Why I Like to Bathe In The Forest
When our running club first started, we knew we wanted to run off road. It was easier on the joints and far more interesting than staring at tarmac roads and ever-changing traffic lights. Our four founding coaches also preferred to be in the countryside, blessed as we are with an abundance of glorious views and exciting terrains on our doorstep. Our first swathe of newbie runners agreed, but for another reason. Many were nervous and some were body-conscious, having not worn sports clothing for several years and experiencing a lack of confidence that often comes with returning to exercise after having children. So running off-road suited our clients too - away from the stares of passer-by’s, hidden in the forest with a feeling of anonymity and freedom.
In terms of coaching we had to be careful - running on trails increases the likelihood of injuries relating to trips and falls, and we have had our fair share of cuts, grazes, stings and sprains. With that comes the issue of reduced accessibility for cars and emergency vehicles should an injury occur, so we always made sure we had working mobile phones, were running (mostly!) in places with mobile reception and either knew where we were or had access to a map! On the flip side, the runners felt the physical benefits of running off-road. Trail running provides greater strength training benefits than road running due to the uneven terrain and different muscles used, including the stabilising muscles in the core. The joints experience less pressure and the impact is spread across a wider range of muscles, so the risk of injury is therefore reduced. It challenges ability, balance and co-ordination, and the uneven ground can also help burn fat faster - between 60 to 90 more calories per hour compared to running on the road.
As our sessions progressed and the weeks turned into months and then years, we began to experience a new feeling that came from running in the beautiful Hampshire countryside. And it wasn’t all physical.
So what exactly is it that running on trails, but particularly running in the forest, brings to the running table?
The Japanese know exactly what it is – and they call it Forest Bathing. Since 2004 the Japanese government has funded $4 million into Shinrin-yoku and now have over 48 officially designated Forest Therapy trails. Over the last few decades research has increased into the benefits of green spaces on our bodies and brains, but now scientists in Japan are actually measuring what is happening to our brain cells and neurons, using hormone analysis and brain-imaging technology.
Since 2004, Chiba University, just outside of Tokyo, have taken hundreds of subjects into the forests. They found that “…leisurely forest walks, compared with urban walks, yield a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. On subjective tests, study participants also report better moods and lower anxiety.”
Other countries are now following suit, with organisations now popping up to offer nature retreats and forest bathing holidays all around the world. And the benefits are considered so significant that the world of medicine has embraced the concept too. Norway’s two largest hospitals have developed ‘Outdoor Care Retreats’ known as friluftssykehuset. The word comes from the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv – the importance of spending time in nature – combined with the word for hospital, sykehus. The idea came as a result of doctors bringing child patients into woods near Oslo University Hospital, but the outdoor spaces were only available and accessible to patients well enough to leave the hospital. The benefits were so enormous that the hospital decided to build bespoke outdoor care retreats integrated into the hospital campus, but secluded in a forest environment.
The concept isn’t new. Since the beginning of time humans have been closely connected to nature, living off the land and often using green spaces as a natural extension of our homes. The Victorians flocked to the mountains and mineral spas in search of good health but now in our Western modern culture, we have become evermore disconnected from our natural environment and researchers have gone far enough to call this phenomenon ‘Nature deficit disorder’.
It doesn’t take much time to feel the benefits. In her book ‘The Nature Fix’, Florence Williams says that within the first five minutes of being outside - be it on a bike ride to work, a walk around the block, or an adventurous hike in the woods - we experience immediate benefits. Our heart rate slows, our muscles start to relax, and regions of the brain involved in decision-making and emotions begins to quiet down.
So it’s hardly surprising that when we run in natural environments, we soak up all these benefits and more, immersing ourselves in nature, heightening all our senses and breathing in the healing power of what is literally the ‘great outdoors’.
Our runners regularly report a sensation of calm, inner peace, contentment and gratitude, feeling thankful for being outside, for the picturesque surroundings, and for being able to do something that many people cannot - for being able to run.
Obviously, we all still have the bad run, pick up the occasional injury, and sometimes wonder why we put our trainers on in the first place. But it is so easy to get our nature fix, to just get outside and find a green space, and then reap the rewards that being in a natural environment can bring.
Running off-road ticks so many boxes, for so many different people and for so many reasons.
I’m biased towards trail running, but really, can you blame me?!
“First we change the environment,
thereafter the environment changes us.”