Road Running Vs Trail Running: The Differences and What You Can Expect


We, runners, are very fortunate to have the sport that we do. By and large, especially compared to other sports and hobbies, running is very accessible and relatively fuss-free. For the most part, running doesn’t require tons of specialized equipment, years of costly lessons, or expensive machines that necessitate a gym membership. As long as you want to run, and you have a safe place to do it — along with a good pair of shoes and good socks for runners, minimally — you’re golden. Often runners seek specialized socks for trails like trail crew running socks instead of regular socks and that’s ok too.

That’s not to say that running, as a sport, is without nuance. Running encompasses so many different “types” of running, including running on pavement/roads, running on trails, running on a treadmill, running through mountains, and running on a track, just to name a few. The deeper into your running you get, the more you will realize that all these nuances will add complexity to this otherwise straightforward sport.

We’ll spend some time differentiating between road running and trail running. It’s entirely possible to include both types of running into your training plan and to compete in both environments’ races. There are some key differences, however, between each, that may change how you approach your training and your gear, so it’s worth exploring.

Some differences between road running and trail running include


  • In trail running, pace matters less than effort, generally speaking. Oftentimes when you’re running on roads, your run is ruled by your pace. Generally speaking, road runners want to hit a certain pace for a certain distance, and they can determine whether their run was successful, or a failure, based on how much they hit their prescribed paces. In trail running, the pace is almost irrelevant. It’s important to remember that when you’re running trails, you will encounter great challenges, many of which you will never encounter — or very infrequently — encounter when you’re on roads. These challenges include but aren’t limited to, lung-burning ascents, quad-killing descents, altitude, and debris-riddled terrain (such as singletrack or trails peppered with tree roots and loose stones). These aforementioned challenges will certainly take a toll on your pace, so it’s often a better call to judge your trail runs’ success based on your perceived effort than on your actual pace.
  • Road times will be significantly faster than trail times for the same distance. Closely related to my above point, a successful runner needn’t compare her road times to her trail times for the same distance simply because they will be wildly different. This all goes back to the point I made earlier about how the terrain, elevation gain or loss, and altitude will invariably affect your running pace. If you’re a road runner who can comfortably run an 8-minute mile, for example, it wouldn’t be egregious to think that you may have to work really hard to hold an 11 or even 12-minute pace on trails (especially depending on the type of trails you’re traversing). Put your ego aside when you’re running trails, and don’t worry about what your watch says.
  • Trail running’s vibe is often much more chill. It seems that as runners age, especially if they started out as roadrunners, they’ll often begin to gravitate toward trail running to begin chasing down new goals and to relish in the very different atmosphere. Most people would argue that trail running is more low-key and chill compared to its road running counterpart, and that may be the case for you (though don’t be tricked into thinking that there aren’t any competitive trail racers out there because there definitely are!). For the most part, however, I’d argue that many trail runners — regardless of age — do it because they love to be in nature and to accomplish crazy goals that they never thought they could (such as running through the mountains, running for multiple days, or running formidable distances).
  • Trail running can necessitate more gear than road running. Particularly if you’re going to be running trails for long stretches of time or running trails that are especially perilous, you may find that trail running necessitates more gear than good ol’ fashioned road running. In road running, aside from an outfit, shoes and a watch, that’s about all you need. With trail running, however, you may find that you end up carrying a hydration vest to store your water and food, poles to help you traverse mountains, or even a helmet to help you safely traverse the most dangerous parts of your journey. The risks can be inherently different and greater in trail running compared to road running, so it makes sense that the sport would necessitate different gear, too.
  • Trail running and road running can have a symbiotic relationship. Finally, though there are key differences between trail running and road running, it’s worthwhile to mention that the two different types of running can have a symbiotic relationship with each other. The strongest road runners, for example, will still be challenged by running trails; in fact, they may feel more mentally resilient and tough as a result of running trails and may find that the speed they develop on trails transfers nicely to the roads. Conversely, someone who trains exclusively on trails may be floored at how fast she can go when running on roads — free of debris, altitude, or elevation. It’s entirely possible to include both types of running into your training plan and still be able to reap the benefits on race day.

If you haven’t yet taken the plunge into trail running or road running, now’s your chance. You’ll find so many advantages to each, and best of all, you’ll really enjoy the shake-up in your training and the new and different stimuli that each type of running brings. Even if you’ve never run a step in your life on roads or on trails, it doesn’t matter; all of us began somewhere. It can be really easy to feel intimidated and that you don’t “belong” in this new type of running, but don’t let your fear of the unknown overshadow your desire to do something new. Do yourself a favor and see what you’ve been missing.

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