Seven Ways Trail & Ultrarunning Can Change Your Life

By Crista Tappan - May 12, 2014

Photo Cred: Michelle Evans

In the process of writing my Master's Thesis on the benefits of Trail & Ultrarunning, I learned a few rad things about the sport. Or, I should say, I confirmed much of what I already knew to be true. So, here are a few tidbits, condensed for your enjoyment :)

1. You'll Make The Best Friends You'll Ever Have.
Call me bias, but I think that trail and Ultrarunners are a rare breed of super humans-- capable of some serious levels of debauchery while still doing things that most people would argue is crazy....such as running a hundred miles through Death Valley in the middle of July. Stuff like that.

It takes a special balance of skill, determination, and just a little (or a lotta) bit of stupidity to attempt an Ultra.... but life is too short to hold on to your security blanket / comfort zone / whatever reason you give for why you're not out there and doing something. Some of the best people I have met were through local running groups, side-by-side in the middle of a race (like the one time I got lost and met Trisha Reeves, blogger from the Barefoot Monologues, in the middle of nowhere), or out on the trails (ever traded Cliff Bars on the top of a mountain summit with another runner? It'll create a bond you'll never forget). Most of us will agree that a huge part of this sport are the friendships forged through real blood, sweat and tears. When you push yourself to your own limits with others, chances are you will often go further than you would alone. Having someone encouraging you and sticking by your side during the end of a brutal race is sometimes the difference between a DNF and a DFL. Having someone there to tell you to stand the fuck up when you are sitting in the dirt, dead-set on staying there forever.  I do it for the the ice cold beers straight out of the cooler at the end of a difficult trail run, when you're still caked with dirt and your skin is covered in salt. I do it for the weekends of camping, story-telling, and music-playing that leaves many of us wondering why we still live normal lives. These people are raw. They are real. They are no-bullshit. But they are also humble, beautiful, wild and remind me every day why I do what I do. If you feel like your social group is lackluster and you need some spice in your life....all I can say is go to a weekend campout for an Ultramarathon. It might just change your life forever.

2. Nature is cheaper than therapy.
Although many might not realize it, for thousands of years, nature has been our main source of healing-- from improving our mood to curing illness, we have always had our number one source of life energy right at our fingertips. With the progression of modern living and urban civilization, we have become completely disconnected from nature to the point where it has started to have a negative impact on our health and well-being. New emerging research has begun to explore the various ways in which nature can be used in therapeutic ways. Eco-TherapyAdventure Therapy, and Trail Running Therapy (yes, that's a real thing) have grown in popularity in the last ten years, with notable success in the progress of their clients.  A recent study found that patients in recovery with a window facing the outdoors (where they could see trees, a large front yard and flowers) had significant improvements in their physical and mental health compared to those without a window. This illustrates how simply viewing nature through a window or photograph can act as a powerful restorative agent.  Complete immersion in nature has also been shown to help individuals reach higher levels of personal insight, increase their sense of self and dramatically reduce the cortisol levels in their blood (stress hormone). Take a note from the research and hit the trails! 

3. Endorphins, Serotonin, & Dopamine-- Oh My!
Trail and Ultrarunning literally gives you a natural high that can last for days. Research has found that thirty minutes of exposure to nature has a significant anti-depressant effect for up to 48 hours. Combine that with the extreme physical challenge of running for long distances on a trail, and you've effectively given yourself a trifecta of happiness-inducing chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin and Endorphins!

In his book Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, Ultrarunner Dean Karnazes describes the role that running has in his life: “Some seek the comfort of their therapist's office, other head to the corner pub and dive into a pint, but I chose running as my therapy”. Running is much more effective than any anti-depressant on the market today. 

Photo Cred: Michelle Evans

4. It Builds Emotional Resilience.
Writer and Ultrarunner Vanessa Runs describes in her book, The Summit Seeker, the profound impact that Ultrarunning has had on her life.  “It’s that sense of accomplishment, self-worth, and empowerment that spills over into every other aspect of your life. It makes you hold your head up higher, gives you courage to shed those toxic relationships, inspires you in your career, helps you raise your family better, and motivates you to live healthfully and happily.  That’s why I run Ultras, and why I encourage others to do so”.

Ultramarathons push the human body to its limits and beyond. The process of training and completing an Ultramarathon is a huge feat which many have attempted and failed.  Six-time Ironman endurance champion Mark Allen describes the mental process behind a hard race, “Racing is pain, and that’s why you do it, to challenge yourself and the limits of your physical and mental barriers. You don’t experience that in an armchair watching television”.  Oftentimes, running is a metaphor for life-- you get out in equal amounts of what you put into it. 

