Is Trail Running Harder Than Road Running? Which is Better?

Last Updated: June 1, 2022

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For those that may be new to running, it might seem that the sport is a very linear option. But the truth is that there are multiple different types of running, and each comes with its own unique benefits and disadvantages.

Not only that, but there are a multiple number of surfaces you can run on.

For instance, when you are researching, you may see that there are runners that prefer trail running and those that prefer road running. But is trail running harder than road running? And if so, which one is better for you?

In this quick guide, we’re going to take a look at these questions and answer them by diving deep into each of these different forms of running. Hopefully, this will help you determine which one is the best fit for you and your exercise needs.

Trail Running Vs. Road Running: What Are the Differences?

Looking at the different names, the biggest difference is just simply that one has you running on a trail, while the other on the flatter surface of a road. But there are so many other differences that far outweigh this very superficial one.

One of the biggest is that road running will wind up taking less time to plan out your route. All you have to do is get dressed and head out the door, and you can find a road just about anywhere that you can run down. 

However, when it comes to trail running, you have to find and typically try this different type of running. Along with getting to the destination, you also have to plan your gear.

On a road, you can wear traditional road running shoes, maybe with some added features that are specific to help with shock absorption and such.

But when you are trail running, the gear that goes with that is very specific; for instance, you will need shoes that have a good grip and traction.

One other big difference is that road running will have more impact on your joints and body. Though it might seem strange because trail running has you running on dirt and leaves as well as gravel, the hard surface of the asphalt is way more jarring to your body than the trail. This means that trail running is less impactful on things like your knees, back, and hips. 

Many runners like to track their progress, and it is a lot easier to do this when you have chosen road running. This is because the road itself is flat, and many are labeled with mile markers. However, trail running does allow for a lot of constant change, which will give the runner enhanced results when it comes to aerobic and muscle training. 

Even still, it is hard to track your progress if you’re looking at numbers and not results. Another big difference is the muscle groups the exercises target, resulting in specific body types. Runners who choose to use road running as their option will find themselves with leaner bodies and toned legs.

Because of the more diverse atmosphere of a trail run, the athlete that chooses this will find themselves having a more in-depth full-body workout. This is because the trail might require different types of movement than running on a flat surface. 

Lastly, when you are a roadrunner, you are doing so within a city. This means that you have to compete with air pollution, which may make breathing a little more difficult. However, those that run on trails are out in the open air, breathing in fresh, clean oxygen, which can help improve lung strength.

Trail Running – Pros & Cons

OK, so now that we’ve taken a look at the differences between the two forms of running, let’s really dive into the pros and cons of each. We’re going to start with trail running. When you’ve chosen to run on trails, you are afforded a beautiful setting to get your exercise on. The trails themselves tend to be a softer surface, which, as we said above, reduces the shock to your joints.

Along with this, because of the ever-changing weather systems, even if you run the same trail, it will never be the same trail twice. This means that the trail’s surfaces and elevations will change, which will allow you to work more of your body than other options. That being said, running on trails, you often have to contend with the elements. 

Weather systems will affect whether you can hit your trails for your daily run and will also change the landscape. Though this is a great advantage because it will allow you to work different muscles, the differential elevations can be challenging for those that have hip and knee problems.

Road Running – Pros and Cons

Now when you look at road running, there are just as many positives and negatives as there are with trail running. When it comes to the benefits you will be able to take advantage of, the biggest is that road running is very accessible. 

Also, the roads themselves are consistent, and this makes the act of running across them much easier than a trail. Most people look at road running as a great training tool, and it is because of the simplicity of monitoring the effects on your cardio.

But the hard surface of the road is detrimental to the body and requires shoes with adequate cushioning. As we said above, it is also consistent when it comes to the level of it, and this doesn’t lead to many challenges. You will have to also deal with other runners as well as traffic and bikes, which makes road running slightly more dangerous than trail running.

Can Trail Running Enhance Road Running? 

So there we were looking at which of these options are better. We wanted to take the time to really look at if combining the two could be more beneficial.

Can you utilize both of these options to improve each other’s results? The answer is an absolute yes. Trail running is a great addition to a road running regiment as it can help you become more fleet-footed and helps elevate your aerobic capabilities.

Adding trail running into your running regime will help strengthen your core because of the variable movements you have to make to run along the trail. Along with this, your balance will be improved, as well as your muscles, which means there is less of a risk for injuries.

Along with this, switching things up when it comes to your scenery can help keep running from getting repetitive, which will ensure that you’re more likely to continue doing it.

One of our favorite running brands, Salomon has a great video that further explains the differences:

Frequently Asked Questions On Trail Running vs. Road Running

Before giving our final thoughts on whether trail running or road running is better than the other, we also wanted to look at some of the most commonly asked questions.

After scouring the Internet, we found several that seemed to pop up quite often, and we wanted to answer them below so you have a fuller understanding when you make your decision on which option to go with.

Does one burn more calories than the other for trail or road running?

Many people opt to add running into their exercise regime because they’re looking to lose weight. For those utilizing the exercise in that capacity, it will be beneficial for them to know that trail running will burn more calories.

This is because there is more movement when it comes to running a trail. You have to deal with obstacles and the ever-changing terrain, which allows your body to work all kinds of different muscles. The more muscles you work, the more calories you burn.

Is there a different mindset when it comes to trail running versus road running?

Running, in essence, is running no matter what type of running you are doing. However, there are different mindsets that come when it pertains to the type of runners. Some prefer the experience, and some are looking for a way to enhance their performance. 

When you’re a performance-based runner, you’re looking for the ability to monitor your progress. You’ll want to understand things like your heart rate, distance, and calories. For this reason, more performance-driven runners tend to like road running better.

If you’re someone who just loves the experience of running and almost reached a meditative state, then trail running is going to be a better fit for you. That is because your mindset is focused on your environment and the experience of running and not the results at the end of the process. Though you will have excellent results, this is not what drives you.

Final Thoughts

So, at the end of the day, is trail running harder than road running? When it comes to the actual process and the amount of work that your body is doing, yes, trail running is harder than road running.

Having the right running shoes and a running watch is a luxury, but it can help you along the way (Especially on trails).

But asking which one is better depends on the runner themselves. As we said above, if you are a performance-driven runner, then road running will be the better option. In contrast, if you are an experienced-based runner, trail running will be a better fit.

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