Now, there’s a question that will divide opinion. Let’s just clarify, personally we don’t think one type of running is harder than the other. We are not of the mind that road running is not as hard as trail running or that running off road is easier than putting the miles in on the road. They are two entirely different types of running that can complement each other, be enjoyed by everyone and that both have their own challenges. Let’s examine trail running vs road running:

Road Running is Faster

Road running is faster. You won’t hear any arguments there. It’s no great surprise that road runners knock out much faster times than those who run the same distance on the trails. Most PBs are achieved on the road unless a runner has never run on the road. Trail running slows you down.

This was highlighted at our latest interval coaching session. One of the new guys turned up, he’s pretty quick and we were all keen to know how he got on at a 10k race we knew he had entered. He told us his time. It was a decent time for a road 10k for someone new to the sport. OK, it wasn’t going to win any prizes but it was still good.

When someone then asked if it was road or off road, and it turned out to be the latter, it then became more impressive and all of a sudden everyone was congratulating him and telling him what a great time it was. For an off road race it was really impressive, for a road race – it was just good!

There are a number of reasons for road running being faster than trail running. The main one being that the terrain is mostly flat with less undulations, largely tarmac and there are no obstacles. You can run smoothly on the road, focused and less interrupted.

Your focus is on keeping your pace consistent and maintaining  your form and posture. Keeping that pace without a break is tough, as we are reminded when we try and knock out any decent road times these days.  Pausing for traffic is often the only chance you get for catching your breath if out on a training run.

There Are More Obstacles on the Trails

Keeping a steady pace is tough. You just find your rhythm and you have to stop and open a gate, climb a hill or navigate a rocky path. That said, it does give you the opportunity to catch your breath, to have a short break and to reduce your heart rate (unless faced with a climb). Baring traffic interruptions you have a much less interrupted run on the road.

There are many obstacles that trail runners face. Not only do you have to consider the static ones such as tree roots and gates but there are also the moving ones. Many a time we’ve come face to face with a herd of curious cows. Some PB’s have been achieved no doubt in these circumstances although the advice is to not run if being chased!  

Trail takes more concentration

 When road running, you can find that smooth rhythm that means you don’t have to think so much about the ground beneath you. Yes, you do have to be mindful of obstacles such as pedestrians and  cyclists  but the smooth tarmac surfaces mean you can establish a regular, steady pace.

In contrast to this, technical terrain such as rocky paths and muddy trails require focus and concentration on where your feet will land next. You don’t get to take your eyes off the trails ahead, especially when taking on steep ascents and descents.

They Both Require Different Shoes

If you are a road runner, it’s always best to have a pair of trail shoes. if you are a trail runner, you will also need a pair of road shoes! it’s such a quandary! For those of you that love buying running shoes, this is only good news right?

Many runners start with road running to be fair. They find a shoe they like and then next they purchase a pair of trail running shoes. There is a lot to consider so it’s worth spending a bit of time doing some research, reading the online reviews and finding a shoe that offers what you need. We offer more advice on choosing the right trail shoes here.

Conditioning – Trail Running vs Road Running

Trail running requires a strong core and strong quads to cope with the climbs and descents as well as the fact that they have to lift their feet further off the ground.

Road runners will spend time perfecting their running form – their stride/gait, cadence and arm drive. In fact, we believe that road runners would actually benefit from trail runs to activate and strengthen those muscle groups that they don’t get so much of a workout on the roads.

All runners are advised to undertake core exercise to increase stability and improve balance. Cross training such as cycling and swimming are also beneficial to engaging different muscle groups.

Trail Running Takes More of Your Time

One thing we found was that nipping out of the door to run a half marathon on a Sunday morning meant we were back within two hours. You can add at least an hour on when you hit the trails, as this frequently includes getting to and from your chosen destination.

I am lucky enough to live half a mile from some decent trails but it’s still at least 2.5 hours to complete the same distance off road. If it’s wet and muddy, this time becomes even longer.

In our estimation  13 miles on the road can be seen as the equivalent to 10 miles on the trails. This is especially true when you are measuring time on your feet. Adding on an extra hour for a 20 mile long run is not uncommon.

Trail Running Burns More Calories

Mile for mile, you may be surprised to know that trail running burns more calories. That’s because you are exercising for longer to achieve the same distances. That said, it is often countered by the fact that trail runners eat more.

It’s a lot harder to consume food when road running (and keep it down), than when you are running  on the trails.  So, all things considered, the two probably come out even when it comes to trail running vs road running.

Exercise Patience When Switching to Trails

For road runners that want to switch to the trails (when you’ve conquered all your road goals and PBs perhaps), you will need to be patient on a few counts. The first will be pace! Don’t expect to be able to achieve the same times off road. Also, you will need to get used to stopping and starting to navigate gates, stiles, cattle grids and climbs. However, the views that you come across when on the trails make it all worth while and in our opinion far more rewarding.