Running in nature is a widespread activity around the world. Why should we study this in Finland? Actually Finland provides an intriguing context for studying recreational running practices and runners’ experiences in green environments. Let’s have a look at some of the things that make Finland a good place for the study.
Firstly, distance running as a competitive sport has been a great confidence booster for Finns and a source of national pride ever since the sport assumed its modern form at the turn of the 20th Century. In the first half of that century, Finnish runners did extraordinary well in big races. Several runners from that era are considered national heroes, whose symbolic significance was great for a small nation that was only taking its first steps as an independent country. Well-known idiom in Finland says that great distance runners like Hannes Kolehmainen, Paavo Nurmi and others were ‘running Finland onto the world map’. Basically, distance running has played a role in shaping Finnish national identity.
Secondly, exercising outdoors for the sake of health and leisure has a long history in Finland. For example, the Outdoor Association of Finland (Suomen Latu), has been promoting outdoor activities since 1938. In general, the organization has given effort to facilitate access to physical activities in nature. In the early days of the association, the main focus was to plan, develop and mark Nordic skiing tracks.
The development of skiing routes brings us to the third point, which is infrastructure. Finland has a vast network of tracks and trails that have been designated for outdoor exercise. If you go to a Finnish town, it is very likely that near the town center there is a forest that has dedicated trails for outdoor exercise. Municipalities maintain these signposted trails and they are usually lit as well. These trails have often been developed from the tracks that were originally used for Nordic skiing. The maintained trails provide an easy access to outdoor exercise in Finland. For example, the 100-year-old central park in Helsinki has been used for Nordic skiing throughout its history.
Fourthly, speaking about access, there is a freedom to roam (jokamiehenoikeus) in Finland. This means that the law gives everybody the right to traverse the land with only minor restrictions. Freedom to roam facilitates different nature activities, such as bird watching, berry picking, mushroom picking, hiking, dog walking, geocaching, mountain biking, and of course, running. Going into nature form a part of everyday life in Finland.
The fifth point is that there still are four distinct seasons in Finland. The nature provides very different type of setting for running depending on season. From deep snow and icy lakes (yes, you can run on them) to lush green forests, the experiences and practices of running differ (but also have similarities) whether it is winter, spring, summer or autumn.
Now to the final point, which is that trail running is becoming very popular outdoor activity in Finland. New trail running events, social media sites and informal running groups have been mushrooming in the last couple of years. Trail running is becoming more popular all over the Westernized world, but it seems that it has hit Finland harder than the most. Somehow Finns have welcomed the activity with an open heart.
Although the list of things I mention here is not at all encompassing, they give some idea of how Finnish context of running in nature can give new insights on practices and experiences of running in nature.