Trail Running vs. Road Running

Pelican Flyer  |  October 12, 2020

When some consider trail running, a broken ankle first comes to mind. After all, road running offers an easy-to-follow, flat and usually straight path, so why would you ever choose its rugged, branch-dodging counterpart? Well, the truth is that both trail running and road running offer their advantages.

So it begs the question: Which is better? Trail running vs. road running? We’re going to break down the benefits and drawbacks of each activity so you can make the call for yourself.

Trail Running vs. Road Running: Ground Control

Road running is a more widely popular sport, simply because you can find roads right outside your home. Whereas, with trail running, you have to get in the car and head to the nearest park in search of a trail, which, for some, is quite far. Road running is more convenient, allowing you to simply roll out of bed and take a run even around a well-lit neighborhood, where you can easily swing back into the house to rehydrate, etc.

But if you want a more peaceful experience, trail running is where it’s at! Get up early and strap on a hands-free LED headlamp so you can easily catch your footing along the trail. Once you’re there, take in the fresh air instead of car exhaust or the neighbor’s trash.

Trail Running vs. Road Running: Ground Control

trail running and road running

While road running right outside your home is quite convenient, it does present disadvantages. For starters, road running requires you to hit the pavement, which is typically pretty hard. Built of man-made materials such as asphalt or concrete, roads have a high impact on our bodies. Over time, it can cause aches in our joints and bones.

Trail running, however, offers a natural surface consisting of dirt, mud and grass that is softer and a bit more gentle on our bodies. The only caveat being that you will have to dodge branches, rocks and other obstacles nature puts in your way. Before you venture off on a trail, make sure you learn how to read a topographic map to plan your run.

Trail Running vs. Road Running: Agility and Endurance

Dodging obstacles is not necessarily a bad thing. It can even improve your reaction time, which can ultimately improve your mental health and agility. But as you concentrate on avoiding a tumble, trail running tends to slow you down, especially since most runners carry a rucksack backpack with the essentials. In other words, runners who make good time on the pavement must not expect the same results on a trail. Sometimes, you might even find yourself trail walking.

Part of your reaction time includes maintaining good balance. Bouncing off boulders and dodging low-lying branches requires a strong core to support your legs. The uneven terrain presents more of an endurance challenge on your muscles than a consistently flat pavement. All in all, while road running still builds strength, trail running can give you a more effective workout.

Trail Running vs. Road Running: Body Build and Muscles

If you haven’t noticed already, professional trail runners and road runners have very different physiques. Their body builds vary in many ways, due to many factors like their agility and endurance levels. For instance, trail runners tend to have a more muscular appearance, while road runners have a leaner build.

Oftentimes, road runners will cross-train and incorporate additional exercise routines to build more muscle mass. And one of the best ways to do so is by trail running. When road runners hit the trails, they can enjoy a slower pace for once. Some runners even consider light trail runs for days when they want to do less mileage to take it easy on their joints. Plus, getting out in nature and away from passing cars and commotion is also good for their mental health.

Trail Running vs. Road Running: A Change in Gait

Trail running will change your gait, potentially for the better! Professional road runners train themselves to create the perfect stride and gait that essentially keeps their feet as flat as possible, negating any uneven movements that cause sprained ankles or worse. However, put a road runner on a trail, and they will have to use their forefeet and run forward on their toes. It’s basically the complete opposite of what they’ve been taught, but trail running offers some advantages.

Trail running can train a road runner to condition specific core and leg muscles, reducing the strain and impact of the main muscles used in forward-moving runs. Essentially, road runners can benefit from working these muscle groups, taking the weight off others. Since it distributes the impact more evenly, it reduces injuries and – this is the best part! – improves running performance.

Which Is for You? Trail Running vs. Road Running

Ultimately, trail running is no more strenuous on your joints, bones and muscles than road running. In fact, cross-training between both might be the best option. Trail running offers many advantages, so get out there and hit the trail every so often.

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