Trail Running vs. Road Running: Which is Better?

Who remembers when the debate of trail running vs. road running began? It’s older than the debate of Coke vs. Pepsi.

Both sides believe their form of running is the one proper way. But is one better than the other? Or do both offer their benefits that can help you as a runner?

Find out more below.

Trail running vs. road running: Trail running benefits

Trail running vs. road running has tons of pros and cons

Trail running comes with loads of benefits. There are strength, mental, and endurance benefits just waiting for you.

So, let’s highlight some of the benefits of trail running over road running.

Here are a few:

  • Softer surface
  • Works stabilizing muscles
  • It adds a sense of adventure
  • Nature has mental benefits
  • Better for joints
  • Increases reaction time

We’ll look at each of these in more detail.

Softer surfaces help your legs

A man runs on a soft trail with two running poles

Every runner knows the post-run feeling in their legs after a hard road run.

The repeated pounding of your legs on pavement causes shocks that travel up your entire leg. And that leads to soreness after your run.

The softer surfaces of a trail are more leg-friendly. Dirt absorbs most of the impact and softens the blow on your legs. That means more running.

Add in the fact that most trails will include some form of hills, and you’re helping your legs even more. Not only are you strengthening your leg muscles (which we’ll get to in a moment), but you’re lessening how much impact your legs take.

And less soreness means longer running.

Trail running develops your stabilizing muscles more

Trails are rarely flat and free of obstacles.

And that varied terrain keeps your muscles working — all of them.

Whether it’s your ankles working to keep your balance, or your core staying upright, trail running is a full-body workout. And that’s a perfect match for becoming a more robust trail runner overall. The uneven terrain will be challenging at first, but the gains in muscle, strength, and speed will all be worth it.

Road running doesn’t match the strength training you get with trail running. It’s repeated movements, usually on flat and clear terrain.

Ultimately, all runners can benefit from some form of trail running for strength alone.

Trail running adds a sense of adventure

Trails wind and weave through forests and up and over hills.

Each trail run comes with its own adventure. Even if it’s the same trail, the weather, animals, and events change each time.

Not to mention the gorgeous views you discover while on a trail run. Whether a well-traveled path or bushwhacking your way through a jungle, you stumble upon some fantastic viewpoints. And that’s something road running can’t match.

Roads are usually limited. You can reach viewpoints, but it doesn’t come with the adventure trail running brings. The most excitement you get from road running is beating the yellow light as you cross an intersection.

Trail running wins this category easily.

Being in nature has mental benefits

A family runs together on grass trail

There have been countless studies showing the impact nature has on us.

Being in nature benefits it all, whether it’s our mood, behavior, or mental clarity. And trail running pairs with those benefits naturally.

For many runners, the daily escape to nature is the chance to recenter and reconnect. Considering our evolutionary past, this makes perfect sense. And there’s nothing like that grand sense of adventure to aid in the mental benefits you’re already experiencing.

And add in the benefits of running, and you have an array of physical and mental health benefits.

Road running is fantastic, but you don’t get the natural benefits for your body and mind.

You can hike as much as you want

Some people think hiking isn’t running.

And they have the right to their opinion. But, one of the best aspects of trail running often doesn’t include running.

It’s hiking.

Some hills are too steep to run up. So, you choose to hike. And there’s not a single thing wrong with it.

You’re still getting the strength workout of hiking (or jogging) uphill and keeping your heart rate manageable. But, you never see road runners hiking. And that’s because road running is all about speed and fast splits.

So, trail running is for you if you enjoy taking it slow and enjoying the adventure.

Technical terrain increases your reaction time

A man runs on a rocky trail

Some people consider the flow state the mode when you’re working, and nothing else matters.

I consider flow to be when you’re running down a technical trail and nothing else matters, mainly because a simple misstep means a potential injury, which isn’t fun.

So, as you’re focused on running downhill, you’re focusing on each step placement and reacting to any slips. Your feet dart from side to side, and your core works to maintain your balance. 

