Road Running VS Trail Running

Road Running VS Trail Running:  What surface should you run on?

I have been receiving many questions from some of my VIP running clients lately about which surface is better to run on-  the harder surfaces of the roads or the softer surfaces of the trails or grassy surfaces.  So as a marathon runner and running coach, I have spent some time researching the subject and the research has shown countless pros and cons of both road running and trail running.  Frankly the research has made me a bit delirious.  And since delirious is the Wednesday Word over at Deb Runs today, I am pumped to link up and spend some time dishing the dirt on the positive and negative attributes on road running VS trail running that I have encountered while marathon trianing.  I am also linking this post up for Running Coaches Corner with Suzy at Suzlyfe, Rachel of Running on Happy, Debbie of Coach Debbie Runs, and Lora of Crazy Running Girl.

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So which is better suited for runners:  road running VS trail running?  Up until recently, I have heard many running coaches preach moderation for both road running and trail running.  In other words, try to do some running on softer surfaces and some running on harder surfaces. As a marathon runner, I can speak for myself that until recently, I thought I needed to get all my miles in on the road in order to keep track of my paces and splits for road racing.  As a runner who has battled back from many nagging injuries on the road, I was definitely  “under-utilizing” softer surfaces like trails, gravel, and dirt roads.  

Road Running VS Trail Running

But as a former injured runner with a history of plantar fasciitis, I have been told by countless sport medicine docs to just stick with running on the roads.  In the sport medicine world, runners with tibial stress fractures and/or plantar fasciitis often start with stiffer legs.  And while the research on injures is inconclusive to truly conclude that firmer surfaces or firmer shoes can actually prevent these types of injuries, many orthopedic and sport medicine doctors will reference a highly respected biomechanics research study from 2008 suggesting that some running injuries may be linked to stress from increased leg stiffness and others may be linked to stress from decreased leg stiffness.  

Likewise, if you’ve had a lot of muscle or tendon injuries, you might think about hitting the trails.  As a runner who has also suffered from tendinitis, I have also been told that trail running may be more beneficial for preventing many forms of tendinitis.  Trails or softer surfaces are going to alleviate a lot of stress from the impact that you’d normally get running on harder surfaces. The softer surfaces of the trails helps alleviate the stress on your ankles, knees, shins, and hips when striking the surface.  With knee pain, the most common running injury for beginning runners, the lesser impact of running trails is going to feel better on your knee than running on pavement.

So which is better to prevent injury-  road running VS trail running?  Most research studies that I looked at did not find any connection between how much of your running is on hard vs. soft surfaces and injury rates.  However, since trail training tends to be more of an irregular and rugged surface, most runners take more caution with each step while trail running.  If you run five miles on the road, every step is about the same. But if you run the same distance on a trail or a grassy surface, each step is taken with caution. To me (but not to the data), being cautious with each step may alleviate some common running injuries.  

In the short few weeks that I have been replacing my long road runs with a longer trail run (once/week), running on a more uneven surface is helping me build strength. Because I am recruiting smaller, more stabilizing muscles that I use for balance, I can already feel a noticeable difference in how my ankles, knees, and quads feel after a longer trail run.

 Road Running VS Trail Running

For me, trail running has also provided a pleasant escape from what can otherwise be a hectic day. I have really enjoyed the sounds of birds and trees rustling in the wind, and even spotting some wildlife on the trails.  Spending time in nature has been a welcomed spiritual recharge from the hustle and bustle of the daily grind.  Heading out on a trail instead of pounding pavement is appealing for me for many reasons. Escaping into the woods gives me a richer experience that a road run often cannot. The benefits of trail running span the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual areas of your life. So for me, splitting my time between the roads and the trails has been a welcomed retreat from marathon training.

Do you prefer road running or trail running?  I would love to hear your preference in the comments below! 


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lboldz@gmail.com June 29, 2016

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10 Comments

Wendy@Taking the Long Way Home June 29, 20164 years ago

Interesting research! I don’t get a lot of opportunities to run on trails, so when they present themselves, I hit the dirt. Otherwise it’s the road for me.

lboldz@gmail.com June 30, 20164 years ago

Wendy- I only recently started running the trails and while my time are slower- I am loving the change in surfaces!

Judy @ Chocolaterunsjudy June 29, 20164 years ago

I gotta admit, trails scare me a little. I do think softer surfaces are kinder to my legs, but then there’s that potential for falling.

One local running group puts on a series of trail runs in the summer — one of these days I really ought to try one!

lboldz@gmail.com June 30, 20164 years ago

Judy- the trails def used to scare me too, but they are so much fun! Try it!

Debbie June 29, 20164 years ago

I love trail running. I believe the softer surface is better for my feet, knees and other joints. Though I did break my patella last year falling on a trail. 🙂

I do believe though that you should get some time on the surface on which you’re racing. As much as I love trail running, I don’t believe it will make me faster (the opposite, actually). Plus, if i’m doing a long race on the road, i think my body needs to adapt to the hard surfaces.

It’s nice to hear the research on this. Thanks for linking up!

lboldz@gmail.com June 30, 20164 years ago

Deb- I had no idea you broke your patella on the trails–that is crazy! Yes for sure I am slower on the trails too!

lacey@fairytalesandfitness June 29, 20164 years ago

I like both for the mix of terrain. But I always seem to go faster road running than trail running. you have to be more cautious bc of the roots.

lboldz@gmail.com June 30, 20164 years ago

Me too Lacey- I am def slower on the trails!

Debbie @ Deb Runs July 5, 20164 years ago

I love the freedom I feel when running on trails even though I don’t run on them that often. Since i mostly race on streets, I run more on asphalt trails during my training runs. given the choice, I’d run on dirt and gravel trails in the woods, but I’d miss my tempo runs and track intervals for sure!

As always, thanks for linking up!

lboldz@gmail.com July 14, 20164 years ago

Deb- I have just been adding 1 trail run/week and I am def feeling the burn!