The Benefits of Trail Running on Mental Health
Written By: SportsShoes
It’s a well-known fact that running releases endorphins which are good for boosting energy and mood. However, if you are running on a treadmill at the gym or by the roadside in a city, the feel-good factor can be compromised by overcrowding, traffic and noise. It is no wonder, then, that an increasing number of runners are opting for the trails; trail running involves heading off-tarmac into natural environments such as woods or meadows and can offer a markedly improved sense of tranquility and clarity of mind.
THE BENEFITS OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITY IN NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS
A growing body of research shows that physical activity in green spaces can promote positive experiences such as: intensified sensory perception, a feeling of union with nature and a renewed sense of awakening. The role of 'Green Exercise' in psychological health is growing more popular as people become increasingly alienated from the natural world and conditions such as 'nature-deficit disorder' prevail.
In the latest battle against obesity, doctors worldwide are asking patients to specifically exercise outdoors, offering nature prescriptions which shift the focus of medicine from illness to wellness. Several studies show that physical activity is easier to keep up when it is done outdoors, possibly due to the varying scenery and the fact that natural views are more pleasurable to look at, making activity seem less like hard work. Also, running outdoors costs nothing - there is no monthly membership fee.
Psychologist, Eric Brymer, says that just feeling reconnected to nature and realising you're part of something bigger can have a very powerful positive impact on mental wellbeing. People who are in a generally healthy state of mind may find activities such as trail running help to prevent psychological issues from forming and those in an already optimal frame of mind may find this exercise an almost spiritual experience as the connection to nature becomes very strong. People who may already be suffering mental health issues and stress may find that a simple walk in a natural environment or time spent in their garden is a more gentle therapeutic option. Either way, the benefits of green exercise will promote wellbeing for most.
Our culture has arguably lost the ability to be at peace in favour of multi-tasking in hyper-informational environments. Often during exercise, people are still 'plugged-in' as they listen to music and watch screens. Although they are physically working out, they are mentally switched-off and disengaged from what their body is doing.
Eric Brymer is currently researching how deeper engagement with environment through activity can promote longer-term wellbeing benefits. He discusses how trail running can instantly put you into a mindful state: "When you're trail running, it's hard not to be engaged, the surface is uneven and you're not sure what is round the corner - whilst you're navigating your route, even if you're unaware of it, you're deeply attuned to the nuances of your natural environment, you are interacting with it. This level of engagement means that you are fully operating in the moment, it is not an internal process, it is very much about your body in the space at that time. It is the opposite of disassociation."
Mindfulness is about focusing on the present, not dwelling on the past or future, this can have a very restorative effect on your state of mind. Interestingly studies have shown that green exercise in adverse weather conditions actually gives you better, more effective long-term mental wellbeing benefits as you have a more intense engagement with nature through the experience; you are living 'in the moment' more completely.
MENTAL WEIGHT LOSS
Nature is not designed for a particular activity and thus is a non-judgmental environment. When you are mindfully trail running, nature allows you to feel all emotions without judging them, even emotions that we currently consider unpleasant and term negative such as ‘fear’. Often we view emotions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and society suggests we should suppress them, which isn't helpful. If we begin to see emotions as important information then we can deal with them better. Trail running can enable you to feel unpleasant emotions without shutting down. There is a reason unpleasant emotions remain with us as a species, they are important and we need to understand why we are feeling them, so we know how to act - whether to run, fight etc. and to take the response activity seriously.
Adventure sportsmen take emotions like ‘fear’ seriously, it enables them to ensure they do thorough research and assess their skills, environment and feelings. This can be positive in all aspects of life in that fear doesn’t necessarily stop you doing things or being who you want to be. This ability to recognise and acknowledge your feelings can have a real long-term influence on your state of mind.
With thanks to Dr. Eric Brymer, Principal Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University
Dr Eric Brymer is a psychologist with a particular interest in the psychological health benefits of nature-based experiences. His research focuses on investigating how to design and facilitate nature-based experiences and interactions in order to optimise positive outcomes for people and the environment. Eric is also interested in the broad psychological understanding of nature-based experiences. Current projects include investigations of nature-based interventions, adventure and eco-tourism experiences, and the wellbeing benefits of extreme sports.