As trail runners, most of us intrinsically value early morning miles logged under dawn’s pale light, our footsteps barely audible on thick-packed dirt. But studies suggest there’s more to running in nature than just getting a good workout: It can increase our longevity, lower depression, boost focus, and reduce injury when compared to running on roads.
Most of all, we understand that our backyard trails—whether nature preserves, fire roads, or unpaved city parks—are only a substitute for our weekend adventures where, if we’re lucky, we head to the backcountry.
The argument for spending time in nature makes sense. The backcountry offers a sense of solitude that is rarely found in urban environments, even when those places include parks. There’s a sense of aloneness—not to be confused with loneliness—gained by being a small being moving quickly through the mountains.
This isn’t just our imagination, either. Science is starting to confirm the difference between wild places and nature. Both take us outdoors, get us moving and offer a reprieve from the constant bustle of life, but the backcountry gives us something that many of us rarely feel in our lives: solitude.
A 2015 study found that participants who walked 90 minutes in a nature area (defined in this paper as “a greenspace comprising of grassland with scattered oak trees and shrubs”) reported lower levels of rumination and reduced neural activity linked to mental illness. From this, we can assume spending time in nature, even if in a park less than a half-mile from an urbanized area, can have positive effects on our mood and mental health.
Solitude in particular can play a vital role in keeping us healthy. While circumstantial solitude, like being isolated from friends and family, can have a detrimental effect on mental health, choosing to seek alone time can actually be beneficial.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Adolescence found that young adults who had self-determined solitude—meaning they believed they were choosing to spend time alone—experienced more personal growth and self-acceptance. Solitude has also been linked to increased creativity, intimacy, and empathy.
There’s no denying that trail runs, whether at the local park or on a remote mountainside, have positive impacts on our physical and mental health. But backcountry running is usually remote and far from cell service.
This lack of connection to the world—and for many, a break from the endless social media platforms through which we can engage with others at any time—is a sort of forced solitude that can put us back in touch with ourselves.
Out there, our thoughts have the opportunity to go from, “Why are there so many people on this path today?” to “I’m the only person out here.”
At its best, trail running offers a chance to disconnect from the real world and focus on ourselves as human beings moving through our environment. Choosing to run in the backcountry gives us the chance to focus on the best parts of running: connecting with a running partner, enjoying nature in its wildest form, and learning to understand ourselves, one rocky, root-covered, isolated step at a time.
By Jade de la Rosa. Jade is a freelance writer and ultra runner based in Bellingham, Washington. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is working on her first historical fiction novel.