If you were only able to do one type of exercise, trail running would give you the biggest bang for the buck. I realize that’s a bold statement and I fully admit to my bias. Yes I love trail running but I’ll try to be object in presenting my case why I think trail running is the best exercise for health.
My inspiration for this article came from a story at Quartz. It’s basic premise is that we aren’t designed for comfort and to be fully healthy we don’t need to simply exercise but to also experience environmental discomfort.
Having run on British Columbia’s mountains for over 20 years I can relate to putting your body through environmental distress. From the heat and humidity of summer to frigid winter conditions you can experience it all in our Pacific Northwest ecosystem.
Exercise can provide a plethora of health benefits from improving our brain function and emotional well-being to developing our physiology.
But any individual type of exercise won’t provide every single benefit of exercise in general. Specific activities will provide some benefits but not others. For example, running strengthens your legs but not to the same degree as does weightlifting. Similarly, certain types of weightlifting can improve cardiovascular function but not as much as aerobic exercise.
Once we begin to look at the pros and cons of different forms of exercise, here’s why I say that trail running is one of the best:
There’s a certain purity to the trail running compared to other activities. Equipment doesn’t matter as much as other sports. It’s just you and the natural environment. (Try riding a bike without a bike.)
In our consumer culture it’s easy to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars trying to improve your health and fitness. Trail running can fall into this same trap as much as any other form of exercise. From Gore-tex shoes to GPS watches to packs made of space age material to race fees the costs can add up quickly.
But stripped down to the essentials all you really need is a pair of running shoes. Maybe a water bottle if you’re running long enough. That’s it.
Further, there are no membership fees. It doesn’t cost anything to use trails, unless you have to pay park fees to access a trail. Adding up the economic cost, trail running is relatively cheap compared to many other forms of exercise making it affordable for many people.
2. Skill Level
From a skill perspective trail running is accessible by most people. Running was an important evolutionary development so it’s a skill virtually everyone is able to do. Even the most nonathletic couch potato can run, at least for a short distance.
If your goal is to compete in races it will take time to develop the fitness and skill required to do well and reach your potential. But from a health perspective, you don’t need to win races or even race at all to reap the benefits.
Compared to other activities such as skiing or Olympic weightlifting which require more time to develop technical proficiency, trail running comes out ahead.
3. Overall Physical Benefits
Running in general strengthens the heart and cardiovascular system; to a certain extent it strengthens the legs; it improves bone density of the legs and hips and it helps you maintain a healthy weight.
Trail running does this and more. It will strengthen the legs to a greater degree than road running.
Take a look at the image below comparing the elevation profile of the Knee Knacker 30 mile trail run, a local Vancouver ultramarathon, to the Boston marathon.
The Boston marathon is often touted as being difficult due to the net downhill profile of the course. But compared to the the elevation change in the Knee Knacker which has 8,000′ of climbing and 8,300′ of descent, it’s minuscule.
The average Knee Knacker participant can expect to take at least twice as long as to complete this trail run as they would to run a marathon even though the distance is only four miles longer.
Climbing mountains will build strength in the legs but it’s actually the downhill running that will do more for strength than uphill running. When running downhill runners can experience forces up to five times their body weight with each footstep. Running on level ground or going uphill the forces are “only” two to three times body weight.
Downhill running also involves eccentric loading of the leg muscles particularly the quads (thighs). This means the muscle is lengthening as it’s contracting. Eccentric contraction cause more muscle damage than regular contractions thus signalling the body to become stronger.
In effect, trail running provides better strength training benefits for the legs compared to road running.
Trail running also challenges coordination, agility and balance more so than running on roads, especially if running on technical trails full of rocks, roots and uneven terrain. Avoiding falls, negotiating steep slopes, cutting around sharp corners and landing on unstable surfaces all help build athleticism in trail runners.
4. Improvements to Cognitive & Emotional Health
This is the category where trail running really excels when compared to other forms of exercise. “Green” exercise or working out in the outdoors offers many benefits you can’t get in the gym. In our wired world full of electronic devices getting a run in nature is a great way to reduce the mental stress from being connected 24-7.
Here’s how trail running can help you beyond just physical fitness:
- Improve your mental health.
- Increase vitality, energy and positive engagement.
- Reduce tension, confusion, anger and depression.
- Provide greater enjoyment and satisfaction so you’re more likely to repeat the activity at a later date.
- Make you more creative.
Exercising in the outdoors also optimizes your circadian rhythm helping you sleep better. And getting a good night’s sleep on a consistent basis is a cornerstone of good health. Poor sleep habits can lead to a host of problems both physical and mental. (Not to mention that running up and down hills will tire you out enough to sleep well.)
Further reading on the benefits of outdoor exercise:
- List of research papers on benefits of green exercise.
- Science Suggests Access to Nature is Essential To Human Health.
- Access to nature may be vital for mental health.
- Benefits of outdoor exercise confirmed.
- More time outdoors may reduce kids’ risk of nearsightedness.
- Benefits of Nature.
- The Benefits of Exercising Outdoors.
- The New Science of the Creative Brain on Nature.
- Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning.
For optimal health and fitness a well-rounded exercise program including aerobic exercise, strength training and flexibility work is ideal. However, as I said at the beginning, if you could only do one type of exercise trail running would top the list for providing a wide variety of health benefits. So get your ass off the road and hit the trails.