Trail Running vs Road Running: Difficulty, Experience, Mindset


Running is running right? Or maybe not. I’ve run on urban roads and trails many times and the experience is really different. I wanted to share with you some of those differences.

Trail running is harder than road running. Trails often have terrains that are uneven, loose, and slippery. These terrains tend to require more mental and physical effort. It usually takes longer to run the same distance on a trail than on a road. Trail running can be more motivating than road running.

If you are slightly nervous, but if you are set on running your first trail run, you have come to the right place. Trail running and road running are not mutually exclusive, but they do have some big differences. I am here to share them with you.

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What Are the Differences Between Trail Running and Road Running?

There are lots of differences between trail and road running so hopefully in a minute here you’ll have a much better idea of what to expect:

Road Running Takes Less Planning

Tying your shoes and heading out your front door for a run around the block is a no-brainer. It is a lot more convenient and requires less effort to plan in comparison to finding and traveling to a specific destination for a trail run.

For most people, the trails you want to run on are a destination. Even if you don’t plan out all the gear that you should consider for a long trail run (check out our post here if you’re curious what gear you shouldn’t forget), it still requires waking up earlier or staying up later so you can fit the travel time to and from your trail running destination.

Roads are everywhere people live, so finding one to run on is usually a lot more simple. Therefore, road running is a lot more common.

Road Running is Higher Impact

Dirt, leaves, gravel, and snow all have one thing in common--they are lower impact than running on asphalt or concrete.

This may not bother you if you’re young, but if you have a decade or two of working a 9-5, then getting into running on a hard paved surface can put a lot of repeated impact and pressure on your knees and back and cause pain.

Any kind of running, including trail running, is considered a high-impact exercise. However, there is a huge difference in the feel of the trail under your feet while running on the trail vs. a road.

Trail running is not as hard on your knees, hips, and back as road running.

Road Running Is Easier To Track Performance

When roads are paved, they are often graded. Especially if you live in a city. Meaning that the road is leveled out and the main variation (more or less) is in the slope of the road. Think of the difference between running in a river bed vs. running on a sidewalk.

Furthermore, road makers often have convenient mile markers, making it even easier to track how far you’ve gone.

Lastly, while road running, the biggest obstacle is dealing with traffic and crosswalks--but if you’re on a long stretch of road you almost have no obstacles.

The whole essence of trail running is to be able to deal with constant change. Even running the same trail every day will teach you that a trail has a life of its own and no two steps will ever be the same on natural terrain. Trails are on natural terrains like grass, dirt, rocks, and mud. The trails may be dry and rock hard one day, and wet and sloppy the next. Trail running is a slower run with many obstacles that constantly require concentration.

Therefore, trail running is a bit harder to predict when it comes to tracking your own performance. If you want to track your times to the subsecond, then you’ll have an easier time on the road than on the trail.

Body Type and Target Muscle Groups

Runners of all types have toned legs. Running on the road or running on a treadmill doesn’t require much upper body strength unless you are sprinting, therefore it’s not surprising that dedicated runners all share the same attribute--being lean.

Trail running on the other hand has a much more diverse landscape to run on. You might be running up extremely steep banks and picking your way down gravel trails. Trail runners will have deeper muscle burn for their quadriceps and hamstrings.

Furthermore, because running on the trail requires more dynamic movement, more of the upper body is used, so, therefore, trail running leads to a more balanced muscular look.

Road Runners Have To Deal With Air Pollution

Running is hard. At least it is for me. Nothing makes it harder for me than getting a huge draught of car exhaust in my lungs while running on the side of the road.

Running in parks or sidewalks away from the road is much more ideal, but depending on where you live you might not have that available, at least not without having to drive to run.

Trail runners don’t have to deal with the same air pollution problems that road runners do.

Mindset Differences Between Trail Runners and Road Runners

Although the basic movement of running is similar between road running vs. trail running, there are some big differences in mindset.

There are two major goal groups for runners: Performance-driven, vs. experience-driven.

