Whatever kind of runner you are, you’ve probably been told that you are crazy. And while in some sense that may be true (I mean, our fashion choices have been known to include hydration vests, crop tops, long socks and short shorts—all at the same time), the reality for many of us is that running is the opposite of crazy; we have found our way to the trails as a palliative to the internal and external chaos of our lives. Make fun all you want, we say, because we know that running is our magical elixir that soothes and smoothes the rough edges in our minds—and it could be that trail running with friends could be the most magical of all. Of course, any time I start talking in magic-speak, I immediately want to know if there is a scientific explanation as well. How does this little practice of running on the trails, which we only do some of the time, help so many of us to feel better so much more of the time; and more than that, why have we pledged allegiance to this tribe?
There is, of course, a host of literature to support why running might do this for us. For starters, exercise of any kind unleashes a host of happy chemicals in our brains. Our bodies are made to move, and too often our jobs transform our fluid, flexible , powerful frames into rigid reproductions of the precise shape of our chairs. Our bodies become stiff, and our minds become stuck in patterns that reinforce negative emotions. This marriage of mind and body is clear, and it can either be one of mutual destruction or resurrection. If movement is therapeutic, running is merely one of many ways we can banish the mental demons.
As it turns out, the specific exercise we choose might matter. “Nature therapy” has found its way from obscurity to the main stream. No longer a whispered secret of some ancient Zen tradition, or a fluffy experiment of a new-age retreat, doctors are now prescribing time outdoors to their patients suffering from depression and anxiety. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, recently devoted a podcast episode to the importance of spending at least 90 minutes a week outside. As trail runners, we know the spell nature casts. We have been soothed by the burble of streams, and by the trill of the juncos. We have become attune to the awakening of sounds that usher in a sunrise. We have felt the tickle of a cool autumn breeze, and the gentle warming of the cresting sun. We have been awed into silence by the vast expanse of a mountain range towering above us or spreading beyond us in all directions. We understand the quiet, and the necessity to feel small, to feel our egos dissolve, and with it, the chaos in our minds. Trail running is movement therapy and nature therapy entwined.
Intriguingly, Lost Connections (Johann Hari, 2017), a raw new look at how we have defined and treated depression and anxiety—and perhaps gotten it horrifically wrong—offers another reason that trail running—particularly with friends—can be transformative. Hari approaches the topic of depression and anxiety not as a psychologist but as a sociologist, and by looking at how different cultures around the world define and treat depression and anxiety, establishes 9 (for now) causes of depression, 7 of which are a form of disconnection. Not surprisingly, if “disconnection” is the cause, then “reconnection” is the cure. When I read Lost Connections, I found myself wanting to talk about it with anyone who would listen. Hari’s book resonated with me on so many levels—as a human, as a parent, as a partner, as a teacher, as a trail runner. Maybe I loved reading Hari’s work so much because it affirmed what I felt I already knew. Maybe I loved it because it was like being told this thing that I do, which many people see as crazy or obsessive or too time-consuming or all-consuming or selfish, is actually a profound model of self-care that allows me to be the best version of my self, and can help others as well—like learning that ice cream is as good for you as spinach.
Disconnection from others is one “disconnection” that Hari names as a major culprit for inciting and reinforcing depression and anxiety. It doesn’t take a new book for us to know that humans are social creatures, and that as such, positive social interactions can increase happiness.
We know what it feels like when we find our people, our tribe; and we know what it feels like when that tribe is absent. As Hari aptly observes, through our growing tendency towards virtual worlds and solitary spaces, “We have dismantled our tribes…and are puzzled by our sadness.”
Obviously, some social interactions forge deeper connections than others, and have greater power to fuse the “disconnection”. This is not meant to be any sort of treatise against social media (I am completely aware that if you are reading this, I have social media to thank!), but here is what I have found in my personal experience (which may of course not be any one else’s experience): the more time I spend scrolling through the highlight reel on Instagram, or the training logs on Strava, the more I sink into the world of comparison. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel happy for my friends and “Instafriends” as they go on epic adventures, scale mountains, and snag crowns. I do. But I also feel that I am not. I start to lose my appreciation for where I am, what I have, and what I can do. I might feel sorry for myself that I “have to work”. Even while I celebrate others, the virtual world can also be incredibly effective at erasing gratitude.
On the contrary, when I run and adventure with friends, I never feel a shortage of gratitude. It seeps with sweat and joy from every pore. The comparison demons vanish. Negative self-talk goes silent. Even when we suffer, the suffering quickly becomes woven into our tribal lore through stories shared over laughs and beer after the suffering ends.
Through our stories, we forge our tribal bonds. We are a tribe that values the natural wonders around us and the natural wonders within each of us. We are a tribe that believes that pushing our physical limits spurs growth in all areas of our lives. We are a tribe where, much like a group of new parents, it is customary to talk of poop and feeding schedules. We are a tribe of diverse dogmas and shared passions. We are a tribe whose code is etched over miles and dirt and time together.
That together-time is the third magical ingredient in the trail running elixir of happiness, yet it is the first one that I will ignore when I get busy teaching or parenting (or Netflixing). Without friends—without real time with my tribe—I still have a pretty good cocktail. I will still run the miles; I will still get my “nature fix”, but I will feel the absence, and that absence could very likely be the difference between contentment and joy; between “fine” and A-FREAKIN-MAZING.
Who knows what this means about the transformative power trail running might have? I have found that I feel better when I run, even better when I run on trails, and even better when I share those trails with friends. Johann Hari’s book, like sifting sand to expose the larger gems within the finer grains, pulled these 3 elements into relief and consolidated them into something that appears meaningful for my overall happiness…and maybe, since these elements are likely central to your own cosmos, you will find this filtration, if not illuminating, at least validating, and can see it as an invitation to get out on those trails with your tribe.
Stephanie Imig is a trail runner and teacher living in Portland, OR. Learn more about Stephanie Imig here.