Difference Between Trail and Road Running


Our Trail Running Holiday guide, running coach and Ultratrail athlete Jonathan Worswick talks about the difference between trail and road running.

During my career I have trained and raced on both road and trail, over short and long distances.
I actually began off-road running in the early 1980s when I was introduced to Fell (Hill) Running in the Lake District of Northern England. Since then I have competed in a variety of endurance events over 3 continents.
I think it was the sense of adventure that got me hooked, and certainly I think it is true to say that trail runners like adventure and variety. Certainly no two runs are the same, even if you are taking the same route, the weather, seasons and your outlook on that day means there is constant change.

Local spectators watching us run in the Pyrenees!

Trail running also provides a fantastic opportunity to get close to nature, something I really appreciate when I guide on our Trail Running Holiday. Here the incredible landscape, birds (particularly raptors), flowers, trees, insects and mammals add a real wow factor to each day.

For many, trail running is an escape, we are away from all the trappings that we associate with road running.

I feel more relaxed and stress free on a trail, the sense of freedom, away from civilisation, is for me, liberating.

It is also fair to say that the stereo type of a trail runner is that of a solo runner, after all the trails are narrow. However, as a coach and guide there is a lot to be said for running with a friend or in a group. On  our Trail Running Holiday we are a maximum of 9, 2 guides and 7 runners, here we have found that running together improved motivation, increased everyone’s knowledge base and there was a real joy at sharing the experience.

Below I summarise the difference between trail running and road running, some points that come to mind from my own experiences as an Ultratrail athlete. The principles remain the same, but bear in mind I am talking about long events of +100km:

♦ Get used to a change in rhythm. For instance, when running a road marathon, it’s all about maintaining a constant pace. Trail running includes constant change and more concentration or focus, no two steps are the same.

♦ A trail runner is able to look ahead, mentally aware of turns, roots and rocks. Visualising where to place the feet equates to speed.

Difference Between Trail and Road Running

♦ Downhill – Technical downhill can be quite demanding and sometimes even a little scary. Also running a long steep downhill can cause havoc with the quads.

♦ Energy conservation – particularly for long events. You might be out on a course for several hours not just 3 or 4 as you would be in a road marathon, so energy conservation is paramount, especially in the early stages of an event. On longer races there is no shame in walking the hills.

♦ Nutrition – Refuelling is important especially if the event is longer than 3 hours, this includes protein intake as well as carbohydate. Did you know after 3 hours available energy stores in the body run out?

♦ Distance or time on feet – Distance is less important than time on feet when considering your trail training schedule. For instance, you could be on your feet for 3 hours but only cover 20km due to the terrain, whereas on the road you could cover 20km easily in 2 hours.

♦ Cadence (stride rate) – Using a high cadence and shorter stride length is more energy efficient but also assists balance especially when running on technical terrain. If you want to measure your own cadence simply count the number of times your left foot hits the ground in 30 seconds.

♦ Gear! It’s amazing what some events require you to take with you, from a rain jacket and water bottle to full survival equipment.

Difference Between Trail and Road RunningAs this series of posts progresses I am going to talk about running form, technique and training.

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Until next time “enjoy the trail”.

Jonathan Worswick is our guide in the Pyrenees, a running coach and Ultratrail athlete.

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