There is something spiritual about exercising in the forest. The fresh smell of wood and wildflowers, the crunch of the gravel under your feet. The sound of a breeze as it ruffles the leaves and the dappled misty light through the trees. This can be found in Basel at Vitaparcours.
Vitaparcours, started in Zurich in 1968, is a series of exercise courses set up in various forest locations throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland (in Switzerland there are 497!). Each course is a 2 - 2.5km circuit with 15 workout stations that guide you through a series of strength, flexibility and endurance exercises. As declared by House of Switzerland, Vitaparcours is "not just a concept, but an institution". Truly Swiss in nature, it promotes not only exercise and wellbeing while communing with the great outdoors, but a sense of community. You can't get anymore Swiss than that.
I discovered the Lange Erlen Vitaparcours during lockdown. After a long day of homeschooling, marathon cooking, trolling the news obsessively and waiting for the sky to fall, I needed to run. I needed to run like someone was chasing me. I was not alone in this discovery and the Vitaparcours were even featured in the New York Times, in this article.
Exercising outdoors is said to have number of benefits, both mental and physical that you can't get indoors. This includes higher levels of oxygen and serotonin because of the exposure to fresh air and sunshine, which in turn leads to lower stress levels. You are also more likely to burn a higher number of calories than you would in a gym as your body has to adapt to changing weather and terrain. But that's not why you should do it. You should do it because it is awesome.
Some music for the road. Although the quiets serenity of the forest is lovely, for those of you who (like me) who prefer to blast some tunes, here is my Forest Run play list. A little eclectic, a little folky, but perfect for Vitaparcours.
Lange Erlen Vitaparcours
Although each Vitaparcours follows the same general layout, each is unique to their location. At Lange Erlen it starts with a 500 meter 'barefoot track' where you can run as nature intended - barefoot on soft wood chips. The tactual sensation of this is really quite unique, as is the overwhelming smell of the wood chips. And as you are now stealthy as a forest animal, you can enjoy the absolute quiet of your surroundings.
After the barefoot track you can sit at the massive log table nearby and pick the splinters from your feet (just kidding) before you start the course. As is the Swiss fashion, the course is organized and numbered. Make sure to start at Station 1 to get the full intended effect. Station 1 is a short distance from the log table (don't be sidetracked by the balance beams, they are at the end), over a creek and down a path (the car park will be on your left). Once you reach the end of this path, turn right and start running, the first station is on your right a few meters up.
Each station is indicated by a blue Vitaparcours sign. The recommended exercises are outlined on each sign, with several differenent options depending on your level. They first lead you through some stretches and warm up exercises, which are followed by log squatting, bar swinging and firewood lifting, if you are in the mood.
The path continues on until you get to the rings (pictured at the top). After the rings follow the path across the creek and turn right. You will then encounter some log step ups, some shoulder presses, as well as a push-up and sit-up station. After the sit-up station, follow the narrow winding path to jump over some more logs (do you sense a theme here?) and then head left under the tunnel to complete the course. After some shoulder stretches and a quick little obstacle course you will come the balance beam you saw at the start. The last station is stretching and then you can pat yourself on the back.
As you walk out of the forest you can enjoy the rush of endorphins and take a few last breaths of that sweet forest air. Sweaty, with smears of dirt on your face and pine needles in your hair, the satisfaction of a job well-done and a sense of peace will overwhelm you. Pretty soon you'll be wondering if you even need a gym membership.
"And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul." - John Muir
Vitaparcours Locations in the Basel area