Trail runs are generally done outside of cities, in wilderness or remote areas where you run through various types of terrain, from forest fire roads to dirt single tracks in sand, gravel, mud or snow.
Although road running may offer an interesting view of urban landscape and different forms of architecture designs, trail running can give you the pleasure of being surrounded by nature. Trail running is about being connected with our environment and a great opportunity to step away from the stress of daily life, a moment of getting yourself unplugged from the digital world and all the modern life distractions that move you away from the simplicity and contact with nature.
Many studies have found that exercising outdoors is more effective in increasing energy levels and positive thinking, as well as lowering levels of tension, anxiety and depression in comparison to indoor workouts. Exercising outdoors also optimizes your circadian rhythm helping you to sleep better. Getting a good night’s sleep consistenly is an important factor for good health.
According to a study published by Frances Kuo, professor of natural resources and environmental science and psychology at the University of Illinois, nature is essential to physical, psychological and social well-being of the human animal. Her findings support the idea that humans suffer a variety of negative social effects when living in barren landscapes. Psychological problems as well as relatively poor attention or cognitive function and poor management of major life issues are likely to appear more often in those who have none or very little access to nature, she said. On the other hand, access to nature positively influences a person’s mood, life and sense of satisfaction.
Another interesting example of how nature has a positive impact on our lives is what happened in Japan, back in the 1980s. The Japanese government began to notice the adverse effects of the tech boom in Japanese citizens such as depression and inflammatory diseases. The Japanese government then incorporated this form of ecotherapy called shinrin-yoku or forest bathing into the country’s health program, as more research highlighted the benefits of the medicinal practice. Forest bathing can be as simple as walking in any natural environment, consciously and silently connecting what surrounds you and can offer similar benefits as other therapeutic practices such as zen meditation and mindfulness. In the 1990s, western researchers began to study the physiological benefits of forest bathing and their findings lead to what we inherently know: time spent immersed in nature is good for us.
The growing popularity of trail runs has driven many runners to switch from road running to trail running. However, making the switch is not as easy as it seems to be. Trail running requires more technique to master the uneven terrain and steep hills and downhill sections that are not so common in road running. Even if your mileage stays the same, you will need to make adjustments to keep your runs at a similar effort to your previous road runs, giving your body enough time to adapt to different running biomechanics.
Despite the growing number of people that are transitioning to trail run, there are still fewer participants in those events in comparison to road races due to limited entry offers, permitting process, athletes safety and environmental concerns as the races are often set in places with narrow trails and within National Parks or nature reserves.
Types of trail runs
Over the years, trail running has evolved to several events and disciplines that differ in difficulty levels, distance, elevation gain and technical terrain. Here are some of them:
The competitions are held in mountains above 2000m and the incline is over 30%. The courses may be over paths, trail, rocks or snow and the asphalt should not exceed 15% of total distance, as determined by The International SkyRunning Federation. The goal is to reach the peak and go back in the shortest time possible. As a way to make the sport more popular around the world, the ISF divided the races into some categories:
Sky: the races are between 20 and 49km with 1.300m minimum vertical climb and races that reach 4.000m must be over 10km.
Skyultra: Races between 50 and 99 km with 3,200m minimum vertical climb or maximum finish time must be under 16 hours.
Vertical: uphill races with a minimum average incline of 20% and include one or more sections of 5% of the total distance, over 33%. The maximum length is 5 km.
Skyspeed: Races with 100 m or more vertical climb and more than 33% incline.
Traditional trail run
These courses have no specific requirements and take place in natural environments on variable types of terrain, such as mountains, forests, countryside, desert or snow, including climbs and descents with no more than 20% of paved roads. The courses can go from short distances to 80km or more for ultra-races. The terrain conditions, elevation gain and distance combined create all kinds of difficulty levels for a given race.
Regardless of the type of trail run, they have more obstacles along the way which makes you go at a slower pace compared to road running. It also takes a bit more mental ability and focus as you cannot simply repeat the same stride over and over. You are constantly avoiding rocks, tree roots and branches, moving your body in different directions. That is why trail runners must have a strong core to support those rapid direction changes and well-built lower body muscles to cope with the challenge of running on uneven surfaces, avoiding injuries.
Enjoyment above all
The undeniable positive aspect of trail runs is being away from cars, traffic and urban pollution. Trail running is quiet and contemplative. Getting into nature is a liberating experience and a proven method to improve well-being. The simple pleasure of connecting to the natural world can drive you to a better and positive state of mind. Forget about your mileage or running pace. Enjoy the process without focusing on performance. Trail running can be a chance to embark on a journey of self-awareness, doing what you love, encouraging you to explore your potential, challenging both physical and mental abilities in an environment that offers you a deep connection with raw nature, the very same nature that guides you to a more peaceful and balanced way of living.