Cardio is an important part of overall fitness and consistent training is the best way to maintain cardiovascular fitness.
The problem is this: Standard cardio training gets boring.
Elliptical, cycling, kettlebells, rowing, swimming, jogging, hiking, and running, to name a few. All these are types of cardio that are good for overall health and each impacts your body in different ways.
Cardio improves your overall fitness and while there’s no perfect cardio exercise, trail running is the best option. It provides you with a variety of different environments, consistent challenges, a total body workout, and scenery that’s second to none.
13 Benefits of Trail Running
Here are 13 awesome reasons to lace up your trail running shoes and hit the trails!
1. Low Cost Cardio Workout
Ok, so this may not have much to do with overall health, however, the cost benefit portion is an important consideration. As long as you have a trail nearby, this is an activity that is readily available for everyone, regardless of your tax bracket.
Other cardio activities require expensive equipment, a gym membership, a mountain bike… You get the point. Trail running is an egalitarian activity in that you don’t need anything special (other than shoes and a water bottle) to enjoy the outdoors.
In today’s flashy world of Instagram influencers, Tik Tok celebrities, and YouTube “gurus” it’s easy to get caught up in having the best and most expensive gear. You don’t need any of that shit. That fancy GPS watch, expensive pair of shoes, or the newest cutting edge clothes won’t improve your run, just use what you have and hit the trails.
2. Cardiovascular Benefits
According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: Running, even 5-10 minutes per day at speeds of less than 6 miles per hour is associated with markedly reduced risks of death from all causes and cardiovascular disease, as well as:
- lower adjusted risks of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality
- A 3-year life expectancy benefit
- Reduced risk of colon cancer in men (source)
Trail running adds improved cardiovascular health, challenging elevation changes, a variety of terrain, and a more rewarding overall experience.
3. Increase in Leg Strength
Trail running increases strength in your legs and consistent runs on rough terrain with steep inclines and declines that works on building your leg muscles in all the right places.
The Health ABC Study makes the connection between leg strength and an overall health benefit enjoyed later in life. They studied 3,075 men and women who consistently ran over the course of 16 years and found that strength in your legs is a larger predictor of your future health than the overall amount of muscle mass you acquire.
Not only will you live a longer and healthier life, you’ll be able to explode up those parts of the trail that used to kick your ass.
4. Get Closer to and More Comfortable in Nature
Your first trail running trip, you’ll most likely pick a light trail with a moderate incline on a well defined trail, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The beginning is all about getting comfortable with the trail and not getting lost!
As you get more comfortable with trail running, you’ll naturally get more adventurous and go further and begin to blaze your own trail. Exploring new places always gives you a heightened sense of awareness (think seeing a new city for the first time), everything will be new and you’ll notice things that you normally would pass by.
There’s actually an area of study called Ecopsychology which uses a growing body of research to prove that spending time in the natural world increases overall health, reduces stress, and promotes healing.
5. Improvements to Mental Health
As we touched on earlier, being in nature has proven mental health benefits but let’s dive a little deeper.
While it’s not perfectly clear why being in nature makes our heads feel clearer. A new study by Stanford in 2015 compared the brain activity of people after they spent 90 minutes walking in nature versus 90 minutes walking in an urban setting. They found that those who spent time in nature had reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region defined as rumination – defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions.
“When people are depressed or under high levels of stress, this part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) malfunctions, and people experience a continuous loop of negative thoughts,” says Dr. Strauss.
Being outdoors, whether you’re trail running or taking a leisurely hike, has a clear mental health benefit that encourages you to have less repetitive negative thoughts.
6. Low Barrier to Entry
Running is something that we all learn to do at a young age, repeatedly asking our parents to “watch how fast I am”. In terms of the level of skill required to get into trail running, it’s as simple as doing something we’ve done since our childhoods.
If your ultimate goal is to become a competitive trail runner it will take time and consistent dedication to build your endurance and speed to a level of Courtney Dauwalter and you’ll probably never beat her. However, in terms of the wide ranging benefits, you don’t need to compete with Courtney or anyone other than yourself to get something out of trail running.
In comparison to other cardio activities like rowing, mountain biking, or skiing which all require a significant amount of time to become technically proficient, trail running comes out miles ahead.
7. Trail Running May Help You Live Longer
Heading out to the trails for a morning or afternoon run may help you live longer: Researchers have discovered that a high level of Cardiorespiratory fitness is a modifiable indicator of long term mortality.
