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.

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.


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.


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.


  • Katiesays:

    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.

  • Gabrielesays:

    I can hardly wait to get back onto my local trails – it’s still so snowy and icy here – the gentle curves, hills, and treed pathways right beside the river, are the best distraction on our long run days!

  • Considering all the sports injuries I've dealt with (and continue to deal with) I never even considered the difference between the two.

  • 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? 😛 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?

  • I've already started on trail running and I think it is improving my reaction timing and balance adjustment too

  • Thomas Bitschesays:

    I’m a high school senior and run Track and Cross Country; I was wondering if running 5 miles on the road will give the same effect as running the same distance on a track? I know from the past that running on the track is boring when going over 2 miles, and with my school’s track, in the condition it is in now, it is the same amount of impact on my legs. I personally think distance is distance but my coach says that I need to run on the track more than the road to be more adjusted to the track.

    • Hello Thomas. Great question. You’re both right for a variety of reasons. One, you can gain better performance if you’re motivated by the terrain. It keeps you happy and motivated to train which counts for a lot. Two, to best, simulate the race terrain, it makes sense to hit the track as well. Many tracks offer a more forgiving surface versus road. Yours sounds like that may not be the case. Also, it is wise to allow your body time on the track to adapt to the turns, which wouldn’t achieve on roads. A mixture of both is a great way to go. It’s always best to work with your coach on a plan and course that is best for you. Best in running!

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