Trail running, or forest running in Finland, is incredibly popular today. In Finland, we have run on trails and in forests for ages, but the sport has become well-known especially through the many trail running events. You can nowadays also find loads of special equipment designed for trail running in outdoor stores.
Trail running is a holistic sport, that benefits both body and mind. If you decide to try trail running, you can easily get hooked!
Here are my thoughts and experiences on the benefits of trail running. I have been trail running since 2020.
Why should you start trail running?
The motivation to start trail running varies from athletic training to searching for nature experiences, and from social needs and community to having your own time and peace. There are so many approaches to trail running, that most people can find exactly the thing that motivates them.
- Starting trail running is extremely easy. At least in Finland, you can find some trail head anywhere and just start running. You don’t have to travel far to mountains or even far away from your home. Local nature is the perfect place to try trail running.
- You don’t have to buy any fancy equipment. Even on forest trails, basic running shoes are enough, and you can stuff your keys and mobile phone in your pockets. On the other hand, many outdoor stores nowadays offer great high quality trail running equipment, also on the affordable end. The right, well-fitting running gear will last a long time. It’s just the trail running shoes you’ll run out of shape after hundreds or thousands of kilometers on trails.
- Trail running suits people of all ages and levels of fitness. It puts less stress on legs compared to roads and tracks. My lower legs and knees don’t really like running on concrete, they start easily aching. But on trails, the stress on legs is so much lesser that I can trail run mostly pain free.
- If you haven’t trained a lot before, trail running is a great option. The effort needed to just go out and run may be much lower than packing and heading to gym lessons. In addition, you’ll develop a routine for trail running quickly, because it’s so easy.
- Trail running provides also good variance to other sports, such as cycling or cross-country skiing. And of course, it’s a great alternative for road and track runners. Even if you don’t like running on concrete, you may get hooked on trail running – this is exactly what happened to me!
Is trail running sport or just recreational pursuit?
Like with everything people are passionate about, trail running evokes feelings and arguments. One thing that seems unclear is, if trail running is considered sport, if you are not one of the most successful trail runners in competitions.
The truth is, you can trail run really slowly, you may walk, you don’t necessarily have a sports watch, and you may never participate in competitions. On the other end of the continuum, there are competing athletes, who take training and progressing seriously. Most of trail runners are somewhere between these extreme ends.
You could also ask, if extreme backpacking is just recreational pursuit or sport? On what basis is fastpacking either sport or outdoor hobby? If you trail run a slow ultra, can you call it sport? I think it shouldn’t matter wether we talk about sports or recreational outdoors.
Perhaps just a small amount of trail runners is motivated by competition and performance. Most trail runners pursue nature experiences, fresh air, health and relaxing time. Some may look for adventure, excitement and endorphins. Or all of these!
It’s OK to perform or not to perform in nature. Performance is a subjective experience: one may consider a five kilometers trail run a performance, the other may enjoy running fifty kilometers on trails without experiencing the run as a performance. Comparing your experience to someone else’s experience is comparing apples to oranges.
Trail running is slower than running on concrete, but it can also be more strenuous. If you run or even jog on trails, it really is sport! According to physical activity recommendations for adults in Finland we should have moderate physical activity at least 2 h 30 min per week or vigorous physical activity at least 1h 15 min per week, and muscle strength and balance activities twice a week. Trail running is a great way to achieve these recommendations.
I’m somewhere in the middle of the athlete continuum. I don’t participate in competitions, but I monitor my Garmin sports watch statistics, not too seriously though. At times, I try to follow a weekly training program, where I’d train at various pace, shorter and longer runs, uphill and even HIIT. Sometimes (usually) I just go with the day’s flow and sometimes I have to adjust to other life and work priorities to even find time to any kind of training.
My goals are related to running longer and longer trail ultras. But the main thing for me in trail running is just feeling good. I’m far away from any records, but I still consider myself an athlete. The everyday adventuring athlete of my own life. Thinking about sports and the meaning of an athlete this way makes me smile – I’m definitely on the right track, I mean trail!
