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The benefits of trail running vs road running


Trail running is one of the fastest growing sports, with over 10 million participants in the USA alone.  It’s easy to see why it’s growing so quickly. As our lives are all becoming more and more technologically intertwined, escaping the concrete jungles and getting back into nature can be a wonderfully liberating experience.  

Once you get off the road and on to the trails, there are some incredible adventures to be had.  Let’s dig into the specifics a little more…  


What is trail running and how does it differ from road running?  

Trail running is a form of running that takes place off-road on trails, paths and other unpaved surfaces.  

Trail running typically involves more obstacles than road running, such as rocks, roots, mud and water. Compared to road running, trail running is generally considered to be more difficult because of the varied terrain. In terms of fitness, trail running builds both strength and endurance.

What are some of the benefits of trail running vs road running?

1) The Challenge – Unlike road running which is generally flat with very few obstacles or uneven ground, trail running is more challenging. Steep inclines and declines, narrow trails, avoiding branches, stones and rocks provide a great workout as most runners must work harder than road runners to maintain their pace and remain upright on the trail.

2) Injury Prevention –  Trail running is kinder on the body. The varied terrain of trail paths forces the body to work harder than it does on roads. Trail runners tend to use more muscle groups and there is less chance of overuse injuries.  In addition the softer surface means there’s less jarring of the lower body.

3) Mental Toughness – Trail running is more mentally challenging than road running because trail runners must remain aware of their surroundings in order to avoid injury.

4) Variety – Trails offer great variety not found on roads in urban areas.  Many people find running on roads repetitive and boring compared to trail running.  This is because you’re constantly exposed to the same scenery.

On the other hand, there are running trails for all levels of fitness, speed and experience that can take you through forests, deserts, mountains and canyons. Trail workouts also offer a unique experience you just don’t get when running on the roads, such as  running past waterfalls, lakes, rivers and green spaces.


5) A trail run is better than a road run for burning calories  – if you run trails, you expend more energy running up and down hills than road runners running on pavements over the same period of time.

6) Camaraderie – Unlike road running where runners are mostly competing against themselves, trail running offers the opportunity to connect and socialise with other runners.  Also since you often walk the steeper hill sections,  it’s an opportunity to chat, whilst reducing your heart rate at the same time.

7) No traffic noise – Running on roads with cars, buses and trucks whizzing past isn’t everyone’s idea of fun.  Out on the trails you can escape, and get away from it.

8) Safety – On the road runners are often competing for space with vehicles. Trails usually offer greater safety as you are less likely to encounter vehicles.

7) Nature  – Trails offer a connection to nature that is not found on roads. Trail runners can enjoy the beauty of forests, mountains, deserts and wildlife along their route.  This is great for mental health and general well being.

8) Fun – Trail running is just plain fun.  Every run is a different experience that can be both technically challenging and rewarding.

So, as you can see there are many benefits to trail running over road running.

Is trail running better for your body than road running?

I know when I’ve been out running on the trails, it feels a lot kinder on my body than running on flat tarmac roads or on the pavement. 

Trail Running is kinder on your body

This is because, as well as the varied uneven terrain providing a good workout, you’re also less likely to suffer from overuse injuries from constant pounding on a hard surface, utilising the same muscle groups.

Is trail running physically harder than running on roads?

Trail running can be more physically demanding, especially if you run the hills, as these require more effort.  Generally a trail runner running at the same pace as a roadrunner expends more energy, as a result of the undulating terrain, but of course this depends on a lot of factors, including time on feet, pace etc.

What are the benefits of road running?

We’ve looked at trail running, let’s have a look at road running.  Some of the benefits of road running are:

1) Availability – Roads are everywhere; they provide a clean and safe environment, allowing runners to run pretty much anytime, day or night. There’s no need for scheduled running times as you can put your road shoes on and head out the door at your convenience whenever you want.

2) Safety – Running on roads can be a much safer option, as you’re likely to encounter fewer obstacles along the way.  Equally, if you’re running in the dark, roads and pavements tend to be better lit, reducing your chances of turning your ankle.

3) Pace – Roads offer a level, predictable surface. This allows for a more controlled and consistent pace, though of course not all roads are flat.

4) Access to transport – Generally roads are in close proximity to public transport. This means when you’ve finished your run you can get home without too much hassle.  Equally if you’re out running on the trails and you injure yourself or you hit the dreaded runners wall, you can be hours and miles from anywhere, which can be problematic.

Tips for taking up trail running

If you’ve not tried out trail running, you should.  But before you embark on your journey out on to the trails, there are a few tips I would recommend.

