Trail running builds resilience in women, Douglas College study finds

By Nicole Chiu, Research and Innovation Office   

The need for speed   

In 2018, Selene Lincoln pursued a degree in Therapeutic Recreation at Douglas College. When it came time for her to develop a community-based research project as part of her program, she had the perfect focus: her newfound love for trail running. Selene wanted to look into the gendered differences in building resilience through trail running. 

“It’s important to understand that gender and other social determinants of health impact the way we experience and conceptualize outdoor adventure,” says Selene.  

As an avid runner, clearing trails on a weekly basis, she knew firsthand that missing a trail run often affected her mental and physical well-being. On days when she missed a run, she would feel run-down and stressed. Inspired by her own experiences, Selene decided to explore whether trail running develops and supports resilience. 

In therapeutic recreation, resilience-building is an important factor for many clients. Therapeutic recreation is a rehabilitation process which uses recreation and other leisurely activities to address physical and mental illness or disabling conditions in people.  

Read more: How one Therapeutic Recreation alum finished off her last semester during the pandemic – and landed a job!

Ready, set, go… and interpret the data   

Selene began by sending a survey to local trail running communities. The survey caught the attention of North Vancouver’s Gary Robbins, a celebrity trail runner, who shared it with his social media followers. Soon, responses started pouring in from all over the world, including Germany, Italy, New Zealand and the U.S.  

A total of 121 women and 28 men filled out her survey. Due to the imbalance of survey responses from women and men, the men’s responses were omitted from the study; she decided she would instead dive deeper into the women’s perspective.  

To prove that trail running built resilience, Selene had to show that her data matched the themes set out in a previous study on building resilience through outdoor activities. (“Gender matters: Exploring the process of developing resilience through outdoor adventure.”)  

The study suggested an outdoor activity can be effective in building resilience if it meets specific criteria:  

  • participants spend time in pristine environments   
  • it allows them to have a separation from normal life  
  • it provides social support  
  • the experience is intense and challenging 

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Selene found each of these criteria reflected in her female participants’ responses. First, participants said that while trail running they spent time in natural environments. They mentioned being in forests and that the outdoors was a main motivator for trail running.  

Secondly, trail running gave them a separation from normal life. Participants discussed trail running as something that allowed their minds to wander and took them physically away from their normal routine or challenging emotions.  

Thirdly, being a part of a trail running community provided them with social support. They viewed trail running as a chance for networking, interacting and connecting with others. This community offered participants both support and motivation.  

Lastly, participants discussed the intense, challenging experiences they faced while trail running, and the positive impact on their day-to-day life. Respondents felt a sense of accomplishment and increased confidence after tackling a trail run. While the first few miles of a run were always the hardest, they also knew it wouldn’t last forever. They were able to apply this mindset to challenges in their daily lives. 

Selene says the data clearly shows there is a relationship between trail running and resilience. Moreover, it showed a profound relationship between women and the wilderness.

“The women are articulate about their motivations for trail running. They are rejecting the dominant messaging found in history and media that tend to masculinize nature. Instead, they are reclaiming their experiences as a profound opportunity for personal growth and the development of resilience,” says Selene.  

Participants indicated that they gained a sense of empowerment, bravery and tenacity through trail running. They also reported a gain in transferable outcomes such as resilience, perspective and mental health supports. Each of these changes improved their daily lives.   

Selene says understanding how resilience is built and supported is a significant factor in therapeutic recreation. 

“We work with client groups who are marginalized in a variety of ways, whether through disability, mental health or socioeconomic status, and we use recreation as a tool to move people towards their goals. Understanding how resilience is built, supported and drawn out is key to creating a successful and person-centered plan.”  

Crossing the publication finish line – what’s next?   

Earlier this year, Selene’s article, “Building resilience through trail running: women’s perspectives,” was published in the Leisure/Loisir academic journal, a publication which focuses on scholarly papers in areas of recreation, arts, parks, sport, travel and tourism. In the future, Selene hopes to pursue more research into resilience-building within nature and its relevance to COVID-19.    

“The pandemic has solidified the importance of access to recreation, leisure and natural spaces as were adapting to social distancing requirements during the start of COVID-19,” says Selene. 

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