In a study looking at first-time marathon finishers, participants reported that they felt the process of training improved their lives in more ways than just achieving a goal. They felt stronger emotionally, had higher levels of self-esteem and because they were able to complete a marathon, they were also able to extend that same concept to other areas of their life, such as in work, their family life and relationships. 

For many, 5Ks and the standard morning run around the neighborhood just doesn't cut it. Overcoming a challenging distance or race provides many runners with a sense of achievement and purpose.  Completing an Ultramarathon is considered a mastery of the body and the mind.  It takes a serious level of training (most of the time), commitment and some serious balls to cross the finish line of an Ultra. Some Ultrarunners have a new means of improving their well-being rather than just setting a goal for a race or wanting the challenge of a longer distance.

5. You'll Get Into The Flow.
Have you ever heard of being "in the zone"?  In research, flow is described as “the state in which people are so intensely involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, and such an experience is so enjoyable that people will carry it out even at a great cost, just for the sheer sake of doing it”.  When in flow a person is completely focused in an activity to the extent of losing awareness of time, the surroundings, and all other things except for the activity itself. One of the nine dimensions of flow, the balance between challenge and skills, is dependent on factors including mental preparation, physical preparation, importance of the competition, and difficultly of the challenge.

Flow has been shown to increase performance in long-distance running.  In one study, runners were able to run faster and more efficiently when they were in flow.  Long-distance runners may be tapping into this process to achieve a runner’s high, a term often describing the experience of flowIn another study investigated runners’ flow during the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Race, runners reported to be highly motivated by one of the dimensions of flow—the balance between perceived challenge and skill.  When the challenge and mastery were in balance, flow was more likely to occur.  This may explain why many runners begin running longer distances: As they become used to certain distances over time, their motivation to push the balance between challenge and skill leads towards a gradual increase in mileage. 

While running, it might be the moment when you finally forget about the running-- it feels like the ground is moving effortlessly beneath your feet and your legs have found their rhythm. Being in nature has been found to promote the experience of flow, along with findings from my research, long-distance running has also been shown to promote the experience of flow. Flow is also connected with improved mood and quality of life. So in a nutshell-- your experiences while running longer distances in nature will surely help you get into flow better than running on a treadmill at the gym. Or sitting on your couch in front of the TV. 

7. It's A Positive Addiction
Let's face it-- most Ultrarunners have been faced with the "You. Are. Absolutely. Crazy." response when telling a non-Ultrarunner about their training or race goals. "I don't even like to drive that far" is the favorite response and slogan that many Ultrarunners use when describing their friends and families response to their training / running / lifestyle. Although it can be both a positive and negative addiction, depending on you approach it (i.e., training through a serious injury), for the most part I'd argue that being addicted to trail and long-distance running is a damn good thing. (Sidenote: If you currently have a serious addiction, running has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety while in recovery). 

Running is an excellent mood-shifter and most runners chase that high. You go into a run feeling one way and come out feeling completely different. Renewed. In a lot of ways, I compare trail running to a car wash-- you go in feeling dirty, jumbled up and off-sorts, and leave feeling clean, refreshed and rejuvenated. Which is funny, because on the outside the opposite is usually true-- you go into a trail fresh and clean, and leave covered in dirt and sweat. 

There are millions of other benefits of Trail and Ultrarunning that didn't make this list, but I'll just say that the Beer Mile, although not distance running or necessarily in nature, is high up on the contenders list for positives things that have come out of this culture!

What are your favorite things about Trail & Ultrarunning?

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  1. Fun and enjoyable read -- thank you. --- three tries now at deciphering the secret code thingies... -- not a robot thingie

  2. Awesome post! Funny how such a lonely sport (at times) can lead to such amazing friendships :)

  3. I loved the comments about 'flow'. Really interesting, thanks

  4. The "Flow," I'm really starting to feel that now, where I feel relaxed and lighter on my feet during trail runs, and even my heart rate during runs has lowered, especially during the climbs. Good stuff...

  5. Fantastic post - I can definitely relate! But I can't see number 6...?

  6. Excellent article. I'm writing an article on "runner's high" for my blog and will be be quoting your article (with citation, of course)

  7. Hello,

    I love your blog. I linked this article with a recent article I wrote regarding runner's high.


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