The 5 benefits of trail running to your body
- Just a walk at moderate pace once a day affects positively your health. Easy trail running at slow pace benefits your health even more. You really don’t have to run to lose weight, but when you find a great hobby, you may end up losing some extra kilograms without even noticing. Or trail running may shape your body and muscles otherwise. Trail running makes you feel good, and it does help with weight management if you struggle with it.
- I have noticed that trail running boosts my metabolism. I have got autoimmune underactive thyroid, that has caused a great deal of frustration in my life. Hormones, and lack of hormones, affect directly metabolism, and weight gain or loss, as well as swelling. It can’t be directly fixed with nutrition or burning calories. However, trail running positively impacts my metabolism, in a way that my digestive system functions better and e.g., my face doesn’t swell so much. I believe it happens because trail running is so effective on the middle part of your body. Other sports, such as cycling, gym, kayaking, or cross-country skiing have not had the same effect. I can feel a longer break in trail running in my body immediately. I can only reach he same ‘bodily flow’ on my extreme treks.
- Quite often, you trail run at various paces, because of the variance of elevation and technicality. Train running has an effect of developing your body and performance comprehensively. If your heart rate rises easily, it’s not a bad idea to walk on trails every now and then in order to recover from hard training. Resting too little causes your development to stop. Trail running too much may also lead to overtraining or strain injury. Basic endurance training is exercising that improves your overall health. In other words, you can stick to easy trail running and still get all the health benefits.
- Trail running, particularly on more technical trails, provides your body plenty of coordination exercise, since the uneven terrain, roots, rocks and running on hills require careful steps. Body control and motoric skills, such as balance and agility improve. Good body control reduces erroneous movements and postures and is extremely important with aging.
- You also need to use your whole body when running on uneven terrain. Trail running is very dynamic, as it activates more muscles and joints, and more middle parts of body than running on concrete. The more adventurous route jumping over tree trunks and climbing cliffs while running, the more you move your whole body!
The 5 benefits of trail running to your mental health
- Trail running pampers your mind. When you run on difficult trails, you have to focus on every step to keep your balance. You just can’t think about all the everyday stress when you trail run. Trail running through a forest resets your brains, when they are overloaded with stress. According to studies, you only need a short break in a forest, 15 minutes, to decrease your blood pressure and pulse.
- On the other hand, moving in nature may accelerate your brain’s creative problem solving process, as there’s no stress blocking it. After a trailrun, you may come home full of energy and write down a hundred new ideas on paper. Your mind may also naturally process some emotions and feelings. Anyway, you’ll leave all negativity and stress in the woods.
- Trail running improves your self-esteem. For some reason, a running performance in a forest is different from a running performance on a road. The feeling of achievement is much bigger in nature. I believe it comes from the holistic experience that involves all senses. Of course, experiences are personal, and they vary from person to person. I feel like my self-esteem skyrocketed after I started trail running.
- As with all nature sports, you get to enjoy esthetic nature experiences on every trailrun. A forest, a lake or a fell scenery is beautiful year-round, each day, in every weather. If you are living in a city, trail running in peaceful nature can be a great way to balance that feeling of haste.
- Nature experiences are holistic experiences, where a trail runner is part of her environment. The natural sounds, scents, colors and textures influence all senses. When you move inside or on ready tracks, you are moving in a space that has boundaries and a readymade sketch. Nature has no boundaries, it is open space. This adds to the feeling of freedom and adventure, which, in turn, nurtures your creativity.
So. Why should you start trail running? Trail running suits almost everyone, you can trail run the way you want, and trail running in your local nature is free. Trail running in nature gives health and wellness for your body and mind. You can join a great trail running community on trails or on social media, or you can enjoy your own time alone in a peaceful forest.
Wishing you happy moments on trails!