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Is Trail Running Harder than Road Running?

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On a hot Saturday morning, it can seem really appealing to head to a nicely shaded forest for a trail run. Shade from the sun, adventure, a new running route, trail running can be a nice change every once and awhile. But, is it going to be the same amount of exertion and energy as your normal road runs?

Trail running is harder than road running mainly due to the unevenness of the terrain, the quick change in elevation, and navigating obstacles. Trail running is great agility practice and can be fun for runners who feel stuck in a rut with their regular routines.

If you’re a road runner, it can be nerve wracking to test out the trails. There are a lot of unknowns you’ll have to face, which can be daunting when you’re so used to simply lacing up your shoes and heading out the door. These nerves are worth conquering though. Let’s dive into the reasons why trail running is harder than road running and how this challenge will benefit you.

Trail Running Gives You Unexpected Obstacles

When you’re running on the road, there aren’t too many obstacles that come in your way. For me, the worst case scenario is trash day when I have to dodge the cans on the side of the road. Really, that’s not too bad. My life is hard, I know.

When you’re running on a trail though, obstacles are EVERYWHERE. Sometimes, there are obstacles after every step. Also, obstacles tend to pop up out of nowhere. Instead of the long, expansive roads where you can see trash cans from blocks away, trails often come with quick turns that make you reinact the Matrix as you’re ducking a branch coming towards your face.

These unexpected obstacles can make trail running more precarious and dangerous than road running, but there are benefits as well. As any Spartan racer knows, obstacles are meant to be crushed, conquered, and shown no mercy.

If you’ve read other blog posts from Better Than Alive, you know that I fall down a lot. I fall down so often that I wrote a blog post about it and found a passionate community of other trippers and fallers that share my same tendencies. Believe it or not, most of my falls have happened when I wasn’t paying attention. No, I wasn’t hurdling over fences or fire hydrants; I was thinking about something else and forgetting to pick up my feet.

When you’re trail running, you’re forced to pay attention. If you don’t, you’ll tumble down a hill or trip over a tree root. In my experience, this makes me LESS likely to fall than if I’m daydreaming or caught up in my podcasts. When you are forced to think about every single step you’re taking and what moves you need to make to avoid obstacles, you are much more careful than when you’re mindlessly running on the road.

The mindfulness you develop while trail running can translate to your road running, helping you to be more aware of your surroundings and how you’re moving. When obstacles appear seemingly out of nowhere on the trails, you’re refining your reflexes and improving your abilities to think quickly on your feet. As a clumsy runner myself, these are great skills to work on.

Trail Running Gives You Uneven Surfaces to Navigate

In addition to the obstacles you’ll find on the trails, you’ll also find a lot of uneven surfaces. Actually, you’ll be lucky to have even two feet of flat and even terrain. When running on trails, unevenness is the norm. Not surprisingly, this is challenging. Heck, I get annoyed by the slight slant on the side of the road when you’re riding in the bike lane.

Side note! Did you know that the slant on the side of the road can mess with your form? Let’s say you run 4 miles on the right side of the road and then cross the street and run 4 miles back on the right side of the road. This means that for your entire 8 mile run, your right foot is running on a slight slant. This isn’t good for your foot and can eventually lead to an injury. As we’ll talk about next, unevenness can be a good thing, but if you have a constant slant on only one side, you’re continually stressing out the same joints in an awkward and unnatural way. There just isn’t enough variability. Sometimes, we don’t even notice these slants. They don’t instantly hurt our feet and seem so slight. Over time though, you’ll feel the impacts. Just thought I’d take a moment for that PSA. 

Unlike the road slants we just talked about, trails give you a lot of different types of uneven surfaces. One step you’re tilting upwards as you navigate a tree root and the next step you’re tilting sideways as you navigate a dip in the dirt. As we talked about in our PSA above, having an uneven surface that never changes can put awkward and undue stress on your joints. When the surfaces are constantly changing though, you’re giving your joints a good chance to adapt to variability and gain flexibility.

Have you ever had a moment when you’re road running and you need to step up on a curb? Suddenly, there’s a twinge in your ankle. It just isn’t flexible enough to deal with that slight change in movement. When you’re road running, your body becomes accustomed to the straight and narrow. It’s easy for your muscles and joints to stiffen up and just do the job they’re being asked to do.

Trail running is a great way to strengthen the muscles and joints in your feet and legs so that they’re ready to deal with any uneven surfaces that come their way. As a road runner, you may only come across the occasional curb and dip in the sidewalk, but you’ll be stronger overall and prepared for any surfaces you might find. Strength and flexibility is always a great thing as a runner. Combatting uneven surfaces with your trail running can be a great tool for helping you avoid injury and staying dynamic in your training.

There is a caveat though. If you haven’t run on a lot of uneven surfaces before, make sure to take it slowly. Just like anything, your body needs time to practice, adapt, and strengthen. If you do too much too soon, you could end up with an injury. Start out by walking a few trails and then slowly build up to short runs. As you grow stronger, you’ll be able to complete more regular runs on the trails.

Trail Running Can Be More Physically Tiring Than Road Running

When you’re hurdling over rocks, going up and down hills, and taking sharp turns, it can take a lot more effort than running on a flat and straight road. Not always, but usually. When you’re running on the road, you get into a groove. Even if you’re battling a huge hill, your breathing takes on a regular rhythm, your feet plod along, and you work up momentum to push you along. On the trails, you are constantly changing directions, going up and down hills, jumping over hurdles, and making quick adjusts to stay balanced. Not only does this all take a lot of effort by itself, it prevents you from building momentum and getting into a consistent rhythm.

