5 Factors to Consider before Hitting the Trail versus the Road

Do you see yourself zenning out in nature on the trails or hitting the long, open road? Not sure which is right for you? 

Running has a nice assortment of subcultures, niches, and endless workouts. It can make you wonder what can you explore next when it comes to road versus trail running. There can be many reasons to choose one over the other (or both), but in the meantime, here are five main factors to consider. 


One question to ask yourself before deciding to explore the trail or hit the pavement is “what is my purpose”? Knowing why you want to hit the road or the trail can be helpful in narrowing down a type of workout you intend to do and which terrain would make the most sense. 

Use trail running for cross training.  Many reasons runners choose to run trails is for cross training, or to supplement their road running. Because trail running is particularly helpful in providing stability for better running form, it can be an efficient way to add value to training on the road. It works supporting muscles and shortens the stride because of the increase in footwork due to rocks, roots, and hills. These quick, shorter movements act as a way to build agility, strength, and stamina. Choose one day a week, or your strength day, and hit a difficult or technical trail for a harder workout. 

Use road running for speed workouts involving pace. Conversely, road running is great for workouts involving pacing. With the lack of variables such as terrain, clocking the miles a particular pace is much easier to do on concrete. For example, mile-repeats would make more sense on the road with a goal pace.

Use trail running for recovery. Another purpose for trail running is simply incorporating a recovery run. Depending on the trail difficulty, it can provide a softer surface making it easier on your sore muscles and joints as you recover from a regular road run. If you are taking an easy day, a simple walk/run on an easy, flat trail can do wonders and be a fun way to mix it up and can help to rid your legs of lactic acid buildup. 

Use trail running to catch a break. We all know motivation can be fleeting and road running can, therefore, turn monotonous. Sometimes a change of scenery can do us good and be a literal breath of fresh air to get us through our training. 

Use trail running and road running to dabble. Perhaps you find yourself increasingly lost in the thick woods of a nearby trail more and more each week. Maybe you are turning into a trail runner! Explore both trail running, road running and both types of races to figure out your niche. Some subcultures correspond with each sport, and some find their fit better in one over the other. 


Another very essential factor to consider is the terrain difference. Know that It is okay to dislike one over the other. For example, many find they dislike the constant attention to footwork trail running requires. Others find concrete too hard on their joints. 

The terrain on trails is usually hard, compact dirt and include rocks, stumps, and roots. It is for this reason that it can be a more difficult sport but at the same time, provide jaw-dropping scenery. In the world of trail running, you will hear the term “technical.” This means the overall difficulty level of the trail regarding the elevation, small hills or large hills, and the quantity of disruptions on the path such as rocks, sticks, roots and natural steps. 

While many delights in the fleet-footed nature of trail running, others don’t like the idea of having to maintain the constant vigilance that is required to not roll an ankle or wipe out on a rock, stump or root.  Additionally, you have to add around 45 seconds to 2 minutes to your pace because runners are slower on trails depending on the technical level. 

On the other hand, the terrain of the road is usually concrete, asphalt, or a mixture of both. These materials are a much harder surface, and therefore, will provide more response to your exertion. Therefore, running on concrete proves to provide better running economy and quicker turnover, making your run faster because of this efficiency. This way, you can log more miles more easily on the slab. Similarly, the lack of sticks poking out at you on the concrete makes it easier to relax and zone out on the run. 


One of the key positives to trail running is being in a backdrop of nature. It can be quite relaxing and refreshing, especially if you live in a city. Running on the road can be nice too, especially when you know where you are going and can avoid traffic. Or, even finding a paved trail to run on where you don’t have to worry about the hustle and bustle of the city. 

In trail running, the idea of getting lost can be nice — until you get lost. One drawback to galavanting on the dirt is actually losing your way in the woods. The hypervigilance of footwork extends to the idea of knowing where the heck you are. For trails, it is a good idea to take the time to study a trail map. Usually, these can be found online or at the trailhead. Be sure to take a cell phone with you or physical map as backup. 

