The Pros & Cons of Road Running vs. Trail Running

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Mark lakefront in Chicago for the Chicago Lakefront 50 Mile.

In my previous blog I mentioned how I started out running on roads and then became hooked on running trails. I also alluded to how I’m pulled in both directions as I still like to run on roads. I recently ran the Chicago Lakefront 50 Mile and this was to be my longest run on a road surface. I figured this would be the “ultra” test to see how much I really liked to run on roads.

I believe trail running shares surprisingly very little with road running and it attracts an entirely different breed of people. Trail runners tend to be the more outdoorsy type of people where as road runners seem to be more Type A or a competitive bunch. Trail races tend to be more laid back while road races are usually more intense and an outlet to find out your exact pace per mile. I know this is not true for everyone but just a general observation. Often our choices are dictated by convenience to a trail head so road running is generally a more convenient surface for most of us.

The main positive for me with trail running is that the softer surface generally allows me to stay healthier and have much less downtime for injury. If I’m training hard and subsequently running higher mileage, I have to dedicate many miles on the trail regardless of the race surface goal. Trails do build strength and stamina due to the uneven terrain and the softer surface absorbing the impact. Secondly with trail running your foot strike varies so much that overuse and repetitive motion injuries are less frequent than on road surfaces. Finally the greatest positive for me with trail running is the carefree feeling of being away from cars and traffic. It is a quiet, less stressful and peaceful feeling to run deep in the woods.

The main negative I see with trail running is that you have to pay close attention to the trail surface, if not it is easy to fall or roll an ankle. An injured ankle can be tough to heal if you continue to run on any sort of technical trail. Trail running pace is generally slower especially on tight, twisting hilly single track, so expect your pace per mile to drop anywhere from 30 seconds to 90 seconds while trail running. The softer surface absorbs your footfall and you get less spring off so it is tougher to keep the same pace that you are used to on roads. Trail running should be more about time on your feet and not mileage and this can be difficult to deal with for a road runner. I often curse under my breath as trail miles seem to take forever and I constantly doubt the person who measured the route.

Road running negatives are quite obvious. The harder surface breaks down muscles much quicker and it is tougher to recover as you rack up the miles. Overuse or repetitive motion injuries are much more frequent because your foot strike is almost always the same with each landing. Running on roads is much more dangerous if you have to deal with traffic. Luckily greenways are popping up everywhere and some are even well lit giving a safer venue for night time running.

A positive with running on a road is that you get much faster turnover or an increased pace per mile especially on flatter routes. You can log an 8-10 mile workout in much less time than a trail run. If you are not having to deal with cars you can turn your brain off and float along not worrying about that next root or rock you need to avoid. I like to do most of my speed workouts on road surfaces even though I race mostly on trails. I like to feel faster after being on the slower surface of trails.

In conclusion I like what both road and trail running gives me. I enjoy mixing it up and I get bored of just one type of surface every day. I need the release that each offers me. After my 50 mile road ultra at Chicago I’m definitely spending much more time on trails. My leg muscles and joints were wrecked but I did have fun and I almost met my “A” goal. However if I had to pick one surface, I would rather be running trails. Trail running has saved me from a lot more injuries and trails have taken me to some very beautiful areas that a road simply does not offer. Trail running is excellent therapy for all that life throws at us. I owe much to those trails that take me far away, even if they are measured incorrectly. There is no way that it could be my lack of fitness for all those twelve minute miles in the woods!

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