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This means that trail running is a great workout. It’s easy to get in a rut and just settle into the monotony of your regular road run. When you head out on the trails, you’re embracing the unexpected and giving your body something it isn’t used to. This physical challenge is what prompts your body to grow, change, get stronger, and become better than it was before. 

Head out to a trail and give your body a challenge!

Trail Running Can Be More Mentally Tiring Than Road Running

As we’ve already touched on, trail running forces you to stay alert and think quickly. It won’t serve you well if you start daydreaming and run into a tree. For many runners, including myself, running is a great way to clear my head and think about other things. Basically, it’s a chance to disconnect. Trail running isn’t great for that. Instead, trail running is like trying to solve a complex math problem in less than 60 seconds. There’s no choice but to be focused and pour every single drop of mental energy into it. Mentally, this is what makes trail running more challenging than road running. Yes, there are times that road running evokes the same feeling, like in those last miles of a marathon, but it generally requires less mental presence. 

Running can be really taxing from a mental perspective and it’s important to know how to push through it. When you’re going up a huge hill, combattin the last few miles of a race, or just exhausted and wanting to give up, how do you push through and keep going?  Trail running can give you some good training in mental perseverance. You have no choice but to stay mentally aware and active on a trail run. If you don’t you could get injured. Learning how to stay mentally alert and push through the pain is a great skill to work on and have in your running toolkit.

You’ll Run Slower on the Trails Than on the Roads

I don’t like running slowly. Even when I know that I’m supposed to do a slow, recovery run, my mind fights against it. I’ve definitely gotten better at it over time, but I still like the feeling of running fast. Well, trail running is not the friend of fast running. 

It can be really frustrating. As we’ve talked about at length now, running on the trails can be really challenging both physically and mentally. You’re working so hard, yet you look down at your watch and realize you’re running slower than you normally would on one of your slowest recovery runs. What’s the deal?

Unless you’re really experienced and really coordinated, it’s hard to run quickly while you’re navigating uneven terrain and jumping over tree roots. Especially when you’re starting out with trail running, don’t expect lofty mileage goals. Think about how long it would normally take you to complete a run and then double it. This is a bit extreme, but it will prevent you from being overly ambitious. There’s nothing worse than realizing that you went too far out on a trail and now need to make it all the way back. 

When I’m trying something new with running, I like to pick a short path that gives me a quick exit route if I need it. Try to pick a short out and back trail near a parking lot where you can leave your car. Do this same trail over and over again until you feel like you want to be done with your workout. This gives you a baseline so that you know how long and far you can realistically go on your future trail runs.

You May Get a Little Dirtier When You’re Trail Running

This shouldn’t be a surprise, but trail running is a little bit dirtier than road running. Whenever you venture off on an unpaved road, you’re asking for a bit of adventure. By default, if you’re running on dirt instead of pavement, it’s going to get messy. But, it’s not just the running that leaves you exposed to the elements. 

Whenever I go trail running, I find myself climbing over rocks, pushing against tree trunks, and getting scrapes from branches and plants that are sticking out. More often than not, I come home to find myself caked in a layer of dirt. And, sometimes, blood. When you’re filled with adrenaline as you’re running through the trails, it’s easy to get scrapes without even realizing it. 

Naturally, it’s not a good idea to wear your most prized and cherished running clothes. Even though most dirt can be washed away in your next load of laundry, you might come away with some stains that serve as memories of your epic trail runs. 

It’s also important that you wear form fitting clothing. When running through trails, you’ll be navigating through tight passages and dodging trees, rocks, and plants. You might also find yourself leaping over a river. You don’t want your clothes getting snagged on stray branches. This could lead to unnecessary injuries that could have otherwise been easily avoided. Try to make your clothes as discreet and simple as possible.

Trail Running Exposes You to Everything that Nature Has to Offer

A few years ago, I was out on a trail run with a few friends when someone suddenly felt a “sting.” Thinking it was a fluke occurrence, we kept going. But then, it happened again. It turns out we had become frenemies with some bees. Luckily, we got back to our cars without it becoming a big problem, but it was uncomfortable to say the least. 

When you’re out on the trails, you’re leaving yourself exposed to nature. You may have to cross a stream or river, encounter animals, or stumble upon poison oak. Depending on how remote the trail is, you may not have cell phone reception if you need to call for help. Prepare yourself for anything and everything. 

There’s a bigger safety component with trail running than there is with road running. Cars are a huge factor with road running, but that’s your biggest threat. Trails can offer any number of natural dangers. It’s important to always run with a safety pack if you’re headed out on the trails. Make sure you have basic first aid supplies and any necessities in case you were to get lost or stuck. If you have any allergies or medical conditions, have any supplies you would need in case of emergency. You’ll also want extra water.

If you’re being smart about it, you will need to take extra time to prepare for a trail run than you will a road run. Even though it can seem a little horrific, think about everything you might encounter when you’re out on the trails and what you would do about it. Are there certain supplies you would need? Techniques you would need to know? Taking a bit of time to think through some worst case scenarios can keep you prepared for anything that might come your way. Here are some running packs you can check out.

Trail running can be a fun and adventurous way to build your skills as a runner. Yes, it’s generally harder than road running, but it has a lot of benefits. At the very least, it gives you something new and different to insert into a running routine that may have become a little stale overtime. If you’re looking for a challenge that can shake up your monotonous running routine, lace up your shoes and find a fun trail nearby!

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