Trail Running Vs Road Running: Which is better?

Trail Running vs Road Running

Today we set out to answer the age old question, debated by runners since the time before Brooks. There were no compression tights and you can forget about Garmins but the multifaceted debate was already present throughout the land... Which is better, Trail Running or Road Running?

While seemingly alike in many ways, they are worlds apart in others. We've put them head to head in four key areas to find out once and for all who the ultimate champion is.

1. Impact on Your Body

Kicking things off we have perhaps the most fiercely debated point and that's the impact that each type of running has on the body.

Road running mostly provides the perfect flat surface for your feet to glide across while you let your mind do what it likes to do when you're running. There are no roots or rocks to trip over and you don't have to worry about getting lashed by branches and undergrowth.

However, the impact that running on the softer trail surfaces has on your knees and body as a whole is significantly less than pounding away on hard cement and asphalt.

Another hidden risk of road running is that most roads and paths have a camber, meaning they are higher in the middle or at one side to encourage rainfall to disperse towards drains at the edge of the roads. It may not seem significant but running at this slight angle for an extended period of time will not make you popular with your tendons and ligaments!

Your body is tested differently in trail running as you constantly stabilize yourself tackling different terrain so it's important to treat each discipline with respect as you switch between the two. Drop your distance or speed at first until your body is familiar with the new subtle stresses.

Overall, we feel we have a clear winner for this round. While trail running may feel a bit more taxing at first, in the long term it's going to have a less damaging impact on your body!

Trail Running 1 - 0 Road Running

Trail Running on soft surface
"... the impact that running on the softer trail surfaces has on your knees and body as a whole is significantly less than pounding away on hard cement and asphalt."


2. Convenience

According to national statistics, more than three quarters of Australians live in "urban areas". This doesn't rule out trail running completely as most of us can still find a decent trail to run in under half an hour in the car. However, it does mean that for many of us, when we're squeezing in those shorter runs around our busy lives, our feet are going to be hitting the hard stuff.

In addition to the travel time argument, it's definitely not advisable to run trails in the dark outside of special organized events. Shorter days plus wetter weather means that trail running in the winter can also become much more difficult to perform consistently.

OK, so doing what's right isn't always easy and doing what's easy isn't always right but for convenience, road running wins the point.

Trail Running 1 - 1 Road Running


3. Environment and Atmosphere

Have you ever ran through the CBD at dawn? There's something empowering about racing through a quiet city before the coffee cradling masses have descended upon it.

The cityscape at night can also have its own incandescent beauty as its lights dance across the waterways.

Unfortunately road running also means a fair amount of running next to... well, roads. This means pollution of varying degrees and stopping at traffic lights may well interrupt your flow.

Now, those who live in rural areas may take this for granted but there are undeniable benefits of spending time in nature. We're talking physically, mentally and we're going there... spiritually. In terms of calming your mind and soul, detoxing from the stresses of life and basically hitting the reboot button, it's very hard to beat trail running.

How do you make running better? You do it amidst an intense range of natural green and brown hues, to the serene melodies of curious birds, while the whole time filling your lungs with some good ol' fashioned country air.

There was always only ever going to be one winner of this round wasn't there?

Trail Running 2 - 1 Road Running

Runner in city at night"There's something empowering about racing through a quiet city before the coffee cradling masses have descended upon it."


4. Safety

This round is the boring "OH&S" cousin of the convenience round but it's an important one as each type of running comes with its own hazards and dangers.

Road running may seem quite safe but anyone who has ever "lost their self" on a run will know that you're only ever a moment away from mis-reading a traffic light and stepping out in to a tirade of angry horns at best.

With all running, both road and trail, we can often end up in secluded areas where there may not always be help available should something terrible unfold. For this reason it's especially important to think about the run before you head out. Think about whether your route is suitable for the time of day. Evaluate whether it's suitable for a solo mission or whether it's a route that should be saved for when you have your buddies with you. On top of this ALWAYS let someone know where you're going, even if it's just round the block.

Trail Running brings with it, its own realm of hazards. You have a lot of the same dangers as other types of running plus you now have to think about a new environment where even a twisted ankle or getting lost could cause major problems.

Trails need to be treated with respect and eased in to slowly. Jumping straight in to the advanced trails is the equivalent of learning to swim in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Make sure you know where you're going, know how to get help, have a trail running first aid kit and take a buddy if you can.

For overall safety and ease of access with less preparation, especially for beginners, the winner is road running.

Trail Running 2 - 2 Road Running


So, based on only the four key areas we looked at, it's a dead heat. This means the debate lives on and will undoubtedly continue across all surfaces for centuries more.

Ultimately, it's about getting the right mixture of safety and fun whether you're running trails or roads. And for the record, we recommend both!