Road Running vs. Trail Running

Photo from Ice Age 50 website

In some ways, comparing road running to trail running is like comparing apples to oranges; it’s nearly impossible to do. After all, the similarities are quite limited, while the differences are, to say the least, wide ranging.

Like apples and oranges, they each offer a considerable amount of benefits. Yet, at the same time, it is important to be cautious of potential negatives. Simply put, like nearly everything—even eating apples and oranges—moderation is key.

Just as you relish the benefits of preparing your apples and oranges—cleanliness, vitamins, tastefulness—if you take your time to enhance the positives of road and trail running, while also learning about the possible negatives, you’ll reap success before, during and after your next marathon.

Road Running: Specificity, Accessibility, Consistency

Perhaps the most significant positive of road running is that it is specific to marathons. To adequately prepare for marathons, you must train specifically for the 26 miles of roads you’ll likely be running on.

“If you have a test in algebra, you aren’t going to spend time studying trigonometry,” says Michael Lucchesi, head coach and owner of Second City Track Club. “A marathon is no different.”

And, fortunately, nothing is more accessible than roads; you don’t have to travel to gain access to them. In fact, if you live in the Chicagoland area, you probably just need to walk past your front yard. Not to mention, roads also provide a flat, consistent surface that leads to faster running times.

“When a runner’s foot delivers a force to the ground, it is delivered back to the runner equally and opposite, according to Newton’s Third Law,” states Janet Leet, owner of SUB5 Performance Center. “With cement and asphalt, there is little force lost because of the ground compression and diluting the force. Namely, it is easier and more efficient to run faster on a harder surface because the energy is maintained better.”

Of equal importance, when compared to trail running, less equipment is necessary. After all, roads are generally more lit, so less visibility gear is required at night. Bugs, blisters and cuts are also less common, so bug spray and first aid kits aren’t usually used very often on roads either, according to Lori McGee Koch, head running coach at Chicago Endurance Sports.

The socialization and sightseeing opportunities of road running can’t be overlooked either. Since roads are usually wider than trails, it is much easier to run with a group of friends and carry on conversations. And, if you are able to run on a road without much congestion, especially in a city you haven’t spent much time in, you’ll create memories that will last for a lifetime.

“When I ran in cities like London, Paris, Rome and Stockholm, I had the chance to see landmarks in a much different way than if I had been on tour buses,” explains Brendan Cournane, a Chicago-based running coach. “Seeing a city from a road—without traffic or congestion, if possible—is a tremendous experience. It gives a different feel than any other type of transportation.”

Pace Yourself and Be Cautious

Although running on the flat, consistent surfaces of roads typically leads to less ankle turning and tripping, according to Leah Bohr, director of training for the Chicago Area Runners Association, roads can be very hard on your body. Not only do they often have higher ridges in their centers (with angles for drainage), which may lead to extra stress on your outside leg—as it’s typically lower than your leg that’s towards the middle of the roads—but their hard surfaces are also absorbed by your body. Over time, that absorption can have a negative impact, as the stress on your joints and muscles may result in short- and long-term injuries if you don’t work out properly.

“Roads are harder on your body than trails. It’s just a fact,” Lucchesi says. “But injuries can be reduced. I see too many athletes run too fast on days that should be used for easier training, which is why many get hurt.”

If you don’t pace yourself out—mainly by avoiding the temptation to run your absolute fastest speed nearly every day—you may overuse certain joints, ligaments and muscles, while under developing others. At the same time, you must not only be cautious of cars running red lights, but you should also keep in mind the impact that traffic lights have on your workouts; such interruptions, especially when they’re consistent and frequent, can be detrimental to your rhythm.

Trail Running: Improve Your Agility in Complete Tranquility

Of course, unlike running on roads, where you have to constantly be aware of cars, stop signs and red lights, trails offer a unique running environment, which is best summarized by one primary word: tranquility.

“If you want to improve your focus and awareness of meaningful surroundings, hit the trails,” Leet stresses. “They cut down on the noise and bring us back to simplicity—nature. And they allow us to relax and lose ourselves in the moment.”

“There are incredible positives associated with trail running—mainly getting away from the hustle and bustle of modern life,” says Dan Walters, head coach at DWRunning. “As a result, you’ll have a much better connection with nature than you could ever have on the roads, even if you live in quiet suburbs.”

Although the tranquility and connection with wildlife, along with time away from typical city living, are often the most motivating factors of trail running, runners tend to also enjoy the challenges of trails’ terrain. Since no two trails are the same, runners not only test their skills on trails, they’re also forced to run at a bit of a slower, more leisurely pace. And, in doing so, they truly enjoy the present moments, and absorb the beauty around them as they learn to achieve more than they ever thought possible, while running on far less consistent—and, in turn, much more difficult—terrain.

“The trails provide a good break from the surfaces of roads too, as the ground is also more forgiving on the body than asphalt or concrete,” Cournane adds. “I enjoy the variety of trails as I vary my training. It’s always good to get out of your comfort zone.”

This variety is not only ideal for added excitement; as Cournane mentions, it is also critical for your body. According to McGee Koch, trails allow runners to “recruit a wider variety of stability muscles,” which make runners feel stronger over time, as the onset of fatigue in larger leg muscles is typically delayed.

“The variety of surfaces will prepare your system to adapt with more coordination, strength and power,” McGee Koch says. “In addition, the trails provide runners more opportunities to increase their balance and core stability, as well as the strength of their ancillary muscles.”

At the same time, the variability of trails’ running surfaces results in equal distribution of your landing forces. Therefore, some joints, ligaments and muscles aren’t overused (while others aren’t used at all); consequently, due to the hills, turns, twists and uneven surfaces of trails, you’ll be able to improve your agility, balance and overall strength more than you ever could on a road.

Overcome the Elements with Adequate Equipment

Of course, the variability of trails can have some negative impacts as well. You’ll not only be more vulnerable for falls, but you won’t have the specificity you need as you train for a marathon either, especially if you’re interested in running quickly.

“If you run on trails too often when training for a road marathon, you’ll also lack the muscular endurance you need for the pounding on the road you’ll encounter with each step—for 26.2 miles,” Walters adds.

This lack of specificity is also noticed with regards to weather, especially on rainy days, as most Chicagoland trails aren’t nearly as well maintained as roads. Since they hold moisture longer than roads, mud is practically unavoidable.

With that in mind, you must dress for the elements you’ll be facing—weather-proof trail shoes with robust outsoles, high-quality socks that can wick moisture and adequate clothing that can protect you from rain, mud and heat and be easily cleaned (an extra pair of shoes, socks and clothes are always helpful too).

Furthermore, Leet, Walters and Cournane advise you to carry additional supplies if you’re planning to run on trails. A handheld bottle or hydration pack should be considered, along with gels or other athletic fuel for your caloric needs. And don’t forget to bring a towel—so you can stretch on a clean surface before you run—and a plastic bag to store all of your gear if it’s muddy.

“On the other hand, one of the great things about running is that you don’t necessarily need much,” Lucchesi says. “Running is a simple sport—one that allows you to leave all of your technology at home, if you prefer.”

“Whether you choose to run on roads or trails, you won’t need much equipment at all,” Bohr adds. “When it comes to equipment, shoes are probably the biggest difference—different shoes are necessary for different surfaces, of course—so you should consider asking your local running store what’s best for you, as you strive to achieve your unique goals.”


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