How Trail Running Makes You Happier, Healthier, and Smarter

A Q&A with author Sarah Lavender Smith

In the first chapter of The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras, author Sarah Lavender Smith contrasts navigating busy sidewalks in an Oakland, California, neighborhood with running along peaceful, rolling singletrack in nearby Redwood Regional Park. The beauty and challenge she found under those soaring redwood trees motivated Lavender Smith to transition from a road racer to a trail runner. Her book walks you through how to take the leap, too.

I caught up with Sarah, now a professional coach and top finisher at ultra-distance races, a few days before she ran a 50K on Mount Diablo, with a full pack, as a training run for the Mauna to Mauna Ultra, a seven-day, 155-mile stage race in Hawaii. We chatted about how to adopt a “trail runner’s mindset” (see Chapter One) and what makes this quirky, close-knit, growing community so special.

Your book’s intro mentions how Scott Jurek hung out at the Mt. Diablo Marathon/50-mile as just another runner. Similarly, after my first 50K, I loved how the front-of-the-pack folks stuck around, ate hamburgers, and cheered for everyone who crossed the line. Runners at road races are a pretty friendly bunch, yet I don’t see that type of community atmosphere. Why the difference?

Number one is the smaller size. Thousands of road racers line up for big-city marathons and half marathons. And when there are so many people at a road race, that crowd ironically makes it less personal. Probably the biggest and best-known 50K is Way Too Cool in northern California. It numbers up to 800. Some detractors call it “Way Too Crowded.”

The second difference is the challenge of the course. The terrain, the elements, the weather. All of that builds camaraderie. Every participant, no matter their speed, has to traverse gooey mud, tricky stream crossings, or intense climbs. So there’s this feeling of “we’re all in this together.”

Third, the pace in a trail race is almost always slower than in a road race, especially at ultra distances. If you end up running with someone in a trail race, there’s a good chance you’re going to talk to that person. That conversation leads to friendship.

The final thing is the aid stations at trail races are much friendlier and team-oriented. They provide more stuff, and they provide aid—helping runners refill their hydration packs, restocking food—so it’s much more of a stop than a quick run through like in a road race. That adds to a feeling of community support that you don’t get in road races.

Why do you think more experienced road racers are crossing over to the trail?

In the upper echelons of road racing, from 5Ks to marathons, you start to hit diminishing returns. You’re working so hard just to shave a minute or less off your time. That’s really stressful, and the training can start to feel monotonous or repetitive. Because of that, a lot of people discover trail racing. It’s more interesting from a tactical perspective. It demands more technique in terms of being as efficient as possible on rocky, rooted, steep terrain.

In ultra distances, there’s the added challenge of properly pacing and refueling over longer distances. It becomes more strategic, which makes for more adventure and intrigue.

And with this, do trail races in 2017 still have that warm fuzzy vibe that you experienced on Mt. Diablo in 2005?

It really depends on the event and the race director. For the most part, ultra distances do. There’s a growing number of trail races in the 5K to half marathon distance that have more of a road race expectation and vibe. That’s where it’s not quite as old school, but it’s a great way to introduce more runners to the trails.

I was in Utah recently for what was a pretty big event [Zion 100-Mile, pacing a friend]. Everyone was so welcoming, and it very much had that warm fuzzy vibe at the aid station, with groups of runners on the trail, and with the crews waiting by the side of the road.

How hard is it, really, to move up from shorter trail races to ultras?

The transition from road to trail is a major transition, and it takes a different mindset and different preparation to stay safe. Graduating in distance is not that different from road to trail until you get past the 50K mark. If you can finish a trail marathon, I bet you can finish a 50K.

But there’s a huge difference between a trail marathon and a road marathon. So if you’re a road marathoner and you finish in the three-and-a-half hour range, you better get ready for a tough trail marathon to take you five-and-a-half hours. Be prepared to be on your feet longer and navigate hills, run up rocky dirt trails, refuel and rehydrate, and deal with the weather.

Sarah Lavender Smith training in CO | Photo: Howie Stern

You mention in your book that you think trail running in particular “cultivates character traits linked to happiness and success, such as patience, flexibility, risk-taking, facing one’s fears, resiliency, and grit.” One could argue that even running on roads develops these traits through a willingness to set and achieve ambitious-but-realistic goals and push our boundaries. Why is trail better?

Trail running and racing, especially at ultra distances, is incredibly unpredictable. You can have your heart set on running the Boston Marathon of your dreams and as long as you study the weather reports, you pretty much know what those 26.2 miles are going to be like. It’s all extremely precise. There is so little precision in a trail race. You really don’t know what portions of trail will be like, and how they’ll be affected by the weather… At Zion, we had horrible dust storms. We had mud, we had to bushwack through prickly brush. All of these challenging things crop up.

When I think back to the marathons and road races I’ve done, I have never been taken out of my comfort zone beyond feeling the discomfort of pushing as hard as possible. I never felt like I needed courage to overcome something scary or surprising. In a trail race, I’ve encountered electrical storms above treeline; I’ve had to navigate a washed-out trail with a drop off; I’ve had to use my hands to climb over boulders.

I love the studies you mention that link spending time in nature to increased happiness. Would you say trail running can counteract the stress felt from all the time we spend glued to our phones and computers?

If—and only if—we put our phones away when we run. I see way too many people distracted: They run with their phone in their hand and check messages. I do support trail running with a phone for increased safety, but I really urge runners to put their phone in a hydration vest or a pocket, and maybe keep it on airplane mode to save batteries, so that you’re not distracted.

Trail running is really an active form of mindful meditation. Put your phone away, unplug and be highly aware of your present surroundings.

In road running, the ratio is pretty evenly split between men and women. In trail running, the numbers skew more toward men: about 70/30 for ultras, and 60/40 for sub-ultra distances. What advice would you give to a woman who likes being in nature but is either hesitant to try trail running (due to safety issues, fear of injury, etc.) or is hesitant to move up in distance?

In terms of safety [See Chapter 6], my advice applies to both genders: Realize the threat to your safety most likely is not a malicious boogy man. The threat to your safety is the weather—being unprepared for extreme hot or cold—and hurting yourself on the trail by natural obstacles… tripping and falling or hitting your head on a low-lying branch.

The best thing you can do is be prepared for extreme weather, be aware, and pay attention. We get into trouble trail running when we space out. That tends to happen when we’re wearing earbuds in both ears to listen to music or a podcast.

I challenge runners to run without music. Just be alone in nature and get used to being unplugged. There can be a fast mountain biker coming down the trail, a dog, a rattlesnake. You have to have your ears as well as your eyes.

I believe you’re less likely to be victimized if you emanate confidence. One way to gain confidence is to take first aid and self-defense courses. I’ve taken wilderness first aid and feel so empowered having that knowledge, and by having a basic first aid kid in my hydration pack. I may not need first aid, but I like knowing I can help someone else that’s having trouble.

Since your shift from road to trail, do you miss chasing fast times?

I don’t miss it because I still do it. I still chase fast times, it just depends on how you define “fast.” I define fast as pushing the upper limits of my effort level. Regardless of distance and terrain, I still have a time goal and push as hard as I can toward the end.

Last Thanksgiving, I ran at what felt like a sprint in a hilly road 5K. It felt totally stressful, and it was over in 20 minutes! I’d rather enjoy five hours on the trail and push hard to the finish.