The conditions of the trail are also worth noting; when it rains, trails can turn into a muckiness that resembles nothing short of glue. Check websites to ensure the trail is even open before heading out and what the current conditions are. Factors like rain and flooding can shut down a trail. Likewise, you will probably spend more time out on the trail than the road because of the lack of shortcuts and the longer miles due to slower pace and technicality of the trail as previously mentioned. 

For the road, the scenery can often feel much more open and ever-changing. Blocks and neighborhoods can be easy in navigating a route that is precise in its distance. It can be easier to plan a route, know exactly how many miles it is, and relax on your run. However, the opposite can take effect if you are having to constantly stop and traffic lights, dodge rush hour or swim through a sea of people. Plan your runs early for the road to avoid the chaos of the busy city or opt for a paved trail.


Running gear varies a bit when it comes to trail versus road. The factors that helped form the technology were similar to the ones discussed here: purpose, terrain, conditions, and environment. 

Overall, trail running equals more gear. This is because of the terrain, isolation, conditions, and the elements. Trail shoes can include a more rugged outsole for grip, a rock plate, and a firmer midsole. The latter is for protecting your feet against any rocks, sticks, or stumps on the trail.

In addition to shoes, hydration equipment differs. Many times trail-heads will carry a hydration backpack or handheld bottles due to the lack of water fountains and isolation out on the trail. Roadrunners usually carry lighter, if they have fountains along the way or are going for a shorter run. 

Carrying more things with you out on the trail, like a phone, hydration packs, keys, gels, headlamps, and perhaps even a jacket, can call for a small pack or belt to take with you as well. Lightweight jackets, like the Brook’s LSD, that fold up into a small pack, can be great to protect against the elements out on the trail, especially if the elevation changes drastically and it gets cooler. 

Other miscellaneous items, like shoe gaiters, can protect your shoes from getting sand, sticks, rocks, or even snow in them which would make for an uncomfortable run. Headlamps can help you see at night both on the trail, and the road and visibility lights are highly recommended for city-dwellers and road goers. 

Indiscriminately, road running can be more simplistic when it comes to what the gear that is required. This can be a huge plus on your weight and your wallet. On the other hand, runners can be known for being pretty big gear nerds as well. 


The last factor to ponder is the culture that is driven by both road runners and trail runners. Ultimately, every single one of us is unique and different and may not fall into a particular subculture in the running world, and that is perfectly fine. The intention is not to put anyone in a single box or to say that you must be a certain way to run one over the other. However, arguably there are some observable differences in the spirit of the trail runner and the spirit of the roadrunner. The intention to is highlight which might fit best with your unique personality. 

Trail runners tend to be more outdoorsy, adventure enthusiasts, and perhaps even more laid back. Consequently, they at times can care less about their times and pace; sometimes the goal is to relax, run fast, and see where the adventure takes them out on the trails. 

They typically thrive on the escapade of finding different trails to run, all distinct in their own way. Many enjoy feeling the “oneness” and immersion of nature reminiscent to the philosophies of Henry David Thoreau, likening their experience to the struggle of life. Pain is a mirror inward to the truth of character and is never-ending. It is, for this reason, it is no surprise that many trail runners become ultrarunners — the continual experience of finding oneself and pressing the limits of pain to do so. 

Roadrunners can be more “type A,” paying more attention to the competitive nature of road-racing, pace, and time. Goal-oriented runners find road racing to be a great challenge to push limits on their pace and set new PR’s (personal records). Group running for road runners is very common and feels more like a pack. Also, social runs and running buddies make for fun times, aids motivation, and allows you to assess the competition! 

Albeit the cultures that exist, it’s more important to be yourself. Run your runs. Race your races. Train like a boss. And don’t forget to consider these factors when you are debating to channel your inner Buddha on the trail or hit a new personal record on the pavement.

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