A lot of trail runners transition from a road running background. If you are used to strict pacing for your road races and training then adjusting to the variability of trail running is going to take some work. It’s definitely a bit of a mental hurdle to start running trails and see your average pace per mile become so much slower.
So, what is a good trail running pace? A good trail running pace is roughly 10 to 20 percent slower than your average road running pace. For example, if you normally run a 10 minute per mile easy run pace on the road, then you should expect to run 11 or even 12 minutes per mile pace on the trails. Ultimately, it will come down to just how rugged the trail is – it could be buffed out single track that mountain bikers use, or it could be a rocky and technical trail with a lot of vertical gain.
The reason most runners fret over running pace is to find out how fast they can cover either the entire trail or at least go as far as possible. This objective is the same for road running as well. But when you choose trail running, there are different things you need to consider when compared to road running.
The ascent or descent will change, the surface can change, and the altitude will also have a role to play. Regardless, let’s take a deeper look into how trail running and road running compare and how you can determine the right pace for you.
Pros and Cons of Road Running Vs. Trail Running
As you would know, running is an impact sport. It engages the entire body by placing stress and engaging different muscles and joints throughout. The stress and activity in these muscles and joints can actually be beneficial for the body.
Running not only helps strengthen your muscles but also improves cardiovascular endurance, stamina, and overall physical health. However, if overdone or not done properly, the repetitive stress can lead to some injuries. There are several ways one can lessen the stress on the muscles and joints to avoid sustaining injuries to the tissues. For example, you can use the footwear, change your training intensity,
and improve your running form.
One other change you can make is to change the surface or elevation you run on. This means that road runners switch to trail running. Does this mean you should make the switch as well? There are pros and cons to both techniques. I have compiled some of the most common ones below to help you give an idea of what you might be facing with each. You can make your decision regarding making the switch based on these pros cons.
Road Running – Pros
- Convenient – roads and pavements are everywhere. You can just put on your running
shoes and leave your house.
- Surface consistency – since they are manmade, most roads are leveled and consistent
on the surface, making running on them easier.
- Provides a sturdy running surface, especially for someone with Achilles problems.
- Simulates race surfaces – since most marathons and community races take place on
roads, road running makes for good training.
Road Running – Cons
- Hard surface – roads can be very high impact and increase the risk of injury for those
with poor tissue quality, arthritis, and those recovering from injuries.
- Surface Consistency – I’ve included this in the cons as the consistent surface stresses the
same regions, which can plateau progress.
- You can trip very easily as roads and pavements have cracks or can be of poor quality.
- It can be dangerous due to other pedestrians, bikers, and passing traffic.
Trail Running – Pros
- Soft surface – running trails usually have a soft surface like dirt, grass, and sand, which
can be beneficial for reducing the risk for sustaining impact-related injuries.
- Surface elevation – trails have varied surfaces and elevations that put stress and force
on different tissues throughout the body.
- Varied surface elevation and surface makes training much more beneficial as it increases
strength and balance in different areas of the body.
- Trails are solely for running, hiking or trekking, eliminating any danger from pedestrians
or incoming traffic.
- Since trails are natural, they offer a great chance for runners to see natural beauty and
get fresh air.
Trail Running – Cons
- While the soft surface on trails reduces the risk for injuries otherwise, there is still a
chance of ankle injury due to uneven surfaces.
- The elevation can be hard on people with hip or knee pain and/or balance problems
- Not as convenient as they are usually out of the city area
- The uneven surface can be hard on shoes
How to Get Faster at Trail Running
One thing new runners often complain about is their speed. They think that since they are new to the sport, they are not likely to run fast. However, hard work, training, and effort go a long way.
Here are some tips that can set you off on the right track when you want to get faster at trail running:
- Take it slow and gradual. Instead of jumping right into technical single-track trails, build your endurance on a groomed trail. Learn how to navigate simple tracks and build new neural pathways. This will be crucial when you’re running a more challenging trail. Similarly,
increase your time on the trail gradually. This will help build endurance in your body and get your muscles used to the exertion before running long distances on the trail.
- Run by effort or time. Instead of focusing on your pace, run by effort and time as you will be naturally slower at the beginning. Put in varying levels of effort to gauge how your body responds and sustains the pace. This will allow you to adapt to a new trail easily.
- Develop balance and strength. Trails have a mix of varying altitudes, elevations, and obstacles. You need to work on building muscle strength, especially in the lower body, to prevent injuries. Try using balance boards, rolled up towels and exercises like high-knees, skipping, and stretching to develop balance.
- Split time between road running and trail running. When you make the switch from road running to trail running, your foot speed slows down. Your body learns how to adapt to the varying uneven surface. Run short, fast intervals on the road once or twice a week at least. In addition to that, space trail runs closer every three to four days to build your muscle memory.
Do You Burn More Calories Trail Running?
Compared to an even road, the uneven trail will have you leaping over roots and logs and climbing steep hills and elevations. The movements in trail running are more variable and diverse.
This gets more muscles engaged and active in your body, making your body more agile and stronger. When you run on uneven terrains, your thigh muscles particularly work harder. Consequently, this means that you burn more energy. Just an inch of surface-height variability increases the number of calories you burn percent. This means that if run at an 8-minute-mile pace per hour, you would be burning 40 extra calories.
This doesn’t include the impact of the steepness of any hills that you may encounter on the trail as well. In a few simple words – Yes, trail running does burn more calories. In fact, it can increase your calorie burn up to 10%.
Why Road Runners Should Run on Trails
This is one of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to trail running. More specifically, road runners ask how it would benefit them when the race they’ll be running won’t be on a trail.
If you’ve read the blog from the beginning, you would have come across the pros and cons of both trail running and road running. The benefits of trail running mentioned there will shed some light on to why road runners should give it a try.
However, the most convincing benefit is the fact that trail running slows you down. Road runners are no strangers to pushing their limits when it’s not necessary. When done more frequently, this excessive push can actually rob your muscles of the benefits of active recovery.
Active recovery is an important part of a runner’s training. It helps improve muscle memory, increases muscle endurance, and recovery from hard workouts. When your body doesn’t get this, our muscles end up just being overworked, fatigued, and prone to injury. Running trails can help road runners make improvements in this area, aiding their training even more. Besides changing your running gait, trails can help engage and condition ancillary muscle groups. This helps improve stability and balance, taking the load off the main muscles when moving forward.
Additionally, you’ll actually get the chance to stop and smell the flowers. Instead of weaving through other runners and pedestrians, looking out for vehicles, and being surrounded by pollution, you can enjoy nature.
Do I need trail shoes for trail running? You do not need trail shoes to start running trails. The only time they would be absolutely necessary is if the trails are quite muddy and you would be slipping without the extra traction of a trail show. Otherwise, just get out the door and decide based on your own experience and specific trails you want to run.
Is trail running good for marathon training? Trail running is great for marathon training. Many runners enjoy trails as a form of recovery from the constant pounding they normally do on the pavement day in and day out. Pick a recovery day and try out the trails to change things up. You just might enjoy it!
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Erick is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast. Growing up in Nairobi Kenya and now calling Glasgow, United Kingdom home. Sipping on homemade spiced swahili tea and enjoying a good book is his idea of bliss.
I recommend getting trail running shoes, the added protection in the Toe Box can prevent injury. Other than that great article, I run exclusively on trails now. I have not suffered any over use injuries. Completed 3 Ultras in a 12 month span.
Another great benefit of trail running: Avoiding the heat and sun. It typically feels 10 degrees or more cooler on the shady trails than out in the open pavement. Trails are my go to place during the hot summer months.
I’ve been trail running for the last couple months and I love it, hate running on roads, I’m happy to see that my pace is about average, my friend is a road runner and her pace is alot quicker than mine so I’m glad to read this 😁