How Trail Running Is Different from Road Running

Read this before you transition from running on concrete or pavement to trails.

women trail running vs road running
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

If you're a runner, taking up trail running probably sounds like an ideal way to marry your favorite sport with your love of the outdoors. After all, who wouldn't trade congested, concrete sidewalks for soft, quiet trails with gorgeous views.

But transitioning to trail running isn't as straightforward as stepping from pavement to dirt—a fact you'll quickly discover with sore ankles, burning quads, maybe even a few bumps and bruises after your first trail run.

"Transitioning from the roads to the trails takes a bit of patience," says Courtney Dauwalter, a record-setting Salomon-sponsored ultra-distance trail runner. (Badass alert: Dauwalter doesn't just shatter records on 200-plus-mile races semi-regularly, but she also smokes the elite men trailing behind her.)

You'll need different gear, different training, and different form cues to get the hang of it. But considering your reward is softer terrain with less impact to your lower body, faster reaction times, way more epic #runnerslife photos, and all the health benefits of being in nature, the effort is definitely worth it.

Here, 9 things to keep in mind if you want to get into trail running.

What is trail running and is it that different from road running?

"Anytime you transition from road and smooth pavement to trail and undulating terrain, there's more stress on the body and mind," says triathlete and running coach Bob Seebohar, R.D.N., C.S.C.S., owner of eNRG Performance in Littleton, CO. The terrain is uneven and the verticals typically steeper, so you'll burn more calories.

But the biggest change really comes in the mental component: "Running the trails, you need to pay attention to the terrain, your footing, and wildlife," says Dauwalter. "It takes a little more mental capacity because you can't zone out and simply repeat the same stride over and over—your stride changes as the trail changes."

How to Find the Best Trail Running Gear

Most running gear can transition from road to trail, but you will need to trade out your shoes: Running shoes for the road are designed to be lightweight and speedy when running on concrete or pavement, but you need traction, stability, and durability to protect your foot on all the surfaces you'll encounter on a trail (rocks, mud, sand, roots).

Super technical terrain will call for huge lugs on the soles (such as those on the Hoka Speedgoat or Salomon Speedcross), but a good basic trail shoe (like the Altra Superior or adidas Terrex Speed Shoe) should meet most people's needs, says Seebohar. (Also check out these best trail running shoes for women.)

Go to your local running store—they can tell you what features you'll need for the trails in your area and, just as with running shoes, it's crucial to try on multiple brands to find a fit that's comfortable for your feet, adds Dauwalter. Plus, they can point you toward great, local trails (or use a website or app to find running trails near you—more on that, next).

Some trail runners also like poles for the uphills—research says they don't actually save you much energy but they do significantly lower the rate of perceived exertion (that's how hard moving feels). Then, as your runs get longer, a hydration running vest can be nice to hold water, food, and layers for all types of weather, says Dauwalter.

The Best Trail Running Websites for Finding a Route

Want to try trail running, but don't know where to (literally) start? Even if you know of all the trails in your area, maybe you want to scout trails to visit elsewhere. Here are a few of the best resources for finding a running trail online.

  • Trail Run Project: Runners have contributed 227,500+ miles of trails to Trail Run Project. Click on the state you're interested in on the site's directory or discover hidden gems in your area using a map view.
  • Trail Link: On Rails-to-Trail's Trail Link, you can use an advanced search feature to narrow your search to a specific terrain, like dirt or grass.
  • AllTrails: With AllTrails, you can browse user-contributed reviews and photos of trails or create your own custom map. With a $3/month pro version, you'll be able to download maps for offline use and give up to 5 contacts access to your realtime location when you're on a trail. (Safety first!)
  • RootsRated: No need to wade through thousands of user reviews. RootsRated sources its information about trails from local guides. They also have adventure guides for activities other than trail running (like A Beginner's Guide to Kiteboarding and A Hiking Regimen for Your Dog).
  • Active: Ready to commit to a trail race? Head to Active to find an event.

Why Trail Runners Definitely Need to Strength Train

All runners (regardless of if you're road running vs. trail running) should lift weights—it helps prevent injury and increase mobility and speed. But trail running, in particular, uses a lot of tiny muscles as you bounce off rocks, stabilize on uneven ground, and control quick changes in cadence.

Seebohar suggests a strength routine that focuses on hip strength (bands, bodyweight, dynamic warm-ups and plyometrics); core strength (planks, dead bugs, any move that strengthens the low back); and some upper body (push-ups are easy and target multiple muscles at once). Work mobility and stability every day, and get after a focused strength program 3 to 4 times a week, he advises.

How to Improve Your Reaction Time–and Why You Should

"Picking up your feet and paying attention to the terrain is key," says Dauwalter. You will inevitably catch your toe on rocks and take a tumble (Dauwalter says still happens to her too), but training your reaction time can help minimize this.

Seebohar recommends training your nervous system with agility ladder drills, cone shuffles, or bouncing a ball on the ground or wall single-handed. These movements require a greater mind-body connection because they challenge your coordination.

How to Adjust Your Stride for Trail Running

The goal for efficient, safe trail running is to not spend too much time with your foot on the ground, explains Seebohar. Shorten your stride and control your speed. This reduces your risk of falling, particularly on the downhills, but it also lowers your risk of injury: A forefoot strike (which naturally comes with a quicker cadence) reduces the impact of each step compared to hitting on your heel in trail running, according to a 2016 French study. And when going uphill, slowing down can help reduce your risk of injury to your shin bone (like stress fractures), according to a 2017 study in Sports Biomechanics. (However, if you're road running vs. trail running, you should actually use whatever running stride feels most natural to you, according to science.)

Why Engaging Your Arms and Core Is Key

"Trail running is all about being nimble on your feet, having fast reaction times, excellent hip stabilizing strength and control, good ankle mobility and strength, and using the arms as a benefit," says Seebohar. That's a lot to think about, but the biggest difference between road running and trail running are your arms and your core.

In road running, it's easy to forget about what your arms are doing. But they're an important part of your stride—try running with your arms behind your back and see how efficient you feel, says Seebohar—and can make all the difference in trail running. "A proper arm swing and cadence can help a runner get into a groove with their lower body cadence, and the arms can be used more for balance when on very narrow trails or going downhill," he adds. (Here, more pointers on running form.)

Dauwalter adds that you should utilize your core more often as well. "Keeping your core engaged will help you to react more quickly to various obstacles and speed up or slow down your stride."

How to Master Running Downhill

The first thing you'll learn on a running trail: Downhills on the trail take practice. And not every hill is the same. "Small, quick steps will keep your speed in check on more technical downhills, and opening up your stride can get you cruising faster on the smoother downhills," explains Dauwalter. Also, keep your head up and navigate your route a few steps ahead of where you actually are, she advises. (That higher mental ask is making sense now, right?)

The Importance of Power Hiking

In trail running, there's no shame in slowing down: Between steep grades, rocky terrain, heat, and altitude, it's actually often more efficient to power hike up the hill than to try and run it, says Dauwalter. "Power hiking is a technique that can be used to get up the hill just as quickly as running would, but it keeps your heart rate lower and uses your muscles in a different way to give your running legs a rest," she explains.

Try it: Lean into the grade; keep your head down, focusing on the trail, take shorter strides, and move at a faster cadence, says Seebohar. (

What to Expect As a Beginner to Trail Running

Even if you've been running for years, transitioning from road running to trail running probably won't feel as natural as you'd expect. "You might bang up your knees or scuff your hands, and the trails will probably make you feel completely out of shape even though you have no problem running on roads," says Dauwalter, adding: "This is normal!"

You're using different muscle firing patterns, working against more micro-resistance underfoot, and often adding factors of heat and altitude—it's running, but different.

"Don't get discouraged—just take it nice and easy and enjoy exploring a beautiful new area that's free of cars and stop lights," adds Dauwalter.

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