Performance-driven runners focus on measurement. They focus on things like the distance of their run, their speed, heart rate, their pace, and the number of calories burned. This matches up

Experience-driven runners on the other hand might sprint for 20 seconds just because they feel like it, or they might slowly jog through the forest trail enjoying the view, or even running in a meditative state. Experience-driven runners are appealed more to the mindset of tapping into the liberating escape of running in nature while recharging their spiritual batteries. Matching a specific pace or tracking calories is much less important to this group.

Naturally, road running matches up more closely with performance-driven running, while trail running matches up more closely with experience-driven running--although, of course, there are plenty of runners, road or trail, who are exceptions to this.

The pursuit for speed and distance vs. an intrinsic, innate and immeasurable experience is probably the best distinction between trail and road runners.

Trail Vs Road Running | What Are The Benefits To Your Run?
Watch this video on YouTube.

Why Trail Running is Harder Than Road Running (Or Is It?)

When you are running on roads or pavement there are little to no obstacles, other than traffic and your fellow pedestrians. Whereas, even though trails may have more natural and softer surfaces, which allow for less force and pounding on your joints, trails are constantly changing and packed with obstacles.

While trail running, you are constantly faced with uneven terrain, rocks that are in the way, or branches that you need to be on the lookout for. The constant change in terrain requires more endurance and tends to trigger a wider muscle group.

This becomes much more pronounced if you’re running in mud or snow.

Running in deep snow or heavy mud is exhausting--an incredible workout.

Trails can also become quite extreme when adding conditions like high altitudes, rocks, icy or muddy terrains, temperatures, and far distances.

Because of all these factors, trail running generally takes longer too, mile per mile. You have to slow down to prevent obstacles from getting the better of you.

Road running allows you to find and maintain a rhythmic pattern while running mile after mile. Whereas, when running trails, your rhythm is based on constant effort and fast reactions to changes. Even if you are physically fit, trails remain technical and difficult.

However, if you are an experience-driven runner, road running might be harder.

What I mean by that is that for me, I can’t handle running on the road because my mind gets too bored--I dislike the smell of car exhaust--to me, it’s easier to run on the trail mentally than on a flat road surface. It’s much easier to motivate myself to get out the door when I have the chance of being alone in the woods than running next to or on the road.

But your experience might be totally different! Ultimately, you might find trail running harder mentally, or the other way around.

Does Trail Running Burn More Calories?

Some of us are only interested in keeping the weight off, whereas more serious runners like understanding which activities are more effective and burn more calories; it helps planning a training regimen. Knowing what type of running burns more calories makes it easier to plan.

Despite being able to enjoy trails so much that you forget you are running; you are putting in way more effort than going for a run on the road. When comparing the two, trial running almost always burns more calories. The terrain and obstructed pathways require you to engage different muscles and to move a lot more than being in a standard running form. You may have to leap over tree roots, dodging large rocks, or power up some steep steps when running uphill.

These differences may seem small, but believe me, they add up! Stepping around and jumping over obstacles once or twice isn’t a big deal but try doing it continuously for a couple of miles. These diverse movements cause your body to work harder and as a result you burn more energy, causing trail runners to get a tougher workout, therefore burning more calories.

Weather constantly changes the compound of trails. If you have run a couple of trails, you probably already know that there are sandy areas and that they can get pretty muddy. While you may not notice the extra effort being put into each step along the way, your overall workout burns more calories.

Many factors play a role in how much energy you burn such as your weight, age, fitness level, and the pace you run. However, trail running burns up to 10% more calories than road running, comparing roughly the same pace of running. Here’s one of the many calories burned tables showing that “Running, Cross Country”, when compared to 5MPH running is almost 10% more calories burned.

Is There a Time Difference Between Trail Running and Road Running?

If you transition from road running to trails, you find your pace is slower when comparing equal distances. Even the most skilled runners run at a slower pace when running trails. Runners should expect an average of 30- to 90- seconds per mile slowdown. Unless you’re incredibly advanced, you have to slow down especially at the sharp elevation changes.

