What are the physical and mental benefits of trail running?

Whether it’s along tracks through the majestic Pyrenees in north-eastern Spain or the simple beauty of an English field edge, trail running is an increasingly popular activity for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. People are drawn by the opportunity it offers to traverse the rich diversity of nature’s scenery and enjoy the freedom of being in the countryside.

WORDS: Carol Anne Strange

Why trail running is good for your body

Whether it’s for leisure or competition, there’ll be a trail to match your preferences – and trail running is more than a sport or way to get fit. It’s an experience. One of the most exciting aspects is the constantly changing terrain, which keeps the mind engaged, the heart racing and the senses sharp.

Kathy Tytler, editor of Trailrunner magazine at the Trail Running Association, UK, says: ‘That great feeling you get after a run, multiply this by the sense of wellbeing that comes from being in nature. That’s the gift of trail running. It doesn’t have to be far and it doesn’t have to be fast. In fact, it’s good to slow down, walk if you want, stop and look at the view, smell the flowers and listen to the birds. The mixture of exercise and lovely surroundings will do wonders for your physical and mental health.’

Running a trail on a regular basis can bring about many healthful changes in the body, enhancing cardiovascular, respiratory, metabolic and muscular function. It also gets easier as muscles become stronger, energy levels increase and mobility improves. And when it comes to the mental benefits, trail running can enhance cognitive function, mental stamina, focus, self-discipline and emotional wellness. It’s thought that running over ever-changing terrain sparks activity in the brain’s neurons and keeps the mind alert to navigate the trail.

And it’s widely known that jogging releases endorphins – chemicals produced by the body that enhance feelings of wellbeing and self-esteem. Add to that the sensory experience of passing through beautiful scenery, and it’s clear how mood might be improved and uplifted long after a run is complete, too.

Why trail running is great for your mental wellbeing

Sabrina Pace-Humphreys is an ultra-runner, running coach and co-founder of Black Trail Runners, an organisation seeking to increase diversity in the sport. She started running after experiencing severe postnatal depression following the birth of her fourth child.

‘The unique thing about trail running is that connection with the outdoors,’ she says. ‘I found running hard work in the beginning, but I noticed that I didn’t have any dark thoughts linked to my depression. I wanted to bring that joy and healing that nature can give to more members of the community.’

Spending time in nature, away from artificial and human noise, has been shown to reduce stress, and many find their way to the trail for that reason. Mark Aston has enjoyed the Welsh mountains since he was a teenager. Now in his mid-50s, he’s found that trail running has helped him to overcome stress-related illness.

‘What’s kept me running are the mental health benefits,’ he says. ‘I’ll go out for a run in my local woods, and for the first 20 minutes or so, it’s hard. I’m so tense that my body doesn’t want to move, I struggle to breathe and I really don’t want to be there. After about 30 minutes, I start to notice the little things – the way the trees have changed since last time, the way the plants have grown, the mud or dryness of the paths. And then I genuinely start to smile and get a real deep pleasure from being out in the countryside. After about an hour or so, I become contemplative. By the time I’m back in the house, the things that stressed me don’t seem quite so important.’

What kind of trail running suits you?

Trail running can be done on your own, with a partner or in a supportive group. Most people run purely for their fitness and personal wellbeing, but some enjoy organised competitive trail runs. It’s finding what feels right for you. Kathy, whose favourite trail near to her home – The Ridgeway – has open views across the Berkshire Downs, says: ‘There are well-known trails all over the country, as well as networks of rights of way and areas of access land which are well mapped. Even those of us living in urban areas can often find nearby riverside and canal side routes that lead to the countryside or parks and areas of woodland.’

Another benefit of trail running with friends or in an organised group is the social aspect and readily available support to keep each other motivated. ‘Trail running is tough, there are hills, uneven paths, stiles and bogs with mud,’ says Mark. ‘Oddly enough, though, tough does not equal stress. A normal trail-running evening will see a group of people nattering as they walk up the hill (walking is allowed). Stopping at a beautiful spot to take a snap of the view gives the chance for a wonderful, shared experience.’

What is the essential kit for trail running?

Quality, worn-in, trail-running shoes to cope with the variable terrain.

Quick-drying, anti-blister socks.

A lightweight waterproof jacket.

Breathable running leggings that offer protection from insects and prickly foliage.

Water bottle or hydration vest – these feature retractable soft flasks, giving easy access to water, plus space to store other essentials.

Nutritious snacks for energy on the go.

First-aid kit.

Mobile phone for calling for help if needed (and for photographing the views).


For more information and advice visit the Trail Running Association at For more about Black Trail Runners, go to

You can read more articles about physical and mental health in issue 61 of Breathe magazine.