If the risk of falling face-first into dirt and rocks doesn’t increase your reaction time and improve your balance, I don’t know what else will.

So, if you want quick feet, technical trails are your jam.

Trail running vs. road running: Trail running disadvantages

A woman climbs the side of a hill

I know what you’re thinking.

“Wow, trail running sounds amazing!” And it is.

But, it has its disadvantages you need to be aware of before you get started. So, let’s highlight a few:

  • More dangerous
  • Higher potential for injury
  • More expensive
  • Slower than road running

Same as the benefits, let’s check out the disadvantages.

Trail running is more dangerous

A woman runs in the snow with a yellow jacket on

Animals, weather, and nature are severe factors in trail running.

You hear countless stories of runners being attacked by animals, caught in bad weather, or some other natural event. Trail running can be beautiful, but it can be scary as well.

No matter what, you have to keep your common sense intact. If something seems dangerous, don’t risk your run for it. And, if you take the proper precautions, you can avoid most mishaps you’d run into (no pun intended).

Road running has its own dangers (which we’ll get into), but it’s much safer than trail running.

Trail Running has a higher potential for injury

You’re strengthening your muscles and building up your resilience, right?

“How could I ever get injured?” Every trail runner says before tripping over a root and injuring themselves.

Most times, it’s not if you trip and fall; it’s when you trip and fall. Trail running has all sorts of ways to get injured. Rolled ankles, trips, and falls are just a few of them.

On the other hand, road running has a zen-like aspect to it. You can zone out, and your run is over the next thing you know.

I’d advise not zoning out on your trail run.

Trail running gear is more expensive

A man ties his blue and orange trail shoes

Running gear is expensive, period.

But, besides a pair of trail running shoes, you’ll probably want to invest in a running pack. Obviously, this is optional, but it’s generally advised.

Want a way to carry your water better? That’s more money. 

How about some gaiters to keep dirt out of your shoes? Fork out the cash. It’s an expensive hobby.

Road running can get equally expensive, don’t get me wrong.

But a pair of running shoes is all you need to run on the road.

You run slower compared to road running

Remember those normal, fast 5Ks you’re used to getting over quickly?

Not the same with trail running. Those 5Ks will get extended, but it’s not for lack of effort.

The softer surface doesn’t give you the same bounce you get from harder surfaces. And that means more energy is lost on each step. And that means slower speeds.

Road runners pride themselves on busting out quick workouts and getting it done.

Trail runners seem more like slugs inching along to the finish.

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Trail running vs. road running: Road running benefits

A group of runners run together in a race

Okay, so I’ve made trail running sound amazing and terrifying simultaneously. But, it’s time to give road running its fair shake.

So, let’s dive into some of the benefits:

  • Faster workouts
  • More road races
  • Less gear necessary
  • More convenient
  • Better for faster workouts
  • Can fit into a schedule

Like the ones above, let’s have a look.

Road running workouts are faster

A woman runs alone on a road

Whether you’re running slow or getting in a speed workout, road running will lessen the time.

And, if you’re on a time crunch, that may be exactly what you need. Runners don’t always have the time to get to the trails.

In addition, you cover more mileage in less time. So, if you’re looking to meet a mileage goal, you can spend a lot more time recovering compared to trail running. The harder surface simply allows you to go faster than on trails. And those time savings may be what a lot of people need.

So, if you’re looking for a hobby that won’t take up much time, road running may be best for you.

There are more options for road races

Are you a competitor?

If so, road running will provide you with many options to exercise that competition muscle. You can find a race in almost every town when the weather permits. It’s that widespread.

And that goes for all distances. Want to run a road 50K? There are plenty of options for you. 

Keen to run a 5K? Half marathon? Visit any town/city on a weekend during the summer. There’s never a shortage of options.

And that’s why road running is perfect for competitors.

