How a pair of trail running shoes changed my life
By Portia on 21st December 2022 Reflections
I went for my first run of the year on the 19th of October 2022, the same day as my first psychology appointment as I embark on the journey of healing PTSD. I used to run at high school and uni to manage stress, so I decided this was the nudge I needed to get into running and face life’s challenges front-on.
To say I was disheartened by my first weeks of running is an understatement. My plan read: run 1 minute, walk 1 minute, repeat x 20; and it was hard. I felt a million miles from my goals of tackling peaks and traversing ridgelines and was grossly aware that I had not maintained the athleticism of my high-school years.
With plenty of encouragement from Rob, I stuck with my plan, and after just three months of consistent training and the right gear, I’ve built up to bigger missions, some of my favourites being Ben Lomond, Big Hill and Sawpit Gully. I’ve even set the ambitious goal to join a Wild Things muster to run the Milford in a day on the 31st of March.
Over the past three months, I have incorporated trail-running habits into my lifestyle: tweaking my nutrition, sleep and recovery to support an increasingly demanding running plan. I noticed something interesting… A trail-running lifestyle was giving me exactly what modern psychology and neuroscience suggested to improve my mental health and resilience. I was getting outside in the sunshine, unlocking the neurological benefits of dopamine and endorphins regulation, and gaining more trust in myself through consistent training.
Turns out I wasn’t the first person to experience this.
In fact, a 2020 study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research in Public Health found that trail runners experienced better sleep, mood and well-being metrics than their non-trail-running counterparts; and the higher the trail time, the greater the benefits they experienced.
Here is how a pair of trail running shoes changed my life, and why trail running will remain a staple component in my journey of healing:
The grounding benefits of nature
I always say being in the mountains makes my problems seem smaller. Whether you are jogging to the mailbox or up Mount Ruapehu, spending time outdoors has been cited as a key factor in relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety. The American Psychology Association reporting in 2014 that time outdoors was linked to a host of benefits, including improved attention, lower stress, and better mood.
Natural pain tolerance and endorphins
Every runner who has experienced runner high knows the feeling a rush of endorphins releases. These endorphins bind to the same pain receptors in your brain as many common pain medications and explain why regular runners have higher pain tolerance than non-runners. However, unlike morphine, the body’s endorphins are entirely natural and don’t create any addiction or dependence.
Motivation: improved memory and learning
Dopamine is a key hormone for movement, motivation and learning. It is the hormone released when we think “that felt good, I want to do it again”. Sound familiar?
Unfortunately, our fast-paced 21st-century lifestyle encourages dopamine depletion, a result of the instant gratification (aka surges of dopamine) provided by social media use and other addictive vices. This can result in reduced motivation and mood over time.
Experts understand that regular running raises and regulates dopamine activity in the brain, keeping you more motivated to run again, and also improving your memory and ability to learn in all other aspects of life.
Serotonin and an instant mood-boost
Serotonin is a feel-good hormone closely linked with mental well-being, with serotonin-regulating medications a common treatment for depression and anxiety. You guessed it: serotonin is naturally produced when you run. Experts suggest you should run at a moderate to high intensity for at least 30 minutes to unlock the mood-boosting benefits of serotonin production.
Stress management and brain-derived neurotrophic factor
We experience stress when our bodies overproduce cortisol, the stress hormone. Harvard Health published that running can regulate cortisol levels, noting an experience of calm which can be felt after a run. Further, new research suggests a potential 60% increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) could be experienced by runners, which is a key component in preventing cortisol from becoming neurotoxic over time. Higher levels of BDNF instead are correlated with cell protection, which explains how regular running can improve your mood and motivation, even when you take a day off.
Vitamin D (aka the sunshine vitamin) is the feel-good vitamin that is naturally produced when your skin is exposed to the sun. Low levels of vitamin D are linked to depression in adults, and Healthline suggests spending intentional time outdoors could combat low mood. I have found this especially beneficial with a quick lunchtime run under the sun. Keeping your sunnies off can be extra beneficial, as your eyes absorb light for vitamin D production; just remember to slip, slop, slap and wrap and stay sun smart (get 20% off Skinnies with our VIP reward)
Building habits for self-esteem and trust
Honouring your commitments to yourself and achieving goals is one of the most effective ways to improve your self-esteem and trust in yourself. Each time you set a goal and achieve it, you demonstrate to yourself that you CAN make a positive change in your life. As a beginner trail runner, I've found the key to commitment for me is to make running as enjoyable as possible. My Salomon Ultra Glides play a huge part here, as does stocking up on my favourite snacks for the mission and treating myself to a takeaway meal after a long run on the weekend.
Sleep and recovery
Not only is sleep essential for your mental health and your training recovery, but consistent running has been shown to help you set a normal sleep schedule and regulate sleep hormones. The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine released findings that anaerobic exercise three days a week was correlated with an additional 45 minutes of sleep each week, over a 16-week period. Consistent training schedules and early-morning rising can be especially beneficial, as being outdoors in the morning light regulates melatonin, the sleep hormone.
Three months into trail running and therapy, I am beginning to experience these benefits myself. I now look forward to my run every second day, and I can feel the effect on my mood if I skip a run. New Zealand is facing an ongoing mental health crisis, and running helps. I want to shout this from the mountains to anyone who will listen.
If you’re keen to unlock these benefits yourself and don’t know where to start, Sophie has written an epic blog on introduction tips for beginner trail runners which equips you with the intel on gear, nutrition and training that you need to get started.
I’ll leave you with a few key tips for beginner trail running for mental health:
- Be kind to yourself while you start something new. It will be hard at first, but it will be worth it. Self-criticism reduces dopamine and serotonin production, so stay kind!
- Stay consistent. Respect your body’s rest requirements, but keep on training. Everything gets easier with time and consistency; enjoy the process.
- Get an accountability buddy. Like most of life’s challenges, getting into trail running is better with a buddy to ride the highs and lows. Bring a friend with you on your journey, and check out the Wild Things community on Facebook to find local community meet-ups near you.
- Get the gear you need. Do not underestimate the motivational benefits of having good quality, reliable gear. Check out Wild Things VIP membership which saves you heaps with New Zealand’s best outdoors brands.
- Stay safe. You have nothing to prove, make sure you stay within your limits and look after yourself out there. Get a PLB if you are running alone, and always have a map. Check out the Wild Things Trail Directory with VIP for unbridled access to GPX maps of NZ’s trails.
Helpline services are available right now in New Zealand that offer support, information and help for you and your parents, family, whānau and friends.
- Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
- Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP).
- Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email email@example.com or online chat.
- Samaritans – 0800 726 666
- Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).
- Healthline – 0800 611 116