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The Benefits of Trail Running

Written by: Jennie Johnson, Wetland Restoration Outreach Coordinator

Many people might guess, running is one of the most popular sports in the U.S., and they would be right! According to, running is one of the most popular and practiced sports worldwide. In the United States alone, almost 60 million people participated in running, jogging and trail running in 2017. Walking for fitness drew more than 110 million participants in the U.S. in 2017. Little equipment is required to run and runners across a variety of skill levels use running (and walking) as a way to stay fit, stay healthy, and have fun. Interest in the sport is only growing, for example, participation in 5Ks has increased by 740% between 2000 and 2016. Even when the pandemic hit, many people participated in 5Ks and other races virtually as a way to exercise while still social distancing. But did you know that there are more benefits to running outside on a trail rather than just at the gym?

Exercising outdoors is crucial to human health. While many people know that sunlight exposure helps with Vitamin D levels and can boost the immune system, sunlight is also essential to your mood.

Research shows that exposure to sunlight helps stimulate, balance, and regulate a variety of neurotransmitters. When sunlight enters your eyes, it stimulates the parts of your retina that then cues your brain to produce serotonin. Sunlight is also critical for melatonin production which helps to regulate sleep. In addition to this, according to recent research, skin exposure to sunlight might also play a role in serotonin levels. This connection is drawn, because “normal adults tend to exhibit elevated serotonin levels in the late summer and fall, and reduced serotonin levels in the spring—likely in relationship to available sunlight”.

According to Time magazine, a lot of research is being done right now on the variety of health benefits of sunlight exposure. However, the strongest supporting evidence is the serotonin boost that occurs when people are exposed to natural light, and the fact that higher levels of serotonin correlate with better mood, feelings of satisfaction, and calmness, while lower levels of serotonin link to depression and anxiety. What we do know now is that sunlight has promising health benefits to people, so trail running and outdoor exercise are great ways to incorporate sunlight into your fitness routine.

Another little know feature to trail running, is its benefits to balance coordination and muscle strength. When you run on a flat and even surface, your muscles and joints are exposed to the same action and impact over and over. Trail running (and walking) allows you to experience surface and impact changes that benefit balance and coordination as well as foot, ankle, and core muscle strength. Exercising on a variety of surfaces prevents repetitive impact stress and helps your brain and body respond to a variety of impact sensations and obstacles. Studies show that trail running provides a bigger boost to your brain, muscles and heart than traditional street or gym running.

Finally, one critical benefit to trail running that is only now beginning to be understood, is the correlation between good health and exposure to green spaces. Research is just now coming out from early Covid-19 pandemic times, showing that urban green spaces seemed to provide some form of protection to populations living near them. This has led many researchers to investigate and re-explore past research related to green spaces and health. Walking under forest canopies has been scientifically proven to refresh you! One recent study shows that children’s exposure to outdoor spaces can impact their behavior and mood, especially with what kids were experiencing during the pandemic. Another, very new, University of Illinois study shows that exposure to green spaces, outdoors, and tree-cover can actually impact your lifetime healthcare spending and risk of chronic conditions. This study adds to the growing body of literature that has found living in greener areas is tied to beneficial short- and long-term health outcomes. While we are only beginning to understand the connections between nature and health, we can safely say that there is a positive connection and that exercising outdoors likely has increased benefits from indoor exercise alone.

If you don't already, I encourage everyone to incorporate trail running, as well as hiking and nature walks into their fitness routine.

Access to exercising indoors is essential for when bad weather, wildfire smoke, and busy schedules don't permit outdoor activities. However, everyone should consider the outdoors an essential part of their physical health routine. The Northern Nevada area has some of the best trails in the world! If you are looking for a place to get started, websites like and our parks directory can be helpful. Plus, one of my favorite local books is “Best Easy Day Hikes Reno: A Falcon Guide: by Tracy Salcedo. Happy walking, happy hiking, and happy running!


Meet the Author:

Jennie is a lifelong Reno resident and graduated locally from Hug High School and the University of Nevada, Reno. She holds a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology and has a passion for supporting local businesses and events. After working in Gaming and Marketing for the last 10 years, she is excited to have the opportunity to apply her skills and experience to public service. In her free time, Jennie enjoys hiking, traveling and restaurants. She is an enthusiastic reader and runner that loves hot, sunny days. She is looking forward to supporting Northern Nevada programs and parks and to promoting the Rosewoods Nature Study Area to the community.


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