The Real World Benefits of Running: Outdoor Survival, Immune Function, and Other Fun

It was September, 2009. I was sleeping on a pile of leaves in a self-made shelter in the middle of rural Virginia. I hadn’t showered in two days and the steady diet of soup, beef jerky, and Powerbars had me longing for a steak.

Can you believe I paid over $500 for this?


Meaghan and I were taking an outdoor survival course at Mountain Shepherd taught by former Air Force SERE (Survival, Evation, Resistance, Escape) instructor Reggie Bennett.

Billed as the most difficult in the curriculum, the four day Humble Thunder course taught us the seven priorities of survival and how to prepare yourself with the right gear and mentality to stay alive in an outdoor crisis.

After reading Emergency by Neil Strauss, learning practical survival skills became a short obsession of mine. Humble Thunder was just what I needed in case I was ever lost and stranded in the woods during a long run. The training was valuable, teaching me:

  • how to construct an improvised shelter with nothing but a piece of plastic
  • why food is your least concern in any survival situation
  • how to hike to a specific location using nothing but a compass and a topographic map (and no trails)
  • why “primitive” survival skills are sexy, but not practical
  • what type of wood to use to start a fire when it’s pouring rain
  • how to trap small game with a piece of string (and where to do it)

It was an epic four days, picking the brain of a former military instructor who had won four of the five awards for outstanding performance in SERE training.

After survival school I bought the US Air Force Survival Handbook and spent a few days devouring almost 600 pages of advice on knot-tying, concealment techniques, animal tracking, weather prediction, and mountain survival. When I finally retire from running seriously, I’ve found a replacement hobby!

What Does Outdoor Survival Have to do with Running?

As we trudged through the woods in the rain for hours (it rained almost the entire four days), I noticed that many of the skills we were learning are similar to those that every runner inevitably develops. Things like how to mentally cope with fatigue, stay positive, and remain confident in yourself.

Some of the other students weren’t handling the rain, physical demands, and lack of modern comforts as well. Over thirteen years of running, hundreds of workouts, and tens of thousands of miles helped me through this experience. It’s like University of Colorado cross country coach Mark Wetmore has said:

“As a distance runner, you know you’re going to get your bell rung. Distance runners are experts at pain, discomfort, and fear. You’re not coming away feeling good. It’s a matter of how much pain you can deal with on those days. It’s not a strategy. It’s just a callusing of the mind and body to deal with discomfort. That’s the nature of their game.  Taking pain.”

See also: adventurous, mentally resilient, bad ass, confident, courageous, determined, optimistic, tenacious. 

Don’t discount the importance of being fit in a survival or other emergency situation. My relatively short experience in Humble Thunder reinforced that running is valuable for a host of other tasks.

Building shelters, hiking, and collecting wood for fire-making are strenuous tasks. If you’re ever in a real survival situation, physical condition is going to play an important role in your ability to withstand the elements and ensure your safety. Being a runner will help – but I also think overall athleticism is important to your survival (hint: I’m subtly reminding you to do your core and strength work).

Call for comments: Have you used skills or physical benefits of running in a survival situation or other emergency scenario? What was your experience?

Vibrant Health and Becoming Superhuman

My personal experience with consistent running is that it improves almost every aspect of life. You don’t need to be lost in Appalachia to benefit.

With more energy and confidence, every day tasks like walking up stairs or carrying heavy grocery bags are easier. My focus on work is better, I tend to pay closer attention to a healthy diet, and have a stronger sense of well-being after a good run.

I joke with my friends and family that I’m “Wolverine” because I haven’t been sick in over five years. Consistent exercise has definitely helped keep my immune system strong, though I can’t heal quite as quickly as Wolverine.

Running doesn’t only help boost your immune system. Looking at the available research, running provides almost countless health benefits that improve your daily life:

Health benefits aside, if you’ve ever run on a team or with a club you know it’s a blast. The camaraderie you have as a group when you share a common goal is powerful. Humans are social animals and we thrive working in a cohesive group.

If you’re an elite, age-group, or recreation runner you’ll benefit from a lifetime of consistent running. So go on, run your miles. You’ll enjoy better health, enhanced life skills, and develop strong relationships with other runners. Hell, it’s how I met my wife.

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