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6 key differences between road and trail running

Road running and trail running both have the same goal of getting from Point A to Point B, but other than that, they're pretty different

It would be fair to assume that road running and trail running are quite similar, and while they certainly do share many common features, there are still a lot of differences between these two sides of the sport. When the terrain changes, the game changes, and that’s why there is such a divide between the trails and the road. Don’t believe us? Here are six ways (of many) that running on trails differs from running on the road. 

Views 

You can definitely get some nice views on the road every now and then, but you’re guaranteed to have great scenery no matter what trail you visit. Whether you’re on a trail in the mountains or deep in the woods, you’ll see all that nature has to offer. Nothing against city streets and paved paths, but there’s no denying that trail running offers the best views in the sport. 

Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc Course
Photo: Pascal Tournaire/UTMB.

Accessibility 

Unless you’re lucky enough to live near a trail, you’re going to have to drive to one to start your run. That’s not the case with road running, as no matter where you live, you’re on your route as soon as you walk out your door. 

RELATED: 12.5 reasons trail running is better than road running

Pacing 

Pace is a good metric to use in training to help you know where you’re at with your fitness. You can set goal paces in workouts, and these sessions will help you determine what pace you should aim to run in your next race. That is, assuming you’re training and racing on the road. If you’re working out and competing on the trails, pace is much less useful.

Photo: Nick Butter

Roads are smooth and flat, but trails are covered in rocks, roots and other obstacles, and they’re constantly undulating, shifting from climbs to descents. The technical side of trail running will slow you down, and you can’t expect to run the same pace you would on the road. Instead of running by pace on the trails, judge your speed based on effort

RELATED: 8 reasons to give ultrarunning a try

Climbing

Like we said, trails can be hilly. Depending on where you live, your road runs might be pretty hilly, too, but in most places, trail routes will be way hillier than outings on the road. If you’re looking to become a better climber (and a stronger runner in general), it’s worth heading to the trails and finding a good spot to try some hill repeats. It’ll hurt, but the payoff will be well worth it. 

Focus 

You can let your mind wander when you’re running on the road, but if you lose focus on the trails, you could set yourself up for a nasty fall. Yes, you have to pay attention to traffic while on the road and crossing streets, but you probably do that on autopilot. It’s like when you’re driving and you zone out and arrive at your destination without even thinking about making certain turns. Your mind is on something else, but your brain is still making sure you drive safely, which is what happens when you’re running on the road. 

On the trails, though, losing focus for even just a few seconds can be disastrous. There are so many roots and rocks on trails, and if they don’t have 100 per cent of your attention, there’s a good chance you’ll trip over one of them. 

RELATED: 7 reasons road running is better than trail running

Navigation 

It’s pretty easy to get lost in the woods. You can get so focused on not falling that you forget what turns you’ve made along the way, and soon enough, you realize that you’re lost. And depending on where you are, even if you have your phone on you, it might not help, as there may be no cell service. On the roads, you can still get lost, but it’s way easier to find your way home. The cell service will probably be great, it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone to ask for directions and if you have to, you can just wander until you find a main road.