Road Running vs. Trail Running: 5 key differences
It’s not unusual to see cross over between road runners and trail runners, as more and more road runners are searching for new experiences on the trails. While road running and trail running are not totally unrelated, they are different sports with distinctive cultures.
Going out for a run on the streets or the trails offers your body a strong cardio workout that boosts your overall fitness and health. It’s true that both surfaces offer a successful workout, but these two types of running offer two different running experiences. Understanding the difference between road running and trail running enables you to choose which choice best fits your running goals.
Road Running vs. Trail Running
Trail running: The uneven surface and varied terrain challenge the muscles of the lower body more than a flat, firm run – so they need to work harder to maintain balance.
Road running: Because of its surface, road running doesn’t have the same effect on the lower body muscles as trail, but still boosts endurance and strength in all the major muscles.
#1 Smooth or Soft Surface
Street running gives an even, smooth surface that makes it easier to keep your balance. The disadvantage is running on hard cement and asphalt can have a negative impact on your joints.
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The uneven nature of a trail increases the dangers of tripping or falling if you don’t pay close attention to the trail before you. However, a softer surface of mud, soil, dirt or grass, means less pounding on your joints.
Top tip: Buy special trail running shoes to help you maintain stability on unpredictable trail roads.
#2 Close and Convenient
Road running is often more convenient for your day-to-day runs. You have the choice of running on streets close to work, home or school simply by stepping out the door.
Most people will need to commute to get to a suitable trail for a run. The remote area of numerous trails makes getting there a real challenge. If you get injured or need help on a trail, it may take more time for people to arrive.
#3 Distance Measurement
It’s much easier to measure the distance of road running. Web mapping systems like Google Maps offer great, free tools to create your running route, with the distance displayed for your convenience. You can also drive the course using your car’s odometer to determine the exact distance.
Trails don’t normally show up on online mapping systems as they tend to be off road and you can’t drive along a trail to determine its exact distance. A good alternative for measuring distance would be a GPS-enabled running, however you won’t know the distance until you are out on the trail.
#4 Safer Sprinting
Roads are usually busier than trails and road runners have to share their route with a range of vehicles, bicycles and pedestrian activity. While traffic can be a potential safety hazard, you will have others around to offer a higher level of safety. Also, if you do get injured, help won’t be far away.
Running on a trail route is usually performed alone. If you get injured or fall down, you may be stuck on the trail for quite a while before someone discovers where you are.
#5 Scenic Settings
A trail normally offers a natural setting that appeals to many runners. You come across animals, trees, flowers and at times a stream or lake. The air will also be clean compared to the air in a city or along a main road.
You are see houses, stores, businesses and cars while running on the road. Most runners enjoy running in a relaxing and enjoyable environment offered by nature while training for different goals.
Other factors that should be taken into account when choosing the type of running route
Trail running: For many of us forests, rails, hills and fells are less easy to find than pavements and roads. Therefore, unless you are lucky enough to live in the country, it’s an activity you will need to plan for.
Road running: You can run anywhere and any time. You are not restricted by sunshine hours or by the geography of where you live.
Trail running environments are really beneficial. The so-called “biophilia effect” identifies with our inherent desire to be one with nature and offers great capacity to lift us mentally and psychologically.
Road running may not be as mood-improving as the trail/countryside, but it will still decrease anxiety – an Australian study observed that it was as successful at lifting one’s state of mind as meditation.
Interested in what’s happening in your brain when you run? Read our blog post on Running Happiness >
And what about the runners themselves?
Most road races have aid stations every two or three miles where volunteers throw Gatorade or water into your mouth as you run by. Trail runners have quite a feast at their aid stations with chips, gummy bears and cookies.
Road runners are always checking their GPS-enabled watches or phones for split times; trail runners are always searching for the sun is in the sky, to see whether it is time to take out their headlamps.
Road runners have pretty shoes and snazzy matching outfits; trail runners have so much mud everywhere, you can’t even tell what color their shoes are.
Serious road runners don’t carry water. Trail runners have rain jackets, backpacks with water bladders, food, blister care and electrolyte tablets.
If you get injured in a road race, road runners will hop over you and let volunteers know at the next aid station; trail runners will stop, pull out their medical aid kits, give you a CPR and carry you to the next aid station.
Road runners race to overtake other runners; trail runners watch out for rattle snakes, bears or mountain lions.
Road runners are thin and lean; trail runners could squash a street runner with their calves and power up hills and mountains with their glutes.