You don’t need as much gear for road running

Road running gear with shoes, a shirt, shorts, and some gels

If you’re someone who’s more budget-conscious, road running may be a better option for you.

First, there’s simply a wider option of road shoes available. And, you can find better prices because there are so many to choose from.

Ultimately, a pair of running shoes is all you need to road run. Everything else isn’t necessary. 

So, if you’re more of the minimalist type, road running may be your perfect hobby.

Road running is more convenient

Look out your window. You probably see a road.

What you don’t see is a trail. Unless you do, in which case I’m extremely jealous of you.

Put simply, road running is easy because there are roads almost everywhere. Everyone can access them at almost any time of the day. Trails, on the other hand, are not. And that’s why road running is still a more popular option.

People like simplicity.

And when you can simply slip on a pair of running shoes and run out your door, it’s hard to beat.

Get your pace on with road running

A man sprints from the start on a track

Trail running can be great for speed workouts.

But, the road (or track) is going to be better. No worries about falling or tripping. Simply focusing on hitting your paces.

You can nail down your pacing on a road/track on your faster workouts. And faster workouts are fantastic for improving your top-end speed and endurance. So, having a clear running surface is a nice addition to those workouts.

Even some trail runners prefer to go to the road for their faster workouts simply to get the full effect.

And you should consider it also.

Fits right into a schedule

Runners aren’t only runners, right?

We have jobs, families, and other hobbies like everyone else. Running is just our main hobby.

So, runners fit in running wherever is most convenient.

Work is four miles away? Perfect, I had to run eight miles today, so I’ll just run there and back. This can work for clubs, classes, events, and anything else where you have access to a shower afterward.

No one is running to work via the trails.

Not only is it probably out of the way, but your coworkers may not appreciate the Sasquatch-like man tracking in dirt.

Trail running vs. road running: Road running disadvantages

A woman sits with her head down, tired from a run

Alright, same as trail running. Road running isn’t all fairies and Dairy Queen blizzards, there are some bad sides to it as well.

So, here are a few we’ll cover:

  • Easy to get overuse injuries
  • Closer to traffic
  • Harder pavement damages legs
  • Competition

Let’s check ‘em out.

A man holds his knee in pain

Trail running has some variation in its terrain and therefore requires you to use different muscles.

Road running, however, doesn’t. And that can lead to some problems.

Most running-related injuries come from overuse or overtraining. There are plenty of plantar fasciitis, shin splints, or any other leg-related injuries. And they plague road runners.

The repeated movements don’t lend themselves to strength. In fact, these movements do a lot of damage to your legs.

So, if you’re a road runner, it’s best to add in some cross-training to avoid injury.

Closer to crazy drivers

As a road runner, you have to share the road with cars.

Or are they sharing it with you? Either way, you have to be alert at all times for any traffic that may pose a problem.

And with more cars comes an increased risk of an accident. And that’s something you don’t get with trails. But it doesn’t have to only be car accidents. I’ve had my fair share of people yell stuff out the window, purposefully rev their truck, so it blows out black smoke, and much more.

When you get closer to people, you also get closer to the crazier side of them.

And that can be a scary thing.

Harder surfaces cause more damage to your legs

A man holds his foot where it hurts

We discussed this briefly above, but it’s worth highlighting again.

Hard surfaces only add to overuse injuries. Those injuries develop because of the shock that travels up your leg with each step.

With so much of your weight landing on one leg, it’s a lot of force to withstand. And the pavement doesn’t absorb any of it. It simply sends it back up your leg to cause you headaches (or legaches) in the future.

It’s not a bad idea to mix in days of road and trail if you’re a road runner.

Different surfaces, more strength, fewer injuries.

More competition isn’t always a good thing

I know I listed this as a highlight above, but it can also be a negative.

Competitors sometimes take it too far. I know because I am one.

And that can rub people the wrong way and deter people from joining the sport. And no one wants that. Running — trail or road — is beautiful, and we should share it. Competition is great when you use it right.

