Is Trail Running Harder Than Road Running: You Might Be Surprised

trail runner in countryside

When I started running as a beginner I primarily ran on the roads, but soon transitioned to the trails. One thing I noticed after this transition was that there are differences between trail running and road running that I would like to share with you.

So is trail running harder than road running? On the face of it, trail running is harder than road running due to the fact you are running over multiple terrains. There are hills, and your body has to use many muscles compared to the road. However, road running can stress the body more than trail running due to the repetitive motion of running on a flat surface.

There are plenty of differences between the two that need to be discussed in greater detail to answer the question as to whether one is harder than the other.

Having run plenty of roads and trails over the years, I want to give you an insight into my thoughts on the topic…

The Benefits of Trail Running

There are many benefits to trail running which I believe strengthens the argument that running on the trails is actually easier than running on the road. I have certainly found this to be true whenever I have done equivalent runs in either distance or time.

The following are the main benefits I see from trail running:

  • There are lots of different terrains from hard packed trails, soft tracks, rocky paths, and muddy lanes, all of which have their own level of difficulty, but do allow for a run that offers less stress on your major joints like your knees.
  • The terrains can vary within the same run which will in turn change your foot strike throughout your run. This in turn avoids any repetitive running motion that often results in injury.
  • Trails will build strength and stamina due to the fact you are running up and down hills and have multiple uneven terrain underfoot.
  • Although more concentration is required whilst running the trails due to many of the obstacles that you may come across, there is something less stressful in doing this than running on the road.
  • As you will generally be running on softer surfaces, you will find that the recovery time between runs is far less than that if you ran the equivalent on a road.
  • And finally, you really can’t find anything that comes close to running in the beautiful countryside you get the chance to see. There is something about running the trails that helps to release all the stress of the day.

The Downside of Trail Running

Whilst there are few negatives to trail running in my opinion, it is important to note that there definitely some things we need to be aware of when making the comparison to the roads.

  • Whilst running on uneven surfaces has its positives, there is certainly a requirement to concentrate when running them. Any lapse in concentration can cause you to trip or stumble and potentially cause injury. So concentration is a must.
  • I have found out the hard way that there is a level of strength you should have to run on trails as opposed to roads. Whilst strength training is advisable for both, I feel that it is very important to strengthen some of the major muscles like the quads, hamstrings, and glutes to ready your body for the rigours of the trails.
  • Many road runners transitioning to the trails find it difficult to get their heads around running slower on the trails. Unfortunately it just a fact that due to the softer surface, there is less traction to push off the ground and keep the same pace you would on a road. Typically, you will run 30 to 90 seconds slower on a trail than a road.
  • Depending on where you are running, be prepared to run up and down hills. You should be careful when dealing with hills on a trail. Don’t over exert yourself uphill, walk if you need to. Be very careful on the decent, this puts a lot of pressure on your knees and quads.
  • You may need to buy specific trail gear. Whilst a hard-packed trail will allow for normal running shoes, the more technical trail with require a shoe built for the task, so your wallet may feel the pain.

The Benefits of Road Running

The benefits road running brings will always be based on the outcome the runner wants. For me there are a few…

  • Road running is great to incorporate into a trail running training plan. Sometimes we want to do various workouts like speed work or shorter tempo runs that really complement trail running.
  • If distance is your thing, you can log equivalent miles much faster on the road than you can on the trail.
  • Most of the time, if you are running on tarmac you can run straight from your door whereas generally you will need to travel to a trail. Unless you are lucky enough to live near one. If you are pushed for time it isn’t always easy to travel to the start of your run.
  • If you are running in quieter locations there is much less concentration required to run on the road. Generally the surfaces are flat and even, so you can just keep the pace without any distraction.

The Downside to Road Running

For me, the negatives of road running is the deal breaker when it comes to my running preference and heres why…

  • Running on a harder surface breaks down the muscles faster than on a trail and therefor adds to the recovery time of your body. If you have a training plan for an upcoming race this can be annoying.
  • Running on roads is very repetitive due to the surface generally always being the same. There is a risk of overuse injury and stress on your knees depending on your running style.
  • It’s more dangerous – apart from cars which would be the obvious thing, I have more problems with pedestrians on their phones not looking where they are going, cyclists, and generally rubbish on the floor. You will also find in many locations nowadays that the quality of the road surface is degrading all the time – watch out for those potholes.
  • And finally, it’s just so boring!! I can’t ever remember running the streets and stopping to take in the view. It just doesn’t compare to the countryside in any way, shape, or form.

So Which is Harder?

Honestly, I don’t believe that overall trail running is harder than road running or visa versa. As you have read above, both have their benefits and negatives so it’s really a matter of personal choice.

Do I think trail running is harder? Having run half marathon distance in both (I won’t run any further on a road), I believe that the trail run was harder due to the fact there were lots of hills, but was so much more enjoyable. The road half marathon gave me blisters, sore feet, and my joints ached for days afterwards.

Recovery over the distance was far quicker after the trail run and I generally stay injury free.

So if you are thinking of transitioning to the trails from the road, don’t ask yourself if one is harder than the other – go with the mindset that both have their benefits, so try to enjoy both and stay safe.

Mark Emmerson

Mark loves everything outdoors, especially trail and ultra running. He has competed in many events ranging from half marathon up to an 86 mile ultra. He also follows a primarily plant-based diet.

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