8 ways trail running can improve your road times

You might be a good road runner through and through, but going off-road has its plus points. See how trail running can produce results back on the road.

8 ways trail running can improve your road times
  1. You build up stamina (and put less stress on your body)

It’s good to mix up running on hard tarmac with going out on softer trails. The spongier ground depresses slightly as your foot lands on the ground, meaning less force is transferred up your leg. The reduced intensity means you can run for longer and build up endurance for the road.

  1. It makes your recovery runs more effective

You can get more from your recovery runs by going out for longer on soft, flat trails. Even easy trail routes slow you down, which is great if you’re looking to run at a more relaxed pace but still want a challenge.

  1. It makes you stronger

Trail running often means taking on mud, as a little bit of rain can turn soft trails into sludge. Because your foot sinks into the mud, it’s harder to push off, so your leg is getting a tougher workout. It’s the same if you run on sand. The key is getting your planted foot off the ground as fast as possible. The less time it’s on the ground, the less chance it has to settle in the mud and the easier it is to lift off.

  1. It improves core stability and balance

Windy, technical routes force you to think about your running much more than on the road. Keeping your speed up around bends, U-turns and downhills improves your core stability and balance. You engage your core muscles in your abs and back and become stronger as a result. Once you go back to the road, you’ll find your posture is improved and that crucial link between your upper and lower body is stronger.

8 ways trail running can improve your road times
  1. Downhills help you become a more efficient runner

Going downhill at speed encourages a higher leg turnover, with your feet in contact with the ground for the shortest period of time. Getting through the gait cycle at such a high rate improves your running style and you’ll see the results back on the road.

  1. It makes paved hills look like nothing

Trail running can throw up hills that are unlike anything you’ll see on the roads. After all, cars don’t have to make it up off-road paths, so they can range from very steep to almost vertical.

You’re fighting against gravity with every stride, so your legs have to do much more work. You’ll feel the burn in your quads and calf muscles and feel much stronger once you go back to the road.

  1. It connects body and mind

Running off-road makes you think much more deeply. You always have to think a few steps ahead on technical trails, planning your next move carefully. You’ll also need to listen to your body and respond to changes in terrain. Changes in pace and the ground mean you can’t afford to daydream, so you’re much more involved in your running. This attention to detail is a great skill to transfer to the road.

  1. It’s a bit of an escape

Road running might be your chosen style and your prefered way to run competitively, but many elite marathon runners turn to the trails as a way of resetting their minds and reconsidering what is possible back on the road.


One thing even seasoned road runners can struggle with is how the times they achieve on the road equate to their times out on the trails. It goes without saying that your trail running times are likely to be slower than your road running times over the same distance. That’s due to the underfoot conditions, the greater number of inclines you’re likely to encounter and the twisting nature of the tracks. As a general rule, you can expect your pace to drop by anything from 30 to 90 seconds per mile.


If you’re used to strict pacing on the roads, you’re likely to find the adjustment to trail running will take some time. With challenging surfaces, ascents and descents and the altitude all having a role to play in your trail running times, it can be a bit of a mental hurdle for runners who like to judge the success of a run by their stopwatch.

However, it is still possible to provide a rough guide to what constitutes a good trail running time based on your road running pace. A good trail running time will typically be 10% to 20% slower than your average road running pace. For example, if you normally run 5k in 25 minutes on the road, a good 5k trail running time will be around 28 to 30 minutes. Similarly, a 60-minute 10k on the road will translate to a good 10k trail running time of around 1hr 10 minutes.


The key to improving your trail running times is to understand that trail running is technically very demanding – it’s entirely different to running on roads. To decrease your time on the roads, it’s all about increasing your fitness and stamina. On the trails, once you have a good level of fitness, it’s all about increasing your skill.

One of the single best ways to improve your trail running times is to weave balance and strength training into your routine. As every step presents a unique challenge, it’s beneficial to develop a solid base of body strength and balance. This can be done with single-leg exercises such as squats, lunges and standing balances, and strengthening exercises such as planks and mountain climbers. Doing a dynamic warm-up which incorporates high and long skipping, bum kickers and high knees will also help to develop the power and strength you’ll need to bound across those trails.

Want to learn more about trail running? Then take a look at our 10 trail running essentials and find out how to find the right trail running shoe for you.