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Trail Running versus Road Running

Which run looks more engaging:

Trail run map

Road run map

Does it change your mind to know that the top image was a 20.5 mile run while the bottom was an 7.5 mile run?  In case you can’t tell, the top image is a recent three hour trail run I did, while the bottom was an one hour aerobic run.  Even though the trail run was three times as long, it seemed to pass significantly faster than the other.

I don’t know about others, but I strongly prefer trail running to any other surface.  I find the variety makes the run more engaging, generally leaves my legs less destroyed than other surfaces, and is simply more fun.  But, being the complete dork that I am, I wondered whether doing all my “long” runs on trails is a good or bad idea.  Thankfully, with Google, even I can find a limitless amount of information on the subject.  Entering “trail running vs. road running” yields over 2.3 million results in 0.22 seconds.  So, yeah, there’s some thought, information, and opinion out there.

Rather than doing things that matter, like cleaning my dirty kitchen, I decided to read a few dozen articles.  Because I needed to, that’s why.  The general consensus is that trail running is better.  Wow, shocker.  I literally didn’t find a single instance where someone said they preferred road running over trail running.

However, while trails are overwhelmingly the preferred surface, there are a few moments where a road may be more suitable.  Any tempo or interval runs are better done on a more stable surface.  When you are doing speed or drill work, you need the consistency a road (or track) provides.  Given that nearly all running events occur on roads, at least some time preparing on roads is advisable.  Beyond those though, most people (including this author) strongly prefer trails.  So, with that being said, here are my words of outstanding wisdom regarding running on trails…Forest trail


Given the unpredictable nature of trails (e.g., mud, rocks, gravel, etc.), you will probably want shoes that provide a little more cushioning and support than normal.  Since I always like to guinea pig myself to satisfy my own curiosities, I have run the same trail route in my training shoes (Pearl Izumi Synchro Fuel Road II) and in one of my racing flats (Pearl Izumi Streak II) just to feel the difference.  Night and day.  I think every pebble actually caused a bruise in the flats.  Don’t do what I did.  My feet hurt for days.  Additionally, there are shoes specific for trail running that supposedly provide extra stability and support.  No clue if they work, but the marketing says they do!


While trail running is less traumatic, it can be more challenging.  That may lead to extra work for your soft, connective tissue.  So, make certain you do a proper warm-up to ensure that you body is ready to run before hitting that trail.  A simple 15-20 minute, easy jog should suffice.

Don’t be Forrest Gump (i.e., Don’t run alone unless you have no choice)

Run, Forest Run!While Tom Hanks may have been safe jogging across the country, he was being followed by camera crews and a large support staff.  Wait, what?  That was fiction?  Oh, well, regardless, don’t be stupid is as stupid does.  Run with a friend.  The probability of an injury, getting lost, getting chased by local wildlife (including humans), and so on is all too real.  Be smart and be safe.  If you don’t have friends, well, at least post on Facebook where you are going, your intended route, how long you will be gone, and when you’ll be back.  Of course, if you don’t have friends, chances are Facebook won’t help you either, but you get my drift.

(Side note, but the best option I have found for carrying identifying information is RoadID.  RoadID makes a variety of products, the goal being an easy, comfy, and hassle-free way to carry critical contact and medical information while running, cycling, walking, etc.  Personally, I prefer the anklet, but I would HIGHLY recommend getting one of their products.  (Note, I do NOT work for RoadID.)  Regardless of your chosen method of exercise, enabling someone who finds your lifeless body to contact your family is a good idea.)

Start Slower than Normal

Since you are running on a natural surface, don’t assume you can hold the same pace as you might otherwise.  Give your body some extra time to adjust, especially if you are new to either trail running in general or the specific trail you are running.  Rather than crushing that 15 min warm up at a 8min/mile pace because you are awesome, take some time and get ready at 9 min/mile.  Plus, this is crazy sounding, but you might actually see some pretty flowers or something…

Pay Attention

This almost seems silly to cover, but I did eat it (once) and nearly ate it (twice) on a long run recently, on a trail I run frequently.  So, watch where you are going.  Take some attention away from the beauty and pay attention to where your feet are landing.  Know the surface.  Packed dirt is your friend, but gravel actually wants to hurt you.  I know, crazy right?  Scientific Fact.  Gravel is just mean.  So, watch the ground and avoid having to explain at work on Monday why you fell even though you were sober.

Bring Extra Fuel and Water

I know, I know, it is crazy but there simply aren’t gas stations, convenience stores, and water fountains on pristine, virgin land.  Bizarre.  Additionally, pack OUT what you pack in.  Few things irk me more than litterbugs.  Don’t be “that guy”.

Know where you are AND where you are going

Again, a crazy concept, but plan ahead.  If you cannot find a running partner, at least have enough of a geographic understanding to avoid getting lost.  Having to explain your exciting, yet expensive and embarrassing, helicopter ride to your friends at work after explaining your sober tumble might cause them to rethink the value of your friendship.  Most park systems have trail maps and some even provide accordion map pamphlets.  Pick one up, review it sufficiently, and then have a great run.

One final note, I did see a few random mentions of studies about whether trail or road is better, in terms of preventing injuries.  There was no consensus, but THIS ARTICLE concluded that the body adjusts the firmness of the running surface.  So, if it is road, the body stiffens more than it would on a trail.  The author states that changing your running surface is just like upping your milage.  That makes sense to me and just further supports the whole “Start slower” idea.  If you’ve never done trail running previously, take your time and adjust to the difference.

Well, that’s it for now about trail vs. road running.  All this “running” has put the bug in my mind and it is now time for a run!!!  Thanks for reading and run fast, have fun, and be safe out there!

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