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The benefits of trail running go well beyond the physical, according to a growing cohort of runners who have left behind mental health issues to go wild in a good way.  

“I’m a nature geek!”

The term rolls from a freshly-flushed and smiling face of the young female runner who has just won the ‘Donna Double’, a tough mountain run, part of the Warburton Trail Festheld in the small mountain township of Warburton, just outside Melbourne, Australia.

The run features a vertical kilometre and then some, the 22km distance featuring 1300 metres of ascent, with all of the climbing tackled in the first half. It’s a significant challenge.

It is also Simone Brick’s first ‘real’ trail run event. And she nails it, overcoming more than just the literal mountain to take first place. Barely 12 months earlier, Simone was institutionalised in a psychiatric ward, facing the very real spectre of death by her own means, battling an army of demons stretching from anorexia to full blown psychosis.

Simone has recent form in running as a state-level steeplechaser, a road marathoner and a handy cross-country athletics runner, so the physical accomplishment is not a surprise. But, as she tells Aussie Grit, it’s when running in nature, rather than on a track or tarmac, that she is happiest. Why? Because there’s a certain alchemy to be unearthed in the hills, one that reaches beyond the mere ethereal magic of Mother Earth and into the realms of physiological science.

Simone explains that it’s on the trail that she feels most alive, most in her happy place, where the demons of her past can’t even begin to catch her.

Her experience of trail running being a mental – as well as physical – salvation is not uncommon. Ask around the trail community and you will quickly elicit plenty of tales crediting running wild as the catalyst for being set free from a range of mental health anchors.

Indeed, the idea of “nature deficit disorder”, a phrase coined and a theory expanded upon by Richard Louvre in his seminal book Last Child In the Woods, is now widely recognised as a reality not just within the younger generation, but within all generations. It supposes that not enough time in nature can be detrimental to our mental health. Or in the least, that more time spent in nature can be beneficial.

Enter trail running – a pursuit that can enjoyed competitively, or not. Solo or within a group. All you need are a pair of shoes and some basic clothes: shorts and a top. Or you can get gear-fever and kit yourself up like an eco-warrior readying for mega-mountain adventures. The variables of engaging in trail running are as many as the reasons for doing so. The one constant – be you front or back of pack – is an intimate contact and connection with nature.

The space, the sights, the smells, the sounds, the views encountered on singletrack combine with the physical effort required to traverse a valley, climb a mountain or cross a fell, to spark an elevation in endorphins, the feel-good chemical produced by your body when the brain and muscles are positively stimulated under effort.

With the World Health Organisation predicting that depression and depression-related illness will become the greatest source of ill-health by 2020, the notion of ‘green exercise’ – activity in nature – has never been more in focus. A study by researchers at the University of Essex found that exercising in the presence of nature has added benefit, particularly for mental health, with just five minutes of ‘green exercise’ resulting in measurable improvements in self-esteem and mood.

The upshot? Trail running, not to mention mountain biking, paddling, walking or just exploring your local patch of woods, not only improves physical wellbeing, it’s also a simulant for better mental health.

So when you’re next accused of being a bit of a geek, take Simone’s lead and reply “yes, a nature geek” before disappearing into the woods leaving any of your day’s dramas in the dust.

Five mental benefits of trail running

  • Elevated endorphins
  • Meditative effect of deeper, controlled breathing
  • Connection with nature
  • Decreased stress and/or anxiety levels
  • Increased self esteem

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