I love all kinds of running. Fast, slow, hot, cold, inside, outside, race, workout, road, or trail.
Honestly, I mostly just love to be active. I mountain bike, I road bike, I swim, I hike and I snowboard. I enjoy being outside and I love the feeling I get from pushing myself in a workout and knowing I've improved a little bit that day.
All of that activity can (and does) lead to injuries every once in a while, and I feel like I'm more prone to them then others. For the past month I've been dealing with IT Band Syndrome. It's one of the few injuries I've had that has made running absolutely miserable for me.
So for the past 2 months I basically wasn't running at all except for a few 2 milers here and there to see if my IT band was getting any better from the stretching and strengthening routine I was doing (it wasn't).
I was biking, hiking, and swimming and none of those really bothered my IT band, at least not like running. So I used those exercises to try to hang on to the aerobic base that I had been building.
Of course, I was thankful I was able to exercise at all. I tried to remind myself I could've been dealing with a hip injury or a sickness which wouldn't allow me to workout at all! So, yeah, I was happy to be doing something, but bummed I wasn't running.
A couple weeks ago I went for another 2 mile run, only this time I went running on a local trail. Oddly, my IT band didn't hurt at all during the run. Even weirder, it didn't hurt after my run either!
I thought it might just be a fluke so I went on a 4 mile run a few days later when my legs had recovered. Same thing...no pain on the run, no pain after.
I was shocked, I was excited, I was kind of in disbelief. I could run again!!
I was determined to take it slow so I didn't exacerbate any existing injuries, or create any new ones. I didn't know why trail running was easier on my IT band than road running, but at this point, I didn't care!
This wasn't my first time on the trails. In fact, I've always been a fan of trail running. I've been hiking since I can remember so running on the trails came pretty naturally to me; it's just hiking, but faster.
Trail running has always just taken a backseat to road running for me because I never lived in an area where trails were close or abundant. I grew up in Northern Virginia, the suburbs of Washington D.C. Not really an area known for amazing or extensive trail systems. So I would go on trail runs every once in a blue moon and that was that.
About 5 years ago I moved to NH. It was then that I realized I needed to give trail running another shot since I lived within walking distance to dozens of amazing multi-use trails. Here is a small snapshot of the trails within walking distance...my house is in the red circle:
I tried to make trail running one of my weekly goals. It didn't always end up that way, and there were stints where I didn't get on the trails for a few weeks in a row, especially when I was training for a road race.
But, I've packed enough trail miles under my belt that I've got a pretty solid understanding of why trail running is amazing, and it why it also might suck.
Stick with me folks, we're jumping into an old school pros and cons list!
The Pro's and Con's of Trail Running!
It's easier on your joints - You knew we were going to kick off our list with this one! Any time you are running on something other than pavement, your body will thank you...unless it's like, lava.
Pavement is super hard, in case you didn't know. Slamming your joints onto it a few thousand times in a row can take its toll.
Trail running allows you to run on a much softer surface which means your body isn't taking as much impact, which might just save your knees, hips, ankles, etc...
You get to connect with nature - I know, I know...you don't have to say it. This is for us granola eatin', tree huggin' nature lovers out there, but honestly, it's one of the main reasons I love getting out on the trail. I don't have to stare at pavement, and cars, and people on their phones. I get to disconnect for a while, enjoy the views, listen to the birds, and smell the freakin' roses!
Trail running is more adventurous - Trail running is, almost by definition, more adventurous than road running. I'm not going to hate on road running too much because I do love running on the road too. But when you compare it to trail running it definitely is lacking in the adventurous department!
With trail running you feel like you're running from a bear or on a wild manhunt! You are constantly on the lookout for things that might eat you, maul you, or maybe just roll your ankle like all those slippery roots.
You're running, you're jumping, you're dodging rocks and low hanging branches, getting lost on trails and discovering crazy new places you've never been to!
I mean, it's just fun!
It strengthens muscles you didn't know you had - Because you are running on unstable and uneven ground you are constantly working the stabilizer muscles that get to slack off a little bit when you run on a nice flat road. You'll also tend to work other groups of muscles more because trails don't have to follow the same rules as a road. You'll find much steeper hills on the trail which will crush your hip flexors, glutes and quads. Don't feel bad, we all need to walk every now and then...
Better for people who run with dogs - If you are one of the amazing runners out there who can manage a run with your dog, you and your dog will generally be much happier running on trails instead of the road. Obviously you won't have to worry about your dog running into traffic or tearing up someones lawn ornaments, but your dogs paws and joints will also thank you. Yeah, just like people, dogs' joints like softer surfaces too and, unless you put those crazy looking shoes on your dog, their paws will like the soft stuff too!
Less people, less pollution - If you're reading this article around the time it was written you will know that the COVID-19 virus has taken an incredible toll on the United States and the entire world. Right now, many states (including NH) have issued "Shelter in place" or "Stay at home" orders urging the public to stay at home unless