Trail Running Vs Road Running: 7 Key Differences

The wondrous world of running has two sides. Ever waging war on each other. One, nudging you to go off the beaten course and take the road less traveled. The other, find your speed, and/or chat it up with your fav friends in a big group traversing the city streets. It’s the whole trail running vs road running thing.

What Are The Differences Between Trail & Road Running

Each has it’s own pros and cons. And luckily, you don’t have to permanently choose either one. You could switch it up once a week, once a month, rotate seasonally, etc. Read through all differences below.

1) Terrain

A huge and obvious difference, is the terrain between the sides. With trail running, you’re jumping over fallen logs, hopping rock to rock in a creek to stay dry, watching out for roots and possibly doing all of this while running up a mountain.

With road running, you’re on a nice paved road or sidewalk. Occasionally (or maybe all the time) watching out for potholes, roots upending said sidewalks, crosswalks, and traffic.

Hills can be a thing for both, but they’re a bit more expected in trail running.

trail running vs road running

2) Pace

Trail running is a lot slower for most vs road running. All those previously mentioned obstacles, constantly going up and down, and walking/hiking whenever you feel like it. Yes, in trail running, walking is considered ok. A common practice is to walk/hike the uphills, then run the flats and the downs.

On the roads, it’s easier to maintain a pace and find a rhythm. It’s also easier to run fast if that’s your thing. Find a nice country road or a quiet neighborhood street, and you can cruise until your hearts content.

3) Gear

The gear used on both sides for the most part can be pretty interchangeable. Running shoes might be a little bit of a hiccup there, but it can be done.

Running Shoes

Trail running shoes typically have a lot of traction, using a bunch of deep lugs, all strategically placed on the sole for maximum grip. And features, such as a rock plate, toe bumper and drainage holes that are a little overkill for road running.

Using trail running shoes for the roads won’t kill you, but it will wear down those lugs a lot quicker than the trails. While road running shoes can work on trails, you just might not have as much traction or protection.

Door to trail shoes are out there. They’re a blend of both worlds. Might have a rock plate, toe bumper, and drainage holes but not the super deep lugs that’ll wear down quickly. These are great for runners who do exactly that, run from the door of their homes to the trails.

racing in Richmond VA


Trail running shorts generally have more pockets or pouches to stash away keys, snacks, cash and whatever else can fit in those things. I use my Patagonia shorts casually in addition to the trails. They have 4 side stretchy pockets in the waistband and one zippered pocket in the back. Holds my thin wallet, chapstick, keys and my phone. Although the phone doesn’t fit all the way in the pocket, the elastic band holds it in place pretty well.

Road running shorts might be a little more focused on speed and breathability, instead of utility.

Shirts, hats, and socks are all going to be about the same. Trail socks might be a little thicker to slow down wear and tear but that’s about it.

Hydration Packs

Again, pretty interchangeable, but trail running focused hydration packs may have more space, pockets, and spots to stash away trekking poles.

4) Muscles Used

With all the various obstacles and hills there’s a good amount of lateral movement and odd foot placement when trail running. This helps utilize less used muscles, especially if you have just been road running….Or sitting on a couch.

5) Mindset

As previously mentioned in pace. Trail running can be a slower ordeal than road running. So trail runners typically adopt a different mindset to help them get the most out of their runs.

Road running is typically all about a finish line, splits, mileage and so on. While trail running is more about enjoying your surroundings, doing what works best for you at the moment, and overall time because sometimes it’s hard to measure mileage on the trails.

6) Views

Some of the best payoffs when running the trails are the views once you reach a mountain summit or come across a beautiful woodland scene. The early morning sunlight peeping through the canopy as you come across a trickling stream with deer enjoying the watering hole.

trail running vs road running

Maybe a bit much there, but you get the picture.

Road running will give you some views, depending on the location. Running along the coast or maybe up on the Blue Ridge Parkway surely have their place. But the common road in the neighborhood or city block is gonna get beat out 9/10 times.

7) Flexibility

This is a big key difference for trail running vs road running. And one that actually sides with road running….what!!

Road running allows more flexibility as far as location is concerned. You can start your run as soon as you hop out of your house door. Your neighborhood streets and city streets are right there. Makes it a lot easier to build up and keep a routine if you don’t have to drive to a trail head every time you wanted to run. Especially if you’re just starting out.

trail running vs road running