The importance of trails to my sanity was made crystal clear this summer when I couldn’t run. I had a foot injury that had been nagging me for months. I knew the only way to get better was not to run. I (like many athletes) put this off for a long time because it is a key part of my training for XC skiing, especially in the summer. I knew it would complicate my training schedule, but I also knew that continuing to run on an injury was only going to hurt me further. I even knew that running was a key part of my mental health, but I drastically underestimated the mental toll it took on me not running for 6-8 weeks. It was not until this injury that being out on the trails and their importance to me was made very clear.
In the grand scheme of things not running for 6-8 weeks is an insignificant amount of time, that’s why it took me even more by surprise. I was still able to work out and get moving, I just couldn’t run. I could walk, swim, lift, bike, paddleboard, and even took a few boxing classes. My mood changed, I struggled to get that happy workout feeling from other workouts, I was not as happy in general, I shut myself off from other people, I found it hard to concentrate, the list goes on and on and is generally negative. The freedom of being out on the trails running was not an option, it was as if my daily dose of happiness was taken away. And that usual daily dose of happiness was no longer building up in me and instead it turned into a hole that was getting dug deeper and deeper. Only now, 4-5 months later, do I feel that I’ve filled that hole in completely.
Now I ask myself why? Why did this break from running, specifically running on trails, have such a strong effect on me? Why did getting outside in this specific way affect me so much? What is it about trails, about being out in the woods, that feeds my soul and fuels my happiness? Now each time I get out on the trails running and XC skiing I ask myself these questions and find a deeper appreciation for my ability to be out on these trails.
What I’ve discovered is the therapeutic effect trails have on me. Getting out to trail run or XC ski is like a warm blanket of comfort wrapped around me. I find escape on trails, I find the ability to think clearly, I find answers to questions that have been unanswerable. I need the mental space that trails provide me. The room trails give me to fully breathe. That place could be different for everybody- it could be the gym, hiking, yoga, biking, etc., but for me, trails are my oasis. Trails provide solace, solitude, calmness, clarity, serenity, confidence, motivation, creativity and inspiration. There is no judgment out on the trails, there is only me and my thoughts when I’m on a solo adventure. It is as if I start my workout on the trails and with each forward motion whatever has been weighing me down is shaken off my shoulders. I would be lying if I said it was always a happy experience. There are times when tears are streaming down my face or I am angry, but through my time on the trails, I can let out some emotions or work through stressful situations in my mind and gain clarity.
I know getting out on the trails will make me feel better, even if my workout does not feel great. My body and mind are not always working on the same level, but my mind will benefit regardless of how my body is feeling that day. It clears my mind and realigns my focus. There are days every so often when your body is feeling strong, your mind is peaceful, and you feel as if you could go forever. Those kinds of days feed the mind and soul. It is a feeling of endless possibility and invincibility. Some trails have an extra bonus of incredible scenery but regardless of what you are looking at out on the trails, the mental boost is present. It’s about the trail, the connection to nature, the feeling of having unlimited room to breathe, process, and think.
It’s not as if running or skiing on trails is necessarily easy or relaxing but there is something so gratifying and peaceful about being out in the woods, out “away from it all.” The trails, with a side of sweat, are my therapy and that has never been clearer to me than those weeks when I couldn’t run on them. How I am able to move physically on those trails translates into how I feel mentally.
There is something that running or skiing gives me that other things in my life do not, something I need to thrive as a person. The allure of trails is strong like a magnet drawing me in. The possibilities out in the woods on the trails seem endless and keep me coming back for more.