Trail Running Vs Road Running: The 3 Major Differences Discussed

If you want to immerse yourself in the running community, you may have a few questions about the different types of running.

Whether you are hoping to be a competitive runner, run for enjoyment, or run for health benefits, understanding the differences between trail running and road running may help you decide which to gravitate towards.

In this article, we will talk about trail running vs road running and the difference between these two main types of running.  

We will discuss the following:

  • What is Road Running?
  • What is Trail Running?
  • Trail Running vs Road Running: 3 Major Differences
  • Takeaways
People trail running.

What is Road Running?

Let’s talk about road running. Despite what the name implies, road running does not necessarily mean only running on actual roads.

Road running refers to any running that occurs on a paved surface such as a road, sidewalk, paved greenbelt or river path, or other paved designated running surface.

You typically find these types of running environments in more urban areas, but they can be found in smaller urban areas as well. 

Road running has a long history and is common knowledge for everyday humans. It has long been featured in the Olympics, and well-televised events like the Boston Marathon make it easy for knowledge of road running to spread and be admired but aspiring runners.

Road running is quite common in most cities as there tend to be many fundraising events involving road running, and most city fun runs also take place on the roads. 

A person trail running vs road running.

What is Trail Running?

When talking about trail running, people refer to running on surfaces that are softer and more varying than roads. This could mean running on a popular dirt path along the river or rugged, rocky trails leading to a mountaintop.

Trail running simply occurs when you run on natural surfaces in outdoor settings. 

Trails can be found in nature preserves, forests, mountains, and alongside lakes and rivers. The possibilities are endless.

Some trails are made by humans clearing paths, while others have been created by wildlife or nature over time. 

Trail Running Vs Road Running: 3 Major Differences

People road running.

#1: Trail Running vs Road Running: Running Surfaces

One major characteristic of road running is that it takes place on smooth flat surfaces. This is quite appealing to people who want to move fast because running on smooth surfaces makes it easier to maintain your desired cadence without a lot of brain power or extra agility.

For some road runners, the appeal is that they can mindlessly run along and focus on nothing other than pace and energy expenditure. 

When you are road running, the chances of having to maneuver around an obstacle like a root or rock are much less likely. Paved surfaces remain consistent and predictable, making it easier in some people’s minds to tick away the miles and increase or maintain pace on the road. 

Trail running, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. Dirt, gravel, and rocky trails vary greatly and are completely unpredictable. This means that when running on trails, your focus is constantly required, and you must stay mentally alert.

You could encounter a rock, root, and loose or uneven ground at any time. When that occurs, it pays to have worked on your agility because you need to be able to respond quickly on both a physical and mental level to avoid injury.  

One thing that occurs when running on uneven and unpredictable surfaces is that your pace and cadence may vary greatly.

This can be frustrating for people who place a lot of value on their running speed. For this very reason, you must learn to give yourself grace and adjust your expectations when running on trail surfaces. 

People trail running.

#2: Trail Running vs Road Running: Physical Demands

If you have ever mentioned running to someone, you have probably heard the phrase, “Running is bad for your knees.” This is a common thought outside the running community and, unfortunately, a common truth for many runners.

While there are ways to help lessen the damage that the impact of running puts on your knees, it can be tricky to avoid damage completely.

While both trail and road runners will likely experience some knee discomfort and wear and tear at some time or another, road runners tend to experience the more intense knee issues due to the impact that running on hard, unvaried paved surfaces has on the knees.

When running on roads, you are running in the same repetitive motion for extended periods. While certain shoes can help reduce the impact your body experiences, there is no way to get completely around the potential damage that running on paved surfaces may do to your knees over time. 

People road running.

Road running is also physically demanding due to the focus on speed and pace. If you are a runner who strives to improve and push yourself constantly, the energy required to put out big efforts on the roads can be exhausting and require much recovery time.

It is important to make sure you dedicate the time needed to recover from the physical demands of any type of running. 

Running on roads also requires a lot of lower body strength and endurance so it is important to commit some amount of time and energy to strength training so you can be sure your body can withstand the physical demands that come with moving for extended periods of time and pounding pavement. 

If you choose to run trails, you may not need to worry about your knees quite as much, or at least for the same reasons as you would if you were running roads. Trail surfaces may not be as smooth, but they are softer, reducing the impact on your joints.

Some people who experience pain running on paved surfaces may feel more comfortable running on dirt trails. 

That being said, you need to consider some of the other physical demands. Due to the nature and unpredictability of running on trails, it requires increased muscular engagement and balance.

A person trail running uphill.

You may need to jump over an obstacle in the path to avoid tripping and may find yourself constantly skipping over and around things.

It is important to train your lower leg muscles for these situations. You should spend some time doing plyometrics in order to be able to respond appropriately to unpredictable trail elements. 

While your knees may not experience as much impact, you still need to have strong ankles and knees for trail running.

Running downhill on trails can be uncomfortable if your knees are not prepared, and the constant need to move around obstacles can quickly tire your ankles due to the utilization of stabilizer muscles. The use of these muscles is not as highly demanded when running roads. 

You may also notice that running on trails requires more cardiovascular endurance due to the type of terrain you are running on.

Making constant turns and weaving in and out of trees and over and around objects can cause you to use more energy and spike your heart rate. Keep this in mind when managing your effort on the trails. 

A trail runner going uphill.

#3: Trail Running vs Road Running: Accessibility

Road running seems to be more common because it is more accessible. It is easy to hop into a local 5k, and it is often done as a fun weekend event and becomes an annual tradition for many individuals, families, and even businesses.

This is not something that is very common in the trail-running community.

Road running also is easy to do no matter where you are located. Finding a sidewalk or paved road, no matter where you are, is much easier than finding a dirt trail. 

The trail-running community has continued to grow over the years and is becoming more popular with time. That being said, the history of trail running is not as well known or as often talked about as road running may be.

Part of the reason for this may be because, unlike road running, trail running does not have a spotlight on it in the Olympics. Not many well-known and televised trail running races result in public knowledge of the sport being less common. 

It is also more intimidating and challenging to find trails that are either nearby or that people feel comfortable running on.

Some people lack the knowledge of gear needed for trail running and do not feel safe alone in the wilderness but feel okay running around the sidewalks of their neighborhood, and this is quite a barrier to entry into the sport of trail running. 

A person road running at sunrise.

Takeaways

When choosing which type of running is best for you, road running vs trail running, consider your personal preferences and goals.

If you enjoy being out in nature and feel you would benefit from running that has less impact on your knees, trail running is a good choice. However, if you are a real speedster and enjoy setting time goals and engaging in activities that are more predictable than the roads may be calling your name. 

Give both a try, and you might be surprised by which you enjoy most. Remember to ease into it and take all precautions necessary to stay safe and prevent injury. Using the right gear can be the key to making running an enjoyable experience. 

If you are ready to hit the ground running, whether it be road running vs trail running, check out: How to Choose the Right Running Shoes: Our Complete Guide.

A person running on the road.
Photo of author
I am a UESCA-certified running coach, psychology PhD student, and competitive obstacle racer and trail runner. Once 100 pounds overweight I found fitness and fell in love with an active and competitive lifestyle. My passion for inspiring others and fitness come together seamlessly in the world of writing where I get to share the thing that changed my life. In my free time I enjoy spending time with my family, my dogs, as well as baking and cooking.

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