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ROAD VS TRAIL RUNNERS: WHAT CAN THEY LEARN FROM EACH OTHER?

By Jono Black & Dylan Stevenson of Running Science

There’s always been a bit of an unspoken rivalry between road and trail runners. Yes, they’re part of the same team, but yet both want to believe that their discipline is the most hardcore. The speed and intensity of the road versus the lung busting climbs and gnarly descents of the trails…

As someone who likes to compete in both, I can say with assurance that any sort of running is as hard as you make it. If you’re pushing yourself to the limits, it hurts. Whether it be the intense pain of a mile race or the prolonged suffering of a 100km ultra marathon; you’re hurting in one way or another.

But that’s not the point of this piece. We think that rather than seeing oneself as either a ‘roadie’ or trail runner, it makes a lot more sense to learn from both of these disciplines as much as you can.  We’re going to consider a few different aspects of training, looking at how the disciplines compare and can perhaps learn from one another:

PACING

Due to the varied terrain of trail running, running completely by pace is essentially impossible. Rather, runners have to learn to focus on the ‘feel’ of their effort and listen to this internal effort gauge. Learning to listen to our body and how it’s feeling in this way is such an important skill for both training and racing, and is certainly something that many runners could practice who have become over-reliant on what their watch is telling them.

On the other hand, road running enables one to practice absolute precision with regards to pacing. If used in the right way, it can become a good tool to teach yourself how to hold a consistent effort – many experienced road runners can hit an extremely consistent pace without consulting their watch.  Something we often see is trail runners taking on some road running workouts and struggling to maintain a consistent pace, as they are used to more fluctuation in their efforts due to the nature of their routes.

VARIETY OF WORKOUTS

Generally speaking, road runners include a lot more variety in their training in terms of the types of workouts they do – hills, intervals, fartleks, tempos, etc. and all of these at a wide range of paces and intensities. Your typical trail runner (this is of course a big generalization) will be more focused on hills and long runs, as often these are seen as the most ‘specific’ sort of sessions to their event.  Even if this is true, there is still a lot to be gained from a wide variety of training that stresses and stimulates our body in different ways and uses different energy systems.

There’s a common misconception amongst road runners that ‘trail running makes you slow’ – when the reality is very different. What ‘makes you slow’ is if you ignore speed training entirely. It’s entirely possible to spend a lot of time on the trails and still maintain/improve one’s speed at the same time if one allows a bit of time for speed work. Even though this may not seem important for trail runners, it’s an effective way to improve your stride, your power and your efficiency.

MENTALITY AND PSYCHOLOGY

For 99% of us, running is merely a hobby and something that should, at least most of the time, be an enjoyable activity. The growth of trail running has ushered in a new wave of runners who are intent on enjoying their training as much as possible.  These runners are often more interested in finding the best paths and trails, and are usually less stressed about sticking to a training plan. On the other hand, your typical road runner is usually a lot stricter about their pace and distance, and keeping to a more structured weekly schedule.  Neither of these approaches are right or wrong; after all, many of us find enjoyment in the tough training sessions and the planning of our workouts. For others, it’s more about getting out for an adventure with friends.

Many road runners, however, can probably learn a lesson or two from the more ‘chilled out’ trail runner. Even in serious training, it’s important to allow yourself the flexibility to sometimes take a step back and just run for the fun of it – and remember that ultimately, you’re doing this for fun.  Conversely, the strict discipline of the typical road runner is something that can translate to all spheres of life. Discipline, mental strength and structure provide a lot of value. Those who’ve done many a long, tough road run will know of the focus and mental strength that this requires. For any trail runner wanting to improve, it’s important to be able to handle these sort of runs as well – rather than only those that are fun and enjoyable.

STRUCTURE

Structured and polarized training is very common amongst road runners, but probably less so amongst trail runners. The downside of this for trail running is that one can land up with many runs being in the ‘moderate effort’ sort of area, rather than a more polarized approach with hard and easy days – which we know is an effective mechanism to allow the body to be stressed and adapt. Additionally, it can be pretty tough to keep the effort ‘easy’ if you’re climbing a mountain peak – so these sort of recovery efforts are where trail runners may consider rather opting for a flatter, easier road run.

TECHNICAL SIDE OF TRAINING

Due to a lack of external feedback (splits, pace, etc.), trail runners will often approach workouts with a certain effort in mind that fits in with the purpose of the workout. The upside of this is that rather than maybe going too fast/slow because of some pre-conceived idea of the ‘right’ pace, they can purely focus on their perceived effort level and ensure that this ties in with the goal of the session.

Road running workouts can occasionally cause us to run harder than planned, as we get too caught up and obsessed over ‘winning the workout’ and hitting the pace that was set for the run (when in fact, this pace is merely a guideline rather than something to try and ‘beat’).

This more technical and precise aspect of road running does have its upside though – in that it allows us to compare workouts more easily and monitor improvement over time. Additionally, road running emphasizes things such as warm ups, drills and technique a lot more. These are important aspects of improving our efficiency and preventing injury, and should be implemented by all runners.

STRENGTH TRAINING

Strength training plays a huge role in trail running, due to it being a lot more physically demanding on the whole body. Leg strength is essential to a trail runner’s climbing ability, while the varied and technical terrain requires one to have strong stabilizing muscles and many others. Apart from the performance perspective, strength training is also a key injury-prevention mechanism.

Although it’s arguably less important for road runners, strength training still has a role to play in terms of promoting good form and muscle activation (and from an injury perspective, as mentioned).  Most road runners could certainly benefit from introducing an extra strength session or two per week.


Despite the many differences between trail and road running – they’re both still running. There are far more similarities between the two than there are differences, and it doesn’t make sense to ignore what we’ve learnt from either discipline. It’s no surprise to see that most of the top road runners in the world spend a lot of their time running on trails/dirt, and many of the top trail runners in the world include regular road/track interval within their training. Don’t see it as an either/or in terms of what style of training you’d like to follow, but rather as the combination that is going to make the most sense for you and your individual goals. 

By Jono Black & Dylan Stevenson of Running Science

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