What is the Difference Between Running on Roads vs. Trails?

Young woman running outdoors in a city park on a cold fall/winte

Q: I started running at the gym a few months ago. I’d like to move my workouts off the treadmill and outdoors, but I’m not sure where the best place is to run. Are there perks to running on trails as opposed to the sidewalk? Should I stick to my local track?  ~Thank you, Natalie

Congratulations on your new running program.  Getting started on the treadmill is a great entrée into the world of running as it allows you to modify and control your effort as you go and you can’t beat the convenience!  Although the treadmill is an effective way to get in your runs, it is important to know it is different than running in the great outdoors.

When you’re on the treadmill, you are keeping up with the tread and not propelling yourself forward.  Again, this isn’t a bad thing, it’s just different than.  Give yourself time to adapt to the differences in form by migrating one workout outside every 1-2 weeks of training.  That way, your body will have time to adapt to the variations in form.  There are a lot of great places to run outdoors.  Here are the pro’s and con’s of each.
Track

Pro’s:  Your local high school track is a safe place to run your mileage as you’re off the busy streets and out of traffic.  Most tracks are measured and marked where four laps equal one mile and therefore it is a great way to learn how to pace yourself naturally.  All you need is your shoes and a watch or timer.  The track is also a predictably flat surface and a great place to learn to run and perform speed workouts.  A bonus benefità many tracks are made from a forgiving rubber material that it easy on the muscles, tendons and joints.

Con’s:  Unless you live by a track, getting there can be a hassle for the busy-minded runner and some tracks have limited public access usage.  Running in a circle can become monotonous for some runners who enjoy the sense of exploration.

Sidewalk

Pro’s:  A safe, out of the line of traffic place to run, especially in urban areas and in the darkness.  Many sidewalks, if in good condition, provide a predictable and even (not cambered) terrain, which allows for better running form and alignment.

Con’s:  The concrete sidewalk surface is much harder than asphalt and create greater impact forces on the body versus the road, track or path.  You may need to stop and start to cross streets, navigate pedestrians and other obstacles on the sidewalk throughout your run, not allowing for a continuous flow and pace.

Street/Road

Pro’s:  Running the roads can be as inspiring as a scene out of Forrest Gump.  There are a plethora of options and roads to explore and you can start right outside your doorstep or hotel room.  The asphalt is easier on the muscles, joints and tendons than the sidewalk.  Although there still may be some points you’ll need to stop and go for lights and traffic, you can generally get into a continuous running tempo.

Con’s:  Many road and streets are cambered with a crown or peak in the center and an angle toward the side of the road.  Running on an uneven surface can create muscle imbalance and alignment issues including knee and ITB pain as one leg is landing slightly higher on the ground than the other.  Safety is an issue, especially with high speed traffic and distracted drivers.  Always be sure to run against traffic to see and be seen.

Paved Bike Path

                  Pro’s: This terrain is the little black dress for runners.  It offers the stability of an evenly graded sidewalk, with the forgiveness of an asphalt road, without automobile traffic.  Many paved bike paths are marked so it can be a good way to develop your pacing skills and perform speed workouts as you can run uninterrupted.

Con’s:  Although beautiful, many of these bike paths run through secluded areas and forests.  Always run in groups, carry ID and cell phone and be aware of your surroundings.  Keep your ears to the path so to hear bike and recreational traffic coming from behind you.

Crushed Limestone Path

Pro’s:  Perhaps one of the best terrains for running, limestone paths are typically flat to slightly rolling, evenly graded and very forgiving on the body.  Less impact on the body means more efficient recovery and progression in your performance.  They offer a safe haven from automobile traffic and a tranquil running environment.    Many of these trails are can be found in parks and forest preserves, are well marked for distances and have bathrooms along the way.

Con’s:  Unless it is outside your door or work, limestone path runs may be best suited for longer training runs or weekend excursions when you have more time to getting there.

Single Track Trail

Pro’s:  These trails run through the heart of forests and back country and undulate with the terrain.  They are narrow and organic which makes for a truly unique running experience.  It’s not uncommon to run over rocks, tree roots and across streams.  Every step demands your attention making it a zen-like running workout.  Similar to mountain biking, it develops running strength and finesse and decreases the risk of over use injuries due to running in the same wear pattern on more predictable terrain.

Con’s:  You are running well off the beaten path in an isolated area where animals, bugs and adverse weather may cross your path.  Technical trail running is energy demanding and like mountain biking or downhill skiing, it requires time to adapt and learn the optimal skills to run efficiently.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Katie March 18, 2013 at 8:15 pm

I think it’s important to consider that going straight from treadmill to trail can put a lot of stress on the tendons and ligaments that stabilize your feet as you go over rocks and roots, so you have to be even more cautious about the transition from the treadmill than if you’re planning to run on sidewalks or well-graded paths.

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jennyhadfield March 18, 2013 at 8:29 pm

Indeed Katie. Great point!

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wood stair treads November 10, 2013 at 5:28 pm

I do not leave a response, but I browsed some of the comments on What is the Difference Between Running on Roads vs.
Trails? – Jenny Hadfield. I actually do have a couple of
questions for you if it’s allright. Could it be just me or does it appear like a few of
the remarks come across like they are left by brain
dead people? :-P And, if you are posting on other online social sites, I’d like
to keep up with you. Could you list of the complete urls of
all your social sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or
twitter feed?

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