1) Start small – Start off by running on easy tracks that are close to home, gradually increasing the distance and difficulty of the paths you run.

2) Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate – Dehydration is a common issue with trail runners, especially in hot weather. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids before, during and after your run.

3) Wear the right shoes – Wearing the wrong shoes can lead to injury, especially on trails with uneven, sometimes slippery surfaces. Make sure you wear specific trail shoes.  These tend to have more grip, and are more rigid than road shoes.  This helps stablise and support your feet and ankles..

4) Take plenty of food and water – when running on trails, it’s important to take plenty of food and water with you, as you may not be near any shops or water sources.

5) Dress appropriately – dress for the weather and trail conditions. Running in shorts and a t-shirt in cold weather is not advised!

6) Use sun cream – The sun can be very strong on hills and in open and exposed areas, so make sure you apply sunscreen before your run. 

7) Be aware of your surroundings – take note of the trail ahead, as well as potential hazards, such as cliffs, rivers and wildlife.

8) Have fun! – Trail running can be a lot of fun, so enjoy yourself and take in the beautiful scenery around you.

9) Don’t run alone – if you’re new to an area, run with a friend.  You’ll be grateful of the chat along the way, and if you get lost or you have any trouble, you’ve got someone to help you.

What gear do I need for running on trails?

Trail running can be tough on the body, so it’s important you wear the correct running gear. There are a few key pieces of equipment you should consider buying:

1) Waterproof jacket – These come in handy when it starts raining or during colder weather. A lightweight waterproof coat will do the trick nicely and will not weigh you down during your run.

2) Trail shoes – Wearing the correct shoes is crucial for trail running, as regular running shoes are not designed for uneven surfaces. Make sure you buy a good pair of trail shoes that will provide you with the support, traction and cushioning you need.


4) GPS Garmin watch – A GPS watch is a great piece of equipment to have when running on trails, as it will track your distance, time and pace. This is especially helpful if you’re new to an area and are unsure of the trails.

5) Energy gels and bars – Taking along some energy gels and bars can be a great way to keep your energy levels up while running on trails.

6) First Aid kit – On longer runs, it’s a good idea to carry a first aid kit with you, just in case.

7) Compression socks – The science is a little sketchy on compression socks.  Some say they help, whilst others say it’s nonsense.  Personally, I do wear them, and have found them to help reduce muscle fatigue.  I know other runners who wear them after long runs to help muscles from swelling.

8) Trail Backpack –  On distances over an hour or two, I like to carry a running backpack with a spare top, jacket, my phone and some emergency rations.  There are loads of backpacks available, with some good minimalist waist belts available for smaller items, especially good if you don’t like shoulder straps.

9) Whistle – Trail running can sometimes take place in remote areas where there is no mobile phone reception. One of the Mandatory Kit requirements in ultras, my backpack has a built-in whistle.  If you’re really off the beaten track it’s worth taking a whistle so you can attract attention if necessary.

10) Head torch – If you’re running at night, or it’s likely to get dark it’s important to have a head torch with you. Of course, in the worst case scenario, it is also extremely helpful if you injure yourself as it can guide others to where you are.

Read my article: What kit to pack for your first ultra, which covers more of the above.

trail running vs road running – which is better?

For me it’s not as simple as one or the other. Ultimately I like to do both. 

Road running is accessible and on a day to day basis forms the basis of a large part of my running and training, particularly the interval and high intensity sessions.  However, I prefer to do my longer runs and hill training on the trails.  For me at least, there’s no right or wrong answer, just get out there, run and enjoy! 

And don’t forget to hydrate and wear the right running shoes.


Will running on the trails improve my road times?

Trail running can help improve your endurance and has cross training benefits, as you tend to use more muscles, which can lead to an improvement in your overall running performance.

Of course any improvement depends on a whole host of factors. What I would say is that adding trails, hills and intervals into any training plan can greatly improve overall performance if it’s part of a well structured and thought out plan.

Is running on the trails safer than running on roads?

Trail running can be safer than running, as you don’t have to worry about cars so much, or where the pavement ends or other sorts of issues that arise with road running.

However, trail running has it’s own dangers, including obstacles, uneven terrain etc. so to say one is safer than the other is somewhat misleading. Just be careful, concentrate and enjoy.

Have I missed anything? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “The benefits of trail running vs road running”

  1. Rochelle

    Really useful . I am new to running. I did my first trail run today .
    It was brilliant , totally different compared to road running.

    1. That’s awesome, it’s a great way to see the world. I’ve just finished my morning trail run with the dog, she loves it too!!!

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