But, when it goes overboard, no one wins.

Is trail running better than road running?

Trail running isn’t necessarily better than road running. It’s just different.

Trail running has unique benefits: strength, mental, and more. As does road running. 

Mostly, it comes down to what your goals with running are. Only then can you determine what’s “better” or if trail running is “harder.”
And, that only means better for you. Everyone is different and enjoys their own path in running.

Does trail running build more muscle than road running?

Trail running may not be better than road running, but you will build more muscle with trail running.

The combination of the soft and uneven terrain, obstacles, and running uphill gives you a lot of strength benefits over time. And it’s not just in your legs, your core can benefit, too. 

So, hit the trail if you’re looking to get some strength gains with your endurance.

Which side do you take in the trail vs. road running debate?

There are many things to consider when comparing road vs. trail running.

There are trail running’s health benefits and also endurance benefits. But, road running has its own health and endurance benefits. So, the two are pretty even.

Personally, I’ll always spread the benefits of trail running vs. road running. But I’m a bit biased.

So, let me know what you think. What is better: trail running or road running? And why?

Last, if you’re on social media, be sure to give me a follow on Instagram and YouTube!

11 responses to “Trail Running vs. Road Running: Which is Better?”

  1. Life...One Big Adventure Avatar
    Life…One Big Adventure

    I had better go and dust off my sneakers! Thanks for the inspiration…

    1. Kyle Cash Avatar
      Kyle Cash

      Haha, thanks for the comment!

      I always count on running for some of my ideas. I don’t know what it is about running, or maybe running through the forest, but it gets my mind in a creative setting.

      Have a great day.

      1. Life...One Big Adventure Avatar
        Life…One Big Adventure

        Hmm, I am not sure I can relate as I am focused purely on not dying during the run! 😉

        1. Kyle Cash Avatar
          Kyle Cash

          Not dying is a pretty important part of a run, so you’re doing something right!

          1. Life...One Big Adventure Avatar
            Life…One Big Adventure

            I like your optimism! 🙂

  2. Image Earth Travel Avatar
    Image Earth Travel

    Great informative post. I’ve never been a runner and don’t really like it but do like power walking.

    1. Kyle Cash Avatar
      Kyle Cash

      I can easily understand why people don’t like running, trust me haha.

      Power walking is just as good. I’ve even read some things about how power walking may be better than running because of the lower impact with the ground.

      As long as it’s movement, all that’s important 😀

      1. Image Earth Travel Avatar
        Image Earth Travel

        Exactly! As long as we’re not stagnant, that’s all that matters. 😉

  3. Patrick Avatar

    Road running is all I’ve ever done really, but I’d like to do some trail running some time in the future!

  4. Sweeeeeet Avatar

    Great insightful article.. thanks so much for this. On safely I do have 2 specific questions you may be able to help with (perhaps you have experienced them yourself?) and hope its not too weird to ask:
    1: If running the trails and a 3 legged dog suddenly attacks from out of nowhere then what would be your recommended actions.
    2 : If running the trails and suddenly at your feet there is a very big black cobra on the trail what would be the recommended height one should jump in order to avoid the snake and make a safe getaway.
    Looking forward to more articles and keep safe out there…

    1. Kyle Cash Avatar
      Kyle Cash

      Hey Sweet,

      Thanks for the great comment.

      To answer your first question, three-legged dogs present a unique problem. They’re already disadvantaged, so you don’t want to do them any harm. So the best course of action is usually to run away (if able) or just give it a nice tap across its face with an open palm – this last part is very important.

      Your second question is more difficult. But I’ll answer it like this, jump as if you were an Olympian, and run as if you were Eliud Kipchoge.

      Hope these help!

      May the datés be ever in your favor, and not too dry.

      Kyle, The Travel Runner


The Travel Runner Portrait

Hi, I’m Kyle, and I’m The Travel Runner.

I’ve been traveling and running in exotic locations worldwide for the last five years.

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