Reasons why trails have a slower pace:

  1. Steep hills slow you down – You will encounter hills on most trail runs with lung-burning ascents and quad-killing descents. Trail’s inclines tend to be greater and more challenging than most roads.
  2. High technicality – Having to be cautious of your footing on unpredictable terrain slows down your average speed per mile.
  3. Difficult footing – Because of rocks, tree roots, and sharp bends, trail runners have to pay a lot more attention to their footing not to sprain an ankle or trip.
  4. Single tracks – Some trails have pathways that are often not wide enough for more than one runner. These tracks are usually compacted with vegetation, branches, and matted grass. Focusing on staying on the single track might produce slower times.
  5. Trail running gear – trail runners particularly carry a lot more gear on their runs compared to road runners. With trail running, you might end up carrying a hydration vest, snacks, emergency kits, navigation, and trekking poles.

Running downhill on the trail is its own art. Here are some tips to avoid injury and maintain good speed while trail running downhill:

How To Trailrun [S1 - EP5] Running Downhill | Salomon
Watch this video on YouTube.

Does Trail Running Improve Road Running?

Believe it or not, but trail running can actually help you prepare for a road race. The uneven terrain challenges different areas of your body, making it beneficial for road runners to go on an occasional trial run. Trail running activates and conditions different muscle groups, and it helps you to develop stronger stabilizer muscles in your ankles, hips, and trunk that is not always exercised while running on the road. In turn, this helps to reduce your injury risks.

Trail running will improve road running in the following 6 ways:

  1. Trail running will strengthen your core, improving your running posture.
  2. Your balance will improve by running trails.
  3. Trail running uses a different group of muscles. This will build strength in your extra and weaker muscle groups that will support the other main road running muscles.
  4. Trail running reduces the risk of repetitive injuries, allowing you to run more training miles. However, you definitely are at a higher risk for sprained ankles.
  5. The change of scenery and mixing your training will uplift your spirit. Running roads tend to become boring. Switching up every now and then will act as a source of motivation to train more.
  6. Last, but not least, trail running will reduce stress, giving you a body that is more receptive and focused. If you want to see the science of being on the trail and happiness, make sure to check out my article, here.

Pros and Cons of Trail Running and Road Running

The main positive reason for trail running would be the softer running surfaces that absorb a lot of impact, which decreases repetitive joint pain. Trails are quiet and peaceful and give you a liberating feeling (at least for me).

A negative aspect of trails is that it is more challenging to get a consistent cardio workout when running on trails compared to running on roads. When running trails that are very technical you generally won’t be able to achieve a consistent cardio effect.

Finding trails to run are a lot harder to find than hitting the road for a regular running session. Trails aren’t always practical for those who live in the city.

Road running is much more constant if your goal is to do interval training or to achieve a certain target pace. There are also fewer variables that need to be considered before going on a run, like if it has rained. But, a major negative aspect of road running is that the harder surfaces break down muscles quicker and injuries take longer to recover.

The table below lists a couple of pros and cons of both trail and road running.

Road Running ProsRoads are easily accessible- they are pretty much everywhere. Roads are leveled and the surface is consistent, making running easier. Road running makes for good training. It is easier to monitor your cardio effect.
Road Running ConsRoads have hard surfaces, and due to their high impact, the risk of repetitive injuries is increased. The surface of roads are consistent, which can plateau ones progress. Traffic, bikes, and other pedestrians can make road running dangerous.
Trail Running ProsTrails are natural, offering beautiful scenery for runners. | Trails usually have softer surfaces in comparison to roads. These surfaces reduce impact-related injuries. | Trail runs always differ because of weather changes. | Trails have varied surfaces and elevations that allow force to be applied to different tissues throughout the body. Varied surfaces increase your body’s strength and balance.
Trail Running ConsPoor weather conditions, like rain or snow, can make trails very challenging. |Uneven surfaces increase the risk of ankle injuries. | The hills and elevation can be hard on individuals with hip or knee pain. |Trails aren’t as accessible as roads for those living in the city. | The uneven terrain can be hard on your running shoes.

 

Conclusion

Both trail and road running have their pros and cons. Despite their many differences, both trail and road running are still running. There is no right or wrong when choosing your preferred style. Do not see it as an either/or type of training that you should follow, but rather as a combination that you can make to benefit you most.

The scenery and tranquillity of trail running might become so enjoyable that you forget you are running, but trail running is without a doubt harder than road running! Trails are full of challenging obstacles that require a lot of concentration You might be running at a slower pace on trails, but your body burns more calories when running trails due to effort per distance.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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