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Are Trail Runners Happier?

Posted by on Feb 20, 2012 | 11 Comments

By Kate Kift

This isn’t an article about whether “trail runners” are better than “road runners”.  I have long learnt that this is a topic more controversial than religion or politics – I admit that my title is a little misleading.  I am more interested in the theory relating to depression and nature; or to be fair, the theory that those who have more access to nature suffer less depression and if so, why?  So, okay, perhaps I am hinting that although “trail runners” aren’t better than “road runners”, they maybe happier.

My interest in this all started a while back.  I was sat in a coffee shop – my broken knee propped up.  I started talking to a gentleman about trail running; that was how I broke my knee after all.  It turns out my new conversation companion had spent most of his working life organising medical conferences – so although not medically trained, he had a broad knowledge of medical theories and idea’s.  He cited an article he read a number of years ago about how the fractals (shapes) in nature affect the brain.  He told me that when we are surrounded by nature, pleasure chemicals are released and we in effect become happier.  I found this interesting because I am not a fan of road running; it just doesn’t give me the same “high” as running a trail.  I began wondering if my body craved the shapes of nature to make me happy.  It wasn’t so much the run, but the run in nature I needed.

The more I looked into this, the more I realised that the idea of using “nature” to help depression and mental illness is actually a valid theory and one being substantiated by a number of studies.

A Dutch study showed that those living within a 1Km of a park or wooded area suffered less depression and anxiety.  A report on peoples’ perception of their mental health, revealed that closeness to green space reduced the health inequalities between the rich and the poor.  When correlating lists of 25 health conditions and a persons’ postal code it was found that those in urban areas suffered more health issues with the highest correlations happening for mental health disorders.

A Chicago based study from the University of Illinois found that people who had access to nature suffered less acts of aggression and violence than those that had NO access to green space.  Another study, again based in Chicago, found a decrease in the crime rate if residents in housing projects had access to green space.

A UK study showed that just five minutes of being in nature is enough to increase your mood and self-esteem.  The young and the mentally ill benefit the most, but everyone benefits from a quick walk around their local park.  If the park has a lake or running water in it then that’s even better – the “good mood” chemicals are increased.

It’s not just the fractals of nature that are important, but also the dirt.  A study showed that exposure to “soil friendly” microbes, released chemicals called cytokines into the body and this activated the relay nerves going from the body to the brain.  This in turn released Serotonin, a chemical long associated with happiness.  A lack of serotonin is believed to cause depression.  Those anti-depressants that are handed out at the Doctors’ Office are all designed to affect Serotonin.  It appears that getting dirty on your trail run not only improves your immune system, but also your mood.

Combined with the documented mental health benefits of exercise and sun exposure it’s easy to see why getting out to the local park for half an hour is so beneficial to feeling happy.

The theory that going out into a green space is so fundamental to our mental wellbeing, means that a number of Mental Health organisations across the world are now making “Green Therapy” or “EcoTherapy” their top priority.

“Green Therapy” takes people with mental health issues outdoors.  They grow plants, they take walks, they get muddy and they immerse themselves in nature.  In fact the “Association for Natural Psychology” actually believes that “Green Therapy” can help stabilise symptoms of depression, OCD, ADHD and Bipolar Disorders.  In Europe there has been the development of “Care Farms”, where EcoTherapy is practiced.  People with mental health issues actually work on a farm.  They learn new skills as well as in some cases earn a wage, which in turn increases their self-esteem.

The lack of green space in Urban area’s, has experts defining a new condition called “Nature Deficit Disorder”. Without the green spaces we become anxious and sick.

This was fascinating to me, as I found a big change in my son D, who has an Autistic Spectrum Disorder.  During the brief summer we had here, I would take him for a walk of up to 90 minutes on the local forest trails.  During this period, the anxiety he had been experiencing due to the summer vacation began to lessen.  By the time the summer vacation was over the erratic behaviour we had exhibited at the beginning of the summer had reduced.  Was this due to the natural fractals, the extra sunlight, or just the ability to run around? Who knows? Probably all three, but the ability to get out and walk may have been reduced if we were in a more urban environment.

The Mind report on “EcoTherapy” cites that compared to “retail therapy”, “Green Therapy” is drastically more efficient at relieving stress and anxiety.  A stark reminder that going primal and heading back into the forest may be more beneficial on our wallets as well as our mental health.

So going back to my earlier theory that Trail runners are a lot happier than their road running counterparts.  I think it’s only a small percentage of people that don’t have access to any green space.  Even in the built up cities, I would think most people live within a few miles of some green space.  There is nothing to say that the “Urban road runners” out there can’t get to a green space and chill out for a few minutes.  The UK report states only 5 minutes a day in a green area is required to boost mood.  I think there isn’t any reason why anyone can’t get out there and go green.  It has to be better than hitting the little white pills and the shopping malls right?


Sources:, “Go Green to beat the Blues” 13 May 2007.

USA Today, “Being near nature improves physical and mental health”. 15 October 2009

LiveScience, “5 minutes with nature can boost mental health”. 02 May 2010

LiveScience, “Depressed? GO play in the Dirt”. 11 April 2007

Best health Magazine, “What is Nature Deficit Disorder?”. Summer 2010

Association for Natural Psychology

University of Delaware.  “Human Benefits of Green Spaces”. Nov 2008
Marilyn Simpson-Johnson, LMSW. “Impact of Urban Forestry Development on Domestic Violence”
University of Illinois, “The Power of Trees”, Winter 1999.


Check out Kate’s awesome blog here:

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  1. Nature and Your Health « Ming Dinh Homeopathy
    March 2, 2012

    […] chemicals are released and we in effect become happier.”  There is a very informative post here about the benefits of taking your exercise in the woods or a park. You may already know that being […]

  2. Daniel
    February 22, 2012

    Hi Kate, an enlightening article you’ve produced there.

    I’m in agreement with Rob Y, when I run I seek solace, this could be in the city centre first thing in the morning or late afternoon on a trail.

    Although given the choice I prefer to be with nature for the reasons that you mention.

  3. Kev
    February 21, 2012

    Having autism myself, i learned that walking around outside for at least an hour everyday makes a big difference in how i feel. I live in rural iowa so even though i’m on pavement, where i walk goes right by a couple of farms with lots of green and lots of open space. In the summer i noticed barefoot walking made it even better. This year i hope to get up around 3 miles a day barefoot and stick to my invisible shoes as much as possible.

  4. Rob Y
    February 21, 2012

    I don’t think the surface matters so much as the feeling of tranquility and peace imparted on one from the surroundings. I’ve had similar feeling both from a solo trail run through the woods and running along the pavement and concrete early in the morning in the city while the city was still asleep. I even get a kick out of running around lonely, largely unpopulated industrial parks. I think it’s the feeling of being alone; away from crowds that does it for me and that can happen just about anywhere given the right conditions, time of day, etc… Nothing to do with surface. Though given the choice I’d choose trails everyday.

  5. Jeff Gallup
    February 20, 2012

    Awesome… thank you for providing the research behind my reasons for driving 30 min each way at 430 in the morning to run a trail, when I could go out the door and run the road. I am absolutely more happy on the trail, and now I know why!

  6. Matt M
    February 20, 2012

    A great and well-researched article! It seems the main point is simply to be in nature, but when adding in “runners high,” trail runners really can’t lose. I’m training for a half-marathon (road) and really hate all the pavement running, but plan to get on trails as soon as the ice melts, because my trail running last fall made me feel so much better…and much less bored. In most cases, the drive to find trails is totally worth it.

  7. matthew
    February 20, 2012

    I have felt a difference in my mood and general willingness to get things done after I have been to the park with my daughter.

    Not to scare anyone but I wonder if the correlation continues with suicide rates. For a long time I have been wondering why some countries with access to everything they need to survive and endless choices of fluff have incredibly high rates of suicide compared to those who barely get by in shacks and may not even know where their next meal is.

    Return to nature-it almost sounds like a fairy tail.

  8. Franklin Chen
    February 20, 2012

    I live in the city (Pittsburgh) but just a five minute jog from the entrance of a nice big park (Frick Park). I get far, far less house for living where I do, but the benefits are immense. I can barely imagine life without such easy access to nature (and here in western PA, it is also easy to drive an hour or two out to endless hikes and runs too).

  9. Ash
    February 20, 2012

    Holy crap, I love this post! Who knew there were scientific studies to support my rationale for driving 20 or 30 minutes just to run on trails? Awesome!

  10. Tim
    February 20, 2012

    I think so. I was a cyclist more than runner for many years, and the same discussion often comes up that mountain bikers are a happier lot than roadies. Of course, we didn’t have these studies to go on, so it was more an observational thing. I know I’m happier living in the area I am now with much more greenspace and access to nature (Washington State v. Atlanta, GA), so it tracks that the runner studies make sense.

  11. Erik
    February 20, 2012

    Nice article Kate.

    I love being out in nature. Unfortunately, I live right in the middle of the Twin Cities right now. So I often drive five minutes to a nearby lake or the Mississippi River. It’s not really ‘trail’ running, but it sure makes me feel good. Just bought a used jogging stroller so I can take one of my kids with me as soon as it warms up.