So, is trail running harder than road running? Yes…. and no. Is trail running better for you than road running? Well, we may be a little biased but the answer is that it depends, for reasons explained below. Let me explain which is better between road running and trail running. The answer is not straightforward but hopefully my experience and the information in this post will help provide clarity.
Trail running is harder than road running… in some ways
Off-road terrain and vertical ascent / descents are more challenging than pavement
Trail running is harder than road running in the sense that the hills and uneven terrain you’ll typically encounter will make it necessary to run slower, or at least exert additional mental and physical effort to rapidly overcome them. This means running the same distance on a trail vs. on a road is likely to take longer – and generally the more ‘technical’ (uneven / slippery / loose) the terrain is, and the steeper the hills are, the longer it will take.
TRAIL RUNNING IS, HOWEVER, EASIER IN OTHER WAYS – AT LEAST, IN MY OPINION.Let me explain…
Are you more likely to injure yourself trail running than running on roads?
Many people believe that you are more likely to injure yourself when running on trails as opposed to running on pavement. This is also a yes and no answer.
I agree that if you run on trails you are exposed to more potential hazards that may cause you to suffer an acute injury – hitting your head on a branch, for example, or catching your foot in a hole in the ground and tripping over. However, in my experience there is one significant way that trail running is safer than road running from an injury-risk perspective, and that is when it comes to the most common running-related ‘overuse’ injuries, such as ITB (side of knee) pain, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis (which affects the bottom of your foot). It’s no surprise that the majority of the longest ultramarathons in the world are run mostly on trails, and not on roads!
The causes of such injuries can be complex and vary by person, but the common factor I’ve experienced with all of these is too much repetitive running and footsteps on hard tarmac or concrete surfaces. These surfaces are HARD and not natural to run on, and as they’re flat you typically land on each footstep in exactly the same way, there is no variety in how your body is impacted, over thousands of footsteps in each run. So it’s no wonder that I experienced way more running overuse injuries when I ran mostly on roads than I do now that I run most of my longer runs on trails.
It is harder to get a consistent cardio workout when running on trails compared to running on roads
If I run a trail that is very steep or technical, then I generally will not be able to get a consistent effort level in terms of cardio effect (heart rate, breathing rate, etc). When trail running I can find myself limited by the speed I am able to safely navigate the technical terrain without falling over. As someone who has sprained many ankles (that is, both ankles, several times), I am pretty careful, especially on the descents (but perhaps not careful enough, hence the sprains!).
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On the other hand, if I go out and run a fast, flat run on pavement, I can readily get to an intense and consistent threshold. So from that perspective, road running is easier than trail running if your goals are to work out at a certain intensity, or target a certain pace. For this reason, I find road running to be a much more straightforward way to do cardio interval training than trying to do this on hills, when I want to measure my gains (or lack thereof) between sessions. There are simply fewer variables to worry about, for example, ‘has it rained and therefore the buff singletrack I ran last week is now very slippy and muddy and will therefore take me longer to run the same distance as last week?’.
It can be harder to find trails to run on than roads for regular runs
Unless you are blessed with trails on your doorstep then you may need to put a bit of additional effort to find good trails to run on near where you live, and to be able to get to them regularly for your trail running fix! Road running is easier than trail running therefore, in the sense that it can be easier to find a paved route around home or work that you can run on regularly – as for many people it is unfortunately not practical to run on trails every day, or several times a week – that joy may need to be saved for the weekends.
Alastair wrote the following post on how to find trails to run on near you, which may be helpful: How to find trails to run on near me.
Local town / city / park routes also have the advantage over trail routes of local facilities, such as stores, restrooms and public transit (depending on where you live, of course) and you can run further in the same amount of time. It should also be harder to get lost! Especially when you’re new to running, it may be advantageous to find places to run that have facilities nearby and you can easily navigate, as when trail running you generally need to be more self-sufficient and carry what you need for your run, with you, in a race vest, for example, and also navigate safely.
How Is Trail Running Better Than Road Running?
Is trail running easier than road running?
Trail running is not easier than road running in a purely ‘how fast can I cover X distance’ sort of way. But, trail running offers some potentially significant advantages over road running and may therefore be an easier form of running (or at least more enjoyable) to some people, especially those that are reluctant to take up running because their experience of running may have been a less-than-enjoyable run in the city on hard concrete.
Trail running can benefit your mental health and help achieve a state of mindfulness
Trail running can be mentally easier than road running in a sense that you generally are going to be running in places that are:
- Cleaner, with less pollution than an urban area
- Closer to nature – whether it’s a city park or a remote mountain range, there is a definite sense of peace and calm that comes with running (or just being) somewhere with natural features, flora and fauna
- Quieter – with fewer people and unnatural noises, there is more time and headspace to think and clear your mind
If you’re going to run somewhere that is natural and appealing, you may be more motivated to go out and run vs doing something else! Running on trails also necessitates an increased amount of focus on the task of running, navigating and breathing. I love to get into this mindset when on a trail run, because the state of mindfulness that comes from it means that I truly spend that running time focusing on living and doing my thing IN THE MOMENT, and not dwelling on the past, current issues or personal challenges (whether big or petty), or thinking necessarily about the future. I return from a one-hour trail run much more rested mentally than when I’ve spent an hour on the pavement.
For more on the ways trail running and being in nature can benefit you from a mental and mindfulness perspective, read these posts:
How else is trail running good for you?
When trail running you are running on uneven terrain and landing each stride differently, jumping/climbing up and down obstacles and potentially steep climbs, so your body is getting a much broader workout than running the same stride and pace on a smoother and flatter surface. Don’t get me wrong, though, this isn’t a substitute for other non-running cross-training such as swimming, cycling and time spent with the weights and doing squats and lunges in the gym.
Is trail running better for your knees than road running?
This is a question we get asked often. The answer, at least from my perspective, is related to the point I made regarding over-use injuries. I’ve found trail running better for my joints as the surfaces are softer and more natural and my footfall varies between strides.
Whether or not trail running is better for you than road running, does trail running help your road running?
Another question we’ve been asked many times – We have written a post specifically on this topic: Will trail running help with road running?
For more running advice have a read of our posts under the advice category on this blog. Also, check out Alastair’s post ‘20 hacks that helped improve my trail running performance‘, which has some great real-world and first hand advice on how to improve your trail running, whether you’re new to trail running or an experienced trail runner.