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Trail running vs road running

There are significant differences between road running and trail running, and these are not limited to the type of terrain or gear worn.

trail runner

So, your trail running friends are trying to get you to join them on a run, and you’re wondering what the fuss is about. Maybe your buddies have harped on about getting back to nature and finding your roots, and you’re not buying their spiel. Just one look at a serious trail runner – wiry frame, hobo hair, and those weird compression socks – and you suspect that it’s all a fad, or, worse yet, part of some strange outdoor cult. But, there are some real benefits driving the popularity of this sport. Read on, and you’ll learn about the very significant differences between trail and road running.

Injury risk

Both trail and road running have their pros and cons, but trail running has one big advantage: it’s easier on the joints and is less likely to result in injury. Dirt is softer than tarmac, and the ever changing surfaces force you to vary up your stride and foot strike. Your stride in road running is very uniform, and repetitive strain injuries are a lot more common on man-made surfaces.

Muscles exercised

Train running will also give you a better all-round workout. Uneven surfaces, like a trail, exercise a greater range of muscles and so create a more athletic and balanced runner. It takes a strong core to support your legs as they push off obstacles at different heights and angles, and trail running is much more effective as an all-body workout. This is particularly true if you run steep, technical trails and use trekking poles.

Cadence & speed

In trail running, you’re forced to step over and around obstacles, which makes for a slower, more concentrated run. Inclines can also be greater, and on some steep uphills you might even have to walk. When you do break into a trot, it’s best to use a shorter average stride than you would in road running. This makes it easier to maintain balance on uneven terrain and will allow you to vary the length of a single stride when you have to clear obstacles.


Besides the obvious – that road runners run on tarmac and trail runners run on trails – there are some significant differences in the terrain favoured by participants in these two sports. Road runners prefer fast flat courses which they can run in an impressive time (sub three hours being a benchmark for marathon runners) whereas trail runners prefer courses with profiles that look like a crocodile’s lower jaw – the more hills and vertical gain, the better. Nobody is obsessing over pace.

Outdoor skills

In road running, you need to know how to pace yourself and how to refuel and rehydrate during a run. But that’s it. Trail running, on the other hand, takes you into the wilderness and out of reach of immediate help. Self sufficiency is essential in the hills, and trail runners need to know how to navigate, how to perform basic first aid, and how to prepare for the elements. Adventurous types might actually relish learning or improving these outdoor skills.


One of the biggest differences between trail running and road running is the clothing. Glance at the crowd lining up for a road race, and you’ll notice closely colour-coordinated outfits and some high-tech wrist wear – the race hasn’t started yet and everyone is already checking their stats. A trail runner, on the other hand, won’t care that his stripey compression socks don’t match his vest or retro trucker cap. His ten-month beard gets him all the trail cred he needs.


Nutrition, too, differs, and while road runners are choking down sachets of overly-sweet goo, trail runners can look forward to a delectable feast of cookies, PBJ’s and gummy bears at their aid stations. After a race, road runners will replenish depleted glucose stores with just enough calories of the right glycemic index, while trail runners celebrate a race finish by guzzling craft beer and wolfing down burritos and burgers.

Get out there and run

If there is a continuous thread to be found in the paragraphs above, it’s that road running is about pace, times, and finishing well, whereas trail running is all about the adventure and experience. Which sounds like more fun? Enough said. Get out there and get dirty. There’s a world of trails to be discovered. To learn more about trail running and how to get started, see my blog article Trail running 101.