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Why trail running could be the best thing you ever do

Sometime in 2008 homo sapiens, for the first time ever, became an urban species. Goodbye greenspace, hello urban life! Ironically this coincided with the biggest financial crash ever. You’d think with the rapid growth in city dwelling over the last 50 years we’d be the best versions of ourselves, right? Advances in medicine, bigger communities with limitless information, should bring us belonging, happiness and health. Wrong. Moving from village communities and toiling long days under the rays of the sun have not done us any favours for our mental or physical health.

Don’t believe me? Well the stats quickly reveal modern illnesses which were rare 50 years ago, are now common place. Two thirds of adults are overweight, one fifth of us suffer from depression, with suicide the single biggest killer in men under 45, we even recently appointed a minister in the UK for loneliness. Maybe we are not adapting so well to urban life. We can’t all up and move though, and let’s face it there are definitely some advantages to living in a city but what can we do take the edge off, to put the wild back into our lives that we have been so well adapted to over millennia?

Why trail running could be the best exercise you ever do

When I look at all these problems, to me there really is only one thing that fixes so many of these problems in one fell swoop, TRAIL RUNNING! Well I bet you’re thinking, well of course you’d say that! You’re a trail running guide and founder of Run the Wild! True, I work full time in the outdoors but before that I also worked 15 years in the City of London, working 15-hour days, sometimes working 36 hours straight and like so many others I rediscovered my own identity in the outdoors. I’ve also seen first-hand how the outdoors can truly help be an antidote to modern day problems in so many ways.

Scientists have already proven how important exercise is to our wellbeing and only just scratching the surface of the importance of green spaces to our mental and physical health. So, is all exercise equal? I would argue no. Trail running is not just an exercise, it brings us back to nature, and combining those two aspects together is where it reveals its true benefits. Often that the benefits are greater than the sum of its component parts. Indeed, I may not have all the answers for you here, but like a person of faith, it’s only when you’ve truly experienced it, will you truly understand how powerful it really is.

The thing about trail running which is pretty unique, is that it reconnects us to our beautiful natural world and yet at the same time stimulates and connects our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual elements, as well as providing us with an experience which can connect us to other people. In a modern age where our biggest forms of illness come from loneliness, lack of exercise, lack of sunlight, lack of purpose, lack of meaning and too much stress. So, let me explain why I believe trail running could indeed be the best exercise you ever do.

Free your inner runner

Do you remember that feeling of fight or flight? That flight instinct is hard wired inside all of us, it’s why running feels so liberating, it also seems to supress our desire to fight as well! Do you recollect as a child, the freedom of running down the garden with not a care in the world? Running reaches into those deep memories reflecting our childhood experience of play, setting us free. One of the biggest problems for adults is being able to express ourselves, to park the straight jacket of civilisation and just let go, this is especially true for young men as the statistics show.

Exercise is essential for health, both physical and mental

The benefits of exercise, particularly cardio exercise are now well understood, but surprisingly in our everyday lives it’s often overlooked. It’s been proven to reduce stress and anxiety and improve mood (whatever mood we start in). The release of endorphins flushes us with the feel-good factor and can even provide an analgesic effect. Exercise impacts positively on so many levels: increasing coordination; brain development; muscles; bone growth; reducing symptoms of ADHD; obesity; and chronic diseases such as heart disease. We should all be exercising regularly, and feeling exhausted following exercise is not a bad thing, getting your heart rate up is a perfect road to fitness! We are far more robust than we often realise.

Greenspace is the best headspace

If you’ve been heading to the gym to do your running, then you’re missing out. Deep down in all of us there is a connection to the wild. Whether it’s that feeling of adventure and nervous excitement that come from stepping onto a new footpath, watching the sunrise over the mountains or staring up at the stars, it’s something that resonates deeply inside all of us. Scientists are just starting to understand much more about how we nature affects us, particularly in regards to its benefit to mental health. Spending more time in nature can lead to a higher psychological well-being, being happier with who they are as a person, their social well-being, emotional well-being and also life satisfaction and personal growth.

Living urban lives is not natural, it isolates us from each other and nature. The solution is not to move out of our cities! We need to also acknowledge they bring employment, a functioning economy and convenience. We do however, need to more proactively seek out nature! Scientists have now definitively proven how important this is to us, but actually it’s still fairly new science, especially when we compare it to what we know about the importance of exercise. The first significant research was published in Science in 1984. It followed the recovery of post-surgery patients, exploring whether they recovered more quickly when placed next to a window with a view of a natural scene or not. The patients adjacent to the windows recovered quicker and required less painkillers.

Simply walking in nature for fifteen minutes (in comparison to walking in an urban environment) increases measurably our ability to concentrate, our mental and physical energy. It can even increase our intrinsic aspirations and goals, such as how we perceive personal growth, community etc and decrease extrinsic aspirations such as money, image and fame, and even boost our immune system. That’s amazing!!

There are many reasons postulated for this. One which is quite pertinent, is that of the Attention Restoration Theory. We live in a time of information overload from the moment we wake to when we go to sleep, a lot of it induced by our phones. This can lead to burnout and stress through an overdose of ‘directed attention’. ‘Soft fascination’ on the other hand provides a soothing effect and gives our directed attention time to defragment, such examples are looking into the flames of a fire, or watching leaves tumbling across the grass. Directed attention examples are writing this article or sending a whatsapp. There are many theories as to why being present in green spaces benefits our mental health, from the awe-factor (eg: looking up the sky at night), how fractals in nature provide a calming sense on our state of mind, to how trees calm our senses. Whatever you subscribe to, the outcome is real. Being in nature restores our mental state. Not only that but it grounds us, shapes us and helps us to live in the now, one of the most precious experiences we can have.

Get grounded in nature

I mention grounding above, but there’s also been fascinating studies on how walking bare foot, or gardening can truly ground us. Most of us live in buildings and concreted urban areas, wearing shoes makes sense and therefore, due to the electric charge of our bodies and the Earth the two don’t connect as often as we once used to. When was the last time you walked bare foot on grass or just ran your hand of the ears of a field of corn? Research has demonstrated earthing our bodies through bare touch can produce nearly instant changes in a variety of physiological measures, helping improve sleep, reduce pain, decrease muscle tension and lower stress. Don’t believe me? Try it!

Connecting with each other

Being in the outdoors away from other distractions really helps to build friendships and community. It’s a simple but effective solution to the loneliness problem of the 21st century. Similarly, trail running in a group brings us together in a meaningful way, not a virtual one. It harkens back to the times when we sat round fires and told tales, sharing an incredible trail together does just that. When we are active in the outdoors with others, it’s often those experiences that we share together, that last the longest and shape us and those relationships, long after we’ve forgotten the location. Sharing an adventure together often helps us to understand each other, overcome differences and learn how to work together.

Unplugging

Let’s be honest, phones are amazing. They have changed the world we live in, how we do business and for many they are life savers, particularly during lockdown. However, they can also take away our lives if not managed. At 150 texts a day, and the average adult picking up their phone every 12 minutes, these are symptomatic of addictions. Phones can cause headaches, decreased attention, shortness of temper, sleep disorders and depression, and if you are already susceptible to these issues, can accentuate them. The good news is that trail running whilst looking at your phone is extremely dangerous! Therefore, most people are not tempted to do it and it could be the one time in your day when you don’t.

It shapes us into better people

Not just physically, but also mentally! Trail running is going on a journey adapting to the path ahead and learning about yourself, installing physical and mental endurance. Just learning the principle that what you put into your journey is what you will get out, and you might to work at something and fail repeatedly to achieve. To view the summits and ridges you need to push yourself vertically but the rewards are more than worth it. That is basically our life journey in a nutshell.

My experiences of running, hiking, mountaineering and of course learning to walk again (post hip surgery) have shaped me into who I am today. Along the way I’ve learnt many lessons, many that hours in an office won’t teach you, the most important of which is not giving up even if you feel like you can’t go on.

Silence

Sometimes in this busy world, we just need to take off and give ourselves space, nature is really good at giving us that space. It gently reminds us that Planet Earth is a lot bigger than us, that we are part of the story but it doesn’t revolve around us. Stopping whilst on a trail run, to take in the view, to feel the breeze come up from the valley, watch the flowers sway in the meadows. It somehow reminds us that really replying to that email is not so important, that this is what’s truly real.

A spiritual connection

Our spirituality is often a very personal experience and whatever your belief, be it in God or something else or indeed just thoughts on belief, spending time in the outdoors can speak to us on a very personal, deep and private level, bringing a sense of restoration.

You may have watched our “Spirit of Trail Running” mini film that we put together 2 years ago with a couple of BBC filmographers, now good friends. Before they came over to shoot, Paul, the director asked me to write a script about how trail running made me feel. It was the first time I’d put into words what I really felt.

This is what I wrote:

“Our ancestors were deeply connected to the wild, it provided them with life and purpose. Trail running reawakens that ancient connection. The feeling of the path flowing beneath your feet, leaving behind the bad dreams of life, those stresses and responsibilities. Along the way we learn to embrace nature and rediscover who we are. Just you and the trail.

Trail running is the ultimate pursuit of freedom, of feeling alive. It’s pure. Each time we put on our trail shoes and head off down a trail, we leave behind all the clutter of life. Every turn in the path brings a sense of renewal. This feeling, this connection, is routed in our very nature.

…We dare to step out onto these timeless, ancient rocky giants, with their tongues of ice licking the valleys below their steep precipices. We dance along their flanks and tip toe on their backs and occasionally we are allowed to stand with them in the sun. Sharing their eternal view. And for a moment. Just a flicker of a moment. Everything stops. We are home.”

For me trail running takes me ‘home’ where for a moment I can see everything a more clearly, where my relationship with the universe is put into perspective.

Summary

I can’t think of a more important time in our world history when the need to support our mental and physical health has come into such focus as with COVID. If we learnt just three things during that time, it was that we all need exercise, we all need real contact and we all need green spaces. You don’t need a scientist telling you that, you knew it all along, because that’s how your ancestors thrived.

References

(1)   World Health Organisation
(2)   Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
(3)   UK Parliament
(4)   The Children’s Society
(5)   Mental Health Foundation
(6)   Ofcom
(7)   Science. 1984 Apr 27;224(4647):420-1.
(8)   Society for Research in Child Development
(9)   The Nature Fix – Florence Williams