According to the study, researchers took a close look at 122,007 consecutive patients with an average age of 53.7 years using a treadmill as exercise. They analyzed the patients enrolled at a medical center from January 1, 1991, to December 31, 2014, with a median follow-up of 8.4 years. They analyzed the subsequent dataset from April 19 to July 17, 2018.
They discovered that cardiorespiratory fitness is inversely associated with long-term mortality with no observed upper limit of benefit. The highest level of aerobic fitness is associated with the greatest survival and it particularly benefits older individuals.
Basically, this study shows that aerobic activity, or trail running in our case, has a direct impact on the length of our lives after analyzing the data of around 122,000 people.
8. Weight Loss Benefit
Running, in general, is an effective way to lose weight and with the added components of trail running, you’ll burn even more calories. Running elevates your heart rate with the changes in terrain and elevation. This is in essence high interval training, which is defined as intense levels of exercise mixed in with low levels of recovery and is an efficient exercise strategy to improve cardiorespiratory and metabolic health (source).
Running on trails and mountains has a significant impact on your body when compared to a boring run on your neighborhood street. When climbing a hill your heart rate elevates, legs burn, you work out all the muscles in your leg, as well as, your core and upper body.
If you want to lose weight, improve your overall fitness, tone your body and have fun while doing it, trail running is the jam.
9. Engage Your Core
According to the HealthBeat at Harvard, “A strong core also enhances balance and stability. Thus, it can help prevent falls and injuries during sports or other activities. In fact, a strong, flexible core underpins almost everything you do.”
Trail running provides your body with a wide range of movement and gives your core muscles more of a challenge than a standard jog or 5 miles on a treadmill. Each step in the mountains works towards training your overall core strength.
Your core muscles are the overall connection between your upper and lower body. The downhill portions and obstacles of the run forces you to use your core to provide balance from the uneven terrain.
10. Reduce the Risk of Runner’s Knee
Patellofemoral pain syndrome or runner’s knee is a common injury and can be a real pain in the knee. The only way to treat it is to take a break from running.
According to WebMD, the best methods for preventing runner’s knee are…
- Keeping your thigh muscles strong and limber with regular exercise (trail running)
- Use shoe inserts if you have problems that may lead to runner’s knee
- Make sure your shoes have enough support
- Try not to run on hard surfaces, like concrete (trail running)
- Stay in shape and keep a healthy weight
2 of the 5 methods of prevention are achieved by trail running. While it may not be a cure-all, it gives you better odds.
Trails add a new dimension to running due to their variety of conditions. The softer surfaces lower the impact on your joints and the mixed terrain works out a large group of stabilizer muscles. It forces your feet, legs, core, and upper body to constantly make adjustments which reduce the incidence of repetitive strain injuries.
11. Improve Balance
Running on a flat surface uses more or less the same muscles over and over. Trail running and the variety of terrain force you to use all your leg muscles and doesn’t allow you to favor one side or the other.
The downhill portions of the trail are where you’re going to make the biggest gains in terms of overall balance. The nature of downhill running, gravity and the obstacles all work in cohesion to force your body and legs work harder to stay upright. This eccentric contraction causes you to use all the muscles in your legs.
12. Improve Proprioception (Coordination)
Your first couple of trail runs, naturally, you’re going to be cautious. Keeping an eye open for obstacles that could trip you up and slow you down. The more comfortable that you get with each step the more you’re sharpening your proprioception.
According to Science Direct, “Proprioception, or kinesthesia, is the sense that lets us perceive the location, movement, and action of parts of the body. It encompasses a complex of sensations, including the perception of joint position and movement, muscle force, and effort.”
An improvement in proprioception equates to faster reaction times, control of movement, and overall coordination.
13. Limits Impact on Your Joints
Trail running is not as hard on your joints, more specifically your knees and hips than running on concrete. As we touched on earlier, repetitive movements work the same muscles, tendons, and ligaments over and over and over, which can be bad for your knees over time.
When we run on trails, it’s often on dirt or grass which creates less impact due to the softer surface. If you plan on running late into life, trail running limits the impacts on your joints and is a more forgiving path than concrete.
Trail running has a long list of benefits, ranging from mental health to physical fitness and a longer life.
It may not be for everyone, but we encourage you to try it once and see how you like it. You’ll find yourself a new hobby at best or discover that it’s not for you. Either way, you’ll be getting out of your comfort zone and trying something new, which is never a bad thing!