

Peter Brooks

I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.

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