Road Running vs Trail Running

No matter what your athletic ability is, everyone loves to run a personal best in any distance. Have you ever observed the faces post marathon? There will be two kind of faces 1. Big Smiley faces who had ran a personal record (PR) and 2. slightly dissatisfied faces who just missed that. I see both types of faces in all running events. I have had my fair share of both. Hey, there will be one more type 3. Very exhausted and burned out faces.

To be really focused on this topic. Lets talk about the runners who get PR and how a PR can make someone happy and excited.

I thought about it and tried to relate that how PR make runners happy and how long that happiness lasts? Is that PR thing equally applicable in a trail race? If not, how different it is from the road running.

If you do not want to call it happiness lets call it endorphins/dopamine. More endorphins/dopamine, more satisfaction that will eventually result in enhanced happiness. Lets dissect this topic by breaking into trail running and road running. This means that which type of running is more related to happiness and where you can obtain large dose of dopamine.

There may be someone like myself who likes to run on both surfaces. In this article, we will compare the pro and cons of both type of running and which running relate more to the mind and which track relate more to heart (emotionally). The ultimate purpose is to get more dopamine. Ultra runners have addiction for this chemical that is why you can see people running in -40C and not complain about it.

Having run on road on both road and trials I realized that road running is mostly about PR and short term endorphins activity. You get your PR, you feel happy and you are done. You try to get another PR and then another one. When you train for a road race, mostly you are running on city streets and that does not help a lot releasing dopamine as much as it do when you are on trails. Is there science behind it and the answer is yes. Being in woods makes you happier. That means one release more dopamine while running in woods.

Have you ever noticed that when you go to run on trials, you are alone in nature and feel happy during the training? I clearly feel the difference in two. Training on road is great but training on trails is a bliss. You are alone, single track ups and downs. Hard breathing, slow breathing, birds singing, peaceful environment. Everything is great on trails. Even people you see on trails are happier. I do not see many people say hello when I train on the busy street but on trails it is totally different.

Now, from physiological point of view, in my opinion trail running is clear winner. If road running is a mind then trial running is heart. If road running is a logic then trail running is a feeling. Road running vs. trail running is synonyms to logical vs. emotional decision making.

Look at this picture of my friend Lucy finishing her iceage trail 50 this year. She was smiling all the way from start to finish

Lucy finishing her ice age 50 miler 2019. Smiles everywhere on the trails

I know some of my friends who does not like trials, wont agree with me but I feel joyous when I am on trails. Logic of running faster and becoming better version of self kicks in when I see flat surface or roads.

Now lets talk the practicality of both types of running and what are there pros and cons.

To run a personal best time, road races are good choice but if you want to challenge yourself and enjoy running in nature then trail is a good option. However, they are totally different from every aspect. Starting from the race training, fueling and racing to recovery, I will experienced that one should plan both races differently. I am still in learning phase and I have learned a lot from my ice age trail 50 on may 11, 2019. Prior to Iceage, I ran a road 50k at Madity Ultras.
If you enjoy both surfaces to run then your strategy should be different

Let us now focus on some of the differences between road and trail events and what I have learned from the good and bad experiences in both .

Race training

The number one thing that came to mind while writing this article is the race specific training. If you run a flat road every day, it will be challenging to run trail full of single track, roots and hills.
One such classic example was my Boston marathon that I ran in 2017. I mostly trained on the flat surface prior to the race and then suffered in Boston marathon. Each hill in Boston felt real hard. Due to my unpreparedness for the event, I had to walk the notorious heartbreak hill. The results was I ran 3:09 where I planned on doing 2:50 in that race.

Now, lets talk about trails. Each trail is different and you can not make apple to apple comparison between two trials. If you are going to run a ski trail race, it may be way easier than the single track full of hills, stones and roots. Although, it is not always possible to mimic the trial in training but getting elevation in your legs and some down hills work will certainly help.

Someone living in Madison WI can not find the elevation of Utah, Arizona, Colorado or other states. But hill repeats can certainly make you stronger and will develop your muscles for a hilly or even mountain trail race. Hill repeats here does not mean running hills faster but it means that running them a number of times so that total elevation gain per week is equal to or more than the elevation in gain in the whole race.

Going to Ice age trail race I tried to get 7500 ft of elevation a few weeks before the race and that really helped. More is certainly better. If someone who had trained in Rockies, he/she will run ice age better than myself.

Note: I have never ran a mountain race so take my advice with the grain of salt here.

So next time you are signed up for a trail race, find a state or local park that has some hills and train on them. I have made this mistake multiple times where I will train on flat surface and then go race on uneven trails or even hilly road races. Learn from my mistakes. I have also compiled some ultra running essentials here.

Race Fueling

You may find multiple aid stations in road race and therefore can rely on the aid stations for your fueling necessity. On trails sometimes, If you do not carry your stuff along, you may find it difficult to get on trials. I had this experience recently, I was running low on salt and the salt tablets that I carried with me was all used up. I did not find that on a aid station when I needed that the most. Result-I suffered till the end of the race. The logistics can be challenging for a trail run whereas it is easy on road.

Race day

Road race provide you good surface to run so that you can dial in your pace and go. Ups and downs of a trail run makes it challenging to keep up a constant running pace. Chances of injury during a trail race is also higher in a trail race then a road run. Mutiple times you will land on roots, stones and uneven surface and may twist your ankle. It almost happened with me many times but fortunately nothing serious did occur. Road run on the other hand provide a smooth surface and reduces the chances of injury.


Running an ultra marathon on road and trail is totally different from recovery point of view. Pounding pavement for longer period of time will make your muscles seriously sore. This will results in longer recovery time from a road ultra. I found longer recovery time is main side effects of running on road.

Trails mostly provide soft surface and therefore you will recover very quickly from a trail ultra.

When I ran 100K last year in Croatia, it took me almost a month to fully recover from the pounding of pavements. I tried to run faster than 7 mins/mile two weeks after the race and found it very challenging to maintain that pace. The soreness in the legs was still there.

I ran with kids from my native place in India. It was a total blast

Some of my non runners friend have suggested me not run on road because running on concrete is bad for knees. They may be right but I can guarantee that it takes longer to recover from a road race than a trail race. But, how about gravel. I will write more about running on gravel vs pavement in my future posts.

Please feel free to comment and share this post. If you want to add something that I am missing, please comment below.

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