People expect to see diverse terrain in recreational areas – Both hiking trails and forest paths are needed
Text: Tiina Lankinen
Photographs: Jenni Toivonen
Cool rain on the skin, the scent of spring flowers in the air, running over tree roots along winding paths. Jogging outdoors is an experience for all senses.
Research evidence about the beneficial effects of outdoor exercise on people’s health abounds. For the first time, a study undertaken at the University of Tampere in Finland analysed this issue by a methodology where the researcher interviews research participants during a jog while a video camera is shooting their route.
The linkages of different surfaces of running to the nature experience and thus to well-being has not been taken into account in the past.
“The running experience is created through the movement of the body and haptic sense, as a comprehensive bodily experience. The way you move your body takes place in interaction with the terrain and has an effect on well-being through various mental and physical sensations,” says Jarkko Bamberg, postdoctoral researcher of environmental social science at the University of Tampere.
The Academy of Finland-funded Affective Landscapes of Running project not only provides answers about the relationship between the nature and the environment, but also information that can be used in urban planning. The study shows that people mostly desire versatility from urban green spaces, in particular from recreational woods. Different terrains not only appeal to different people, but variability also plays a role for the same joggers who can change their route according to how they feel when jogging.
Running is also motivated by easy access to the hobby. Most of the interviewed Finnish runners wanted to set out from their own doorstep or workplace and thought it strange to first drive to a place where they can start their jog.
Bamberg interviewed 14 joggers who regularly run in the Kauppi recreational park in Tampere.
Based on the running terrain, two runner groups were discovered in the study. Some runners preferred running on maintained hiking trails while others enjoyed unkept forest paths that had been created spontaneously by various users of the green spaces.
For both groups, running was a way to get a break from daily toil and to increase well-being, but the mechanism for achieving this differed between the groups. Joggers who run on maintained trails want to run smoothly and freely without having to pay attention to pedestrian crossings or staying on their feet in the uneven terrain.
While they jog, they might organise everyday issues on their mind. Running, however, helps them to gain a distance from their everyday worries because it provides an opportunity to mull things over.
Those who jog on untended paths and forests tend to focus on the rocks and tree roots they come across. Many reported that the interaction with the different shapes of terrain resulted in a strong experience of presence, which helped them to gain distance from daily worries. Running in the forest was like an adventure for some runners in this group, and this had similar positive effects on their well-being.
Even though trail running has become very popular, the value of maintained trails should not be ignored. From the point of view of urban planning, both maintained tracks and forest paths are needed in green spaces.
“The Kauppi sports park is big enough for finding new routes, but it does also have clear boundaries so people do not find it scary to explore its woods,” Bamberg explains.
Because maintained routes can help to figure out one’s location, they also provide security for those who run on forest paths.
Much has been written about trail running as a sports and it has become popular in Finland. However, the study suggests that although trail running is fashionable, the value of maintained trails should not be overlooked.
“Such routes are needed by both those who use them and those who run on forest paths,” Bamberg points out.
The health effects of exercising in nature have often been studied by objective measurement. For example, a group of people was told to walk in a park while a second group walked indoors, after which their blood pressure was measured. When it comes to knowing the exact impact of the environment, the research environment and routes are standardised and contain as little other stimuli as possible.
“In such studies, the environment is considered visually. Studies have been carried out where people ride exercise bikes in the park, ie they view the landscape statically. At the same time, the environment is distanced from the exercising body,” Bamberg says.
In his study, running interviewer with a GoPro camera managed to record the complete running experience.
“A rich multisensory engagement with nature that takes place while running emerged in my research,” Bamberg says.
The running interviews were conducted in the summer of 2017. The runners later came to a new interview, which was conducted in front of a screen. They were able to re-visit the route through a video that was shot during their run and elaborate their experiences and thoughts to the researcher. At the same time, Bamberg was assured that he had interpreted the things he had heard correctly during the run.
Running interviews are a challenge. It was difficult to find a stable position for the camera, but in the end it was best to support the camera at breast height so that the researcher and interviewee ran side by side and the camera was facing forward between them. A gimbal helped to improve picture quality.
The runners took Bamberg to their own routes, but the pace was fitted so that both felt comfortable to chat while running.
Not all researchers can manage such a research setting.
“I would have done more interviews, but my foot started to hurt. However, the study was a really good experience. It was also important to conduct the follow-up interviews in which we discussed the running experience in more detail,” Bamberg points out.
Are you a path runner or a trail runner?
Forest path runner
- You prefer running in the woods.
- You like uneven terrain where you must focus on where to put your feet.
- Exercise is an adventure where you can find new routes and see the nature change according to seasons.
- You prefer running on an even, solid ground.
- You like to let your run roll without interruption, such as eg traffic.
- You might contemplate work matters while you run. However, running helps you gain a distance from the daily toil.