It’s just after 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning and my yellow lab and I are scrambling up a steep, loose trail in the Indian Peaks, an hour-or-so drive from my Boulder, Colorado, home. Surely the lake I’m desperate to reach is just beyond the crest of the climb, I think to myself, though I’m not really certain. In non-COVID-era times, like on summer mornings over the past few years, I’d likely turn to a friend or friends I’d be running with to ask if they thought we were on track. But this is 2020, and times have changed.
With my husband working from home just a pencil’s throw away from my desk — and believe me, I’ve been tempted to test this metaphor — and my two school-age boys home (and rowdy) most often, we’ve had a lot of family time. And I mean a lot.
While I’ve done a handful of distanced mountain runs with a friend this summer, I’ve become increasingly reliant on these solo adventures — or solo, with dog adventures — to restore balance in myself. I’m mostly an introvert, and my full house has me longing for the quiet and self-reflection afforded by moving through the mountains on trails lined with wildflowers and towering pines. When I reach mountain lakes, like the one I found not far beyond the steep scramble, I splash the cold, alpine water on my face and I sit.
And I sit, and I sit, and I sit.
I usually eat something and always let the dog swim. But I’m mostly just breathing in the mountain air and being with nature, the sound of wind ripping across ridgelines and the occasional marmot squeak bringing me a sense of calm.
It turns out, as I learned recently from Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, M.D., integrative medicine physician, author of The Outdoor Adventurer’s Guide to Forest Bathing, and medical advisor to trail-finding app company AllTrails, this is a practice known as “Sit Spotting.”
“Utilizing a Sit Spot in nature, where you’re sitting for roughly 20 minutes without an agenda — you don’t have to meditate, strike a yoga pose, journal, or do anything, really — is a restorative mindfulness practice,” says Bartlett Hackenmiller.
Huh. With my cravings for running to mountain lakes by myself increasing over the summer and into fall, I figured these outings were needed deep down. I’d been plotting routes midweek and rising early to leave my house by 6 a.m., which is saying a lot because I’m a lazy introvert who likes her sleep. On those drives with a cup of hot coffee in a to-go mug, and through the miles of running to each lake, I’d been feeling a strong pull to just arrive at my turnaround point—my Sit Spot—before heading back to the trailhead. I craved reaching the spot to just be still among nature. And now I know why.
Tips for Getting the Most Benefits from Nature
Try sit spotting.
Whether you’re out on a trail run, or just need a break during your workday and can escape to the outdoors, find a place in nature where you can sit and do nothing for five to 20 minutes or more. “Doing this can help ground you,” says Bartlett Hackenmiller.
Tap into your senses.
Bartlett Hackenmiller suggests tapping into your sight, sound, smell, touch and even taste (of the air, perhaps, or of any trail fuel you’re using) while on a trail run. “That is a great mindfulness technique that allows you to really be present in your environment.”
Don’t think your runs need to be epic.
“Studies have shown that even spending 20 to 30 minutes in nature improves markers of stress in the body,” says Bartlett Hackenmiller. So even if you only have a little time, know that getting on out on a trail is worth it. And if you’re not up for running big mileage, don’t sweat it.
Bring the trail to you.
Studies have also shown that even just looking at nature, like a plant on your desk, can improve well-being. That’s something to keep in mind and put into practice when trapped inside, for whatever reason. Doing so may help your mood, and inspire your next trail-running adventure.