My mom has this thing where, when she sees a cardinal flying by or perched in a tree, she says it's a family member that has passed away, checking in on us. Every now and then, when I'm running outside on a trail, one will swoop down in front of me and no matter how tired I am, it invigorates me and makes me smile. Sometimes I even run a little more because of it.
There are countless other times I have these little moments when running outside. So, what is it about running in nature that feels so good?
There are many well-known facts about why running is good for you. From heart health to muscle tone, these benefits are easily found in abundance in magazines and blog posts. Chances are, you're already aware of them. My goal in this article is to cover some of the lesser-known, yet really cool benefits of running in nature.
In my opinion, the physiological benefits of running outside are often the most overlooked but interesting aspect of hitting your local trails. Let's explore!
Physiological benefits of running outside
1. Manage stress
While it often has a bad reputation for obvious reasons, stress actually plays a vital role in helping us grow and evolve as humans and also helps us to accomplish the goals and responsibilities we set for ourselves, as long as we don't, metaphorically speaking, overflow the cup. Chronic stress, or too much stress, is bad for us, but voluntary, manageable stress has actually been found to have quick and lasting effects, both mentally and physically.
According to research from UC Berkeley, "Manageable stress increases alertness and performance. And by encouraging the growth of stem cells that become brain cells, stress improves memory. The increase in stem cells and neuron generation makes sense from an adaptive point of view."
So, what does this have to do with running outside? First, running, in general, is voluntary stress for both the mind and body. The more we get out for our runs, the more we work to increase our strength, stamina, discipline, and stress response. Running outside gives us added variability and keeps us mentally strong and adaptable to our environment. Ever trained for a race in the spring and then come race day it's 80 degrees and humid? It's not fun for anyone, and rarely will you hear of someone running their personal best in such conditions. Choosing to run in weather that is less than ideal keeps us mentally and physically limber to these changes in the environment. Next time it's 45 degrees and raining, or on the other hand, 80-plus degrees and sunny, tap your motivation muscle and get out the door. (Just remember to gear up appropriately and stay hydrated!)
I can personally attest to this as the winter, more so than the heat of the summer, is when I find it most difficult to lace up and get out the door. I can say with certainty, though, that 100% of the time I get my run in, I'm glad I did it. I feel better, and I'm better for it.
2. Enjoy moments of awe
Much like the sighting of a cardinal, there are many things we experience when running outside that make us feel good. Flowers blooming along a trail, a misty waterfall (if you're lucky enough to live in an area with waterfalls!), a beautiful bird swooping down, a big buck standing up ahead on the trail.
This idea can be referred to as awe. Awe is often reserved for big moments like seeing a huge double rainbow across the sky or looking at the Grand Canyon for the first time. Awe can also be experienced through what I'll refer to as "micro-moments," and there are many opportunities for these moments while out on a run in nature. These moments are also scientifically beneficial to humans.
"Even brief experiences of awe yield a host of benefits including an expanded sense of time and enhanced feelings of generosity, well-being, and humility," according to a study from UC San Francisco. Additional research from UC Berkeley found that regularly experiencing awe can likely help with inflammation levels (something many of us runners can benefit from).
Physical health benefits of running outside
3. Soak up some vitamin D
Vitamin D is one of our body's most critical nutrient needs, helping us in a multitude of ways from bone density to immune health. Despite this fact, roughly 42% of Americans are vitamin D deficient, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
One of the best ways to get your vitamin D levels up is direct sunlight absorbed through your skin. What better way to do so than on a run on your local trails while breathing in the fresh air? Next time you're out running and the sun is shining, just think of nature giving you a metaphorical IV drip of a life-sustaining nutrient. Pretty cool, huh?
4. Enhance your overall fitness
In almost any system on earth, whether the human body, society, or your backyard garden, diversity creates more resilience and strength. Running outside offers more diversity of terrain and stimulus from jumping over cracks and puddles, turning the corner, running up and down hills or stairs, avoiding roots in the trail, and more. In turn, more is demanded from your body relative to running on a treadmill, paved road, or a track.
For example, your core is more engaged when you're turning a corner or a trail switchback, your quads are more engaged when you're running downhill, and your calves are more engaged when jumping over a curb or running uphill. Running on a treadmill (while still a great physical workout) limits the number of muscles you engage relative to running outside. The stronger your entire body is, the more resilient and more efficient it becomes. In addition, the more you bound down the trail avoiding roots or rocks, the more you develop a better sense of balance.
5. Improve your knee and back health
This one, I know, can be difficult to believe. Many of us runners have likely been told, "Your knees are going to be shot by the time you're 50!" Yet a study from The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery comparing 675 runners concluded that the arthritis rate of marathon runners was well below that of the average American. When running on trails outside, the softer surface is more gentle on your knees, hips, and back than concrete or a treadmill.
6. Increase your lifespan
A 2018 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that running participation is associated with 27%, 30%, and 23% lower risk of all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality, respectively, compared with no running. That's quite a big difference and a seriously good reason to get outside every week.
Mental health benefits of running outside
7. Decrease depression
Simply put, running helps combat depression. This probably doesn't come as a surprise to most, as I think any runner reading this would agree that running helps to keep your stress and anxiety balanced and ward off depression. Running outside adds another layer of mental health to the equation. When running outside, you're breathing in fresh air, running as the sun is rising or setting, maybe feeling the wind at your back or the chill of an early morning.
We, as humans, have evolved over a long time in a symbiotic relationship with nature. It likely just feels, well, "natural" and refreshing to most. Running outside allows you to explore new areas and new trails and see, hear, smell, and feel new things. You're likely passing by people and locking eyes, maybe even smiling. That moment with other people, especially while in nature, has much deeper-reaching mental and physical benefits than one likely realizes.
8. Take a break from technostress
Last, but certainly not least, we all need a break from work, social media, and screen time. More and more studies are coming out that prove the negative mental, physical, and emotional health effects of too much screen time. In one study, spending too much time staring at your phone or computer was found to have a multitude of negative health impacts, including ADHD, depression, lack of sleep, and anxiety. If setting your phone down for an hour and breathing in fresh air isn't quite enough, lacing up your favorite trail shoes, moving your body through the woods in nature, and working up a sweat can certainly help melt away the stress of the day.
Reconnect with nature
I might be biased, but I can confidently say that almost anyone will enjoy running outside. Generally speaking, we as humans do not get nearly enough time outside as we used to. From time spent at work, commuting in a car, sleeping indoors, or watching Netflix, we're not as connected with nature as we were not so long ago. Lacing up and getting out the door to feel the sun on your skin, to seek out those moments of awe, to feel a sense of accomplishment from doing a full trail loop around the lake, to simply breathe in some fresh air — there's nothing quite like it.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.