Why Do We Run on Trails?

In January of 2017, I went out on my first trail run. A 3km jog around a local bushland reserve. It was fantastic! So much fun. The trail was a rolling loop of gentle hills with a few steeper sections. The surface was safe and runnable, with just a few uneven bits here and there that kept it fun and exciting.

The pre-run selfie from my very first trail run

I got hooked immediately. Trail running seemed like an absolute blast. I started reading more about it and discovered a big local trail running scene that I had no idea existed.

One thing I love about trail running is the diversity of backgrounds in the community. There are elite runners with a long history of athletic achievement. And there’s regular folk (like me) who fell into the sport by accident.

I have never felt as welcome and comfortable in a sporting community as I have in the trail running world.

Never an Athlete

I was not an active kid. My hobbies were mostly sedentary. I played the lowest division of any school sport. I skipped any athletics carnival I could.

When I left school, sports were the furthest thing from my mind. Exercise was a sporadic endeavour, with motivation coming and going over the years. I was overweight and unhealthy for my entire 20’s.

It wasn’t until I hit my 30’s that I decided I’d had enough of feeling like shit. But now that I was married, and we’d had our first child, I was freshly motivated to turn things around again.

And so began many years of slow, steady improvement. I lifted weights in the gym. I played social basketball before a devastating ankle injury took me out of the game. After my ankle healed, I took up cycling for my commute as a way to stay in shape.

Running came in and out of my life at various times. Sometimes I would run on my lunch break. Sometimes I would run part of my commute. Eventually, I joined a company with a strong running culture in the team, and I trained and ran my first 10km race.

Discovering Trail Running

By my late 30’s the running bug had a hold of me. I loved to run. And I suddenly found myself with ample opportunity to run during the day, as I quit the job I was working at the time, and struck out as an independent consultant, writer and trainer.

The trouble was, I was not well suited to running during the daytime after dropping the kids off to school. By that I mean, my fair skin was not well suited to running during the day. As a freckle-faced ginger, the sun is my natural predator.

The solution came to me when I noticed that a bushland reserve near our house had some trails through it. I could see the trail entrances as I drove past. And a bit of research uncovered a map of the routes that crisscrossed the area. A look on Strava revealed that many local runners used the space.

It wasn’t the trails that drew me in. It was the chance to run under cover of trees, protecting me from the sun. It seemed like the perfect solution!

But I never anticipated how much joy and peace I would find in the simple act of running through nature.

Why Draws People to Trail Running?

Three years on, trail running is a part of my identity. I am a trail runner. If I can’t get out on a trail at least once per week, I feel diminished, as though I have experienced a loss of something that is part of me.

On the face of it, trail running seems a strange thing to fall in love with. We run in the dirt and mud. We get wet in the rain, or when crossing creeks and streams. We wake up in the dark and set off before dawn in a little pool of light from a headlamp. We run for hours at a time. We seek out mountains and rough terrain. We all have stories of injury, pain and suffering.

So why do we do it? If you ask a group of trail runners, you’ll get a range of answers.

  • Mental benefits – I wouldn’t claim that running is a cure for serious mental health problems. But a lot of runners say running helps to relieve the stress and pressure they’re feeling in their life. If that helps with more severe issues, great! But at the very least, a lot of us realise that a good long run gives our mind time to rest, process problems, and come up with solutions. Those “light bulb moments” during runs are more common than you might realise.
  • Physical benefits – exercise is a part of a healthy lifestyle. But why trail running, instead of another exercise? Well, as we’ve all discovered, running on the softer ground of trails is often easier on the body than running on hard pavement and roads. The variation in speed and terrain can also put less strain on your body than running at one cadence on flat ground.
  • Connecting to nature – there’s something about being outdoors, experiencing nature’s sights, sounds and smells that is rejuvenating. I’ve rarely finished a trail run without feeling that nature has given me more from the experience than it has taken from me.
  • Building confidence – trail running pushes you outside your comfort zone. A road runner might take a route that follows the flattest streets in the neighbourhood. But the trails often give you no choice than to go over the top of that hill, through that stream, or down that narrow, slippery descent. And the more you do it, the more you realise that your mind and body are capable of taking you further than you ever thought possible.
  • Community – for some people, the trail running community is where they feel most comfortable. The social runs, races, Facebook groups, all create a feeling of identity, and that we have a place in this world where we belong.

Why Do I Do It?

I take a little from each of those points above to answer that question.

Regular runs help me destress and problem-solve. Creative ideas come tumbling out of my brain. The solutions to many of my most significant life and business problems got found out on runs.

I take a “use it or lose it” view of my aging body. If I want to be a healthy, active 70-year-old, I’d better stay active now. As a form of exercise, trail running has “clicked” with me in ways that no other activity or sport has. I can get the satisfaction of achieving personal goals, and also be a good example to my kids at the same time.

To give me goals to work towards, I pick fun races to enter but also look for those that will push me outside of my comfort zone. My first ultramarathon did precisely that, motivating me to train and prepare both my mind and body for the biggest physical challenge of my life to date.

And above all, for the community connection. Whether its the people I see at races or meeting up with friends for a social run and a chat.

What About You?

Do you have an answer for why you choose to run trails? Let me know in the comments below.

Or are you thinking about giving it a try? All you need is a pair of shoes and a water bottle. Take a friend if you want to be safe, or look for local running groups that do beginner group runs. I’ve seen so many people hooked after just one run. You might be next!

By Paul Cunningham

Paul is a writer and entrepreneur living in Brisbane, Australia. He enjoys spending time with his family and running in the mountains. Paul was the founder of Practical 365, a former Microsoft MVP, and Pluralsight trainer. Paul is also on Twitter and Instagram.