Why after running a 21km on the road it feels like my hips are breaking and my knees are squeaky but when I do a 24Km on trail my body is not nearly as wiped out afterwards? Yet I’ve heard people say Trail running is harder on your body and joints than road running?

This is a question that I regularly thought about in my running lifespan. I mean you’d think that trail running is much more raw, harsh, hard and technical than road running. You have to duck, jump and dive every now and then. Your feet might land in strange positions as you try and miss obstacles that are in your way, all this might give you the impression that trail running is harder on your body than the road, Right?

– Wrong.

I did some research and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Road running is a much more common occurrence for most runners, getting up in the morning and heading out the door for a run around your block is much more convenient than having to drive to a destination to hit the trails.  The road is constructed from asphalt or concrete, man-made. Both these mediums are very hard and has a very high impact on your body.

On the flip side trails are more natural, softer surfaces, consisting of the ground, soil, mud and grass. All of which allows for less pounding on your joints and on your body. Trail running however has more obstacles and will allow for a slower more concentrated run. You’re constantly faced with either a root or a rock that is in the way, or even a branch up ahead that you have to look out for. As a Trail runner it is also very important to have good balance and a very strong core to support your legs as they jump and move in sudden different directions. The uneven surface and varied terrain challenge the muscles of the lower body more than a flat, firm run. The natural obstacles can give you a more effective overall workout and help improve your sense of balance and reaction time.

Road running is more of a fast paced with little less endurance than trail running, depending on the distance. Road running makes for a much more consistent forward movement with little or no obstacles. Because of its flat surface, road running doesn’t have the same effect on the lower body as trail, however it still promotes endurance and strength in all the major muscles.

You will also see when you compare most professional trail runners to professional road runners there are a significant difference in body build for the two groups of athletes. Your trail runners have a much more muscular appearance than Road Runners who usually sport a much leaner physique. Each of these attributes allows these two groups of athletes to perform at their best in their fields.

It’s said that it can be very beneficial for road runners to occasionally switch up their training and opt for a slower run once a week by hitting the trails. This might not only be refreshing for them mentally but also help them rest up tires legs on a softer surface without doing less mileage or sitting out completely. Not that I'm saying trail runners run slower than road runners at all, some trail runners kill it on technical sections where road runners might not have the necessary skill to move economically enough to make it down or up fast.

Running on trails changes up your gait. This will get road runners on their fore feet, running forward on their toes, shortening their stride as they make their way through technical sections. Most road runners spend their entire career perfecting their stride and gait as to minimize the uneven movement that side to side trail running encourages. Trail running can help road runner with activation and condition of muscle groups in their legs and core that provide additional stabilization reducing the pressure put on muscles mainly used for forward moving movement. By not conditioning the other muscle groups road runners run the risk of over working their main muscle groups and this can lead to injuries and poor running performance in the long run.

So there you have it, Trail running is definitely not harder on your body than road running and cross training between the two can be beneficial for both sides.

Happy Running and See you on the Trails!


written by

Jani du Toit

Mother, Blogger and Pattern maker from Pretoria

Age group: 30
Club: ASICS FrontRunner

My Disciplines
Trail 10k Half Marathon

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