Find out the pros and cons of both running disciplines

By Lish Angeles-Reyes | Photo by Matthew Henry

Running on the road or the trail can both give you a solid cardio workout that builds your overall health and fitness. While both are related in some ways, the two can give you distinct experiences with different characteristics. Understand how the two surfaces work and discover its pros and cons to see which option fits your running goals best.

Surface

Road running gives you an even, smooth surface that makes it easier to keep your balance. It is advisable for those who experience Achilles tendonitis since the sturdy surface keeps the Achilles tendon in a less tense position. However, running on hard cement or asphalt can have a negative impact on your joints, too.

Tip: If you want to lessen the impact on your joints, try the spongy surface of an oval track. It strikes the balance between soft and sturdy.

Trail running, meanwhile, poses dangers of tripping or falling if you don’t pay close attention to the uneven terrain of the trail in front of you. However, its softer surface of dirt or grass means less pounding on your joints. It is more suitable for runners who are suffering from shin splints, IT band syndrome or other impact-related injuries.

Tip: Grass is soft and low-impact. It is usually rated as one of the best surfaces for running. Just pay close attention to holes, rocks, and twigs as these can commonly lead to twisted ankles. Use a special pair of trail running shoes as it can help maintain stability on the unpredictable surface.

Accessibility

Road running keeps it simple and convenient for your daily runs. You have the liberty of running on streets close to work, home or school simply by stepping out the door. Most suitable trails are less easy to find compared to roads and pavements. It’s an activity you will need to plan ahead for since it usually requires a longer commute to remote areas.

Tip: Running on the concrete sidewalk can be the most convenient if you live in the city, and the safest option if you don’t want to risk it on the road. Just wear shoes with adequate cushioning.   

Scenery

The city can be quite a monotonous experience as you run through the same old view of flat pavements, buildings, and homes. The trail normally offers a more natural, tranquil setting that certainly appeals to many runners. You may hear birds chirping, trees swaying or the running of a water stream. The air is also cleaner compared to the city.

Tip: The environment in the trail can be really beneficial as the so-called “biopholia effect” identifies with our inherent desire to be one with nature. It helps increase happiness and improve concentration and healing. Road running may not be as mood-improving as the other, but it also helps decrease anxiety.

Strength and Cardio Fitness

In terms of leg and core strength, road running isn’t as effective as trail running due to its predictable, even surface. The monotonous, one direction movement leaves stabilizing muscles in the lower body and the core underworked. Road runners, however, display one of the highest aerobic fitness levels (or the health and efficiency of the body’s air circulation system) as they can maintain a more steady, even pace than trail runners.

Hitting the trail on the other hand works your muscles, tendons, and ligaments more effectively than running on the road. The soft, uneven surface and rolling terrain require a greater sense of balance. To achieve balance, the muscle groups in the lower body are challenged and activated to compensate for the constant shifting. Overall, it strengthens the quads, glutes, calves, and even the core.

It is common to see road runners cross to trail running and vice versa as more and more runners search for new experiences and adventures in this sport. Consider changing your type of running surface occasionally so you can work on different skills, strengthen varying muscle groups and keep your body from adapting too much to one surface. This will help you stay injury-free, which is very crucial if you are aiming for longevity in this sport. If you haven’t tried different running surfaces in awhile, start slowly when you switch it up so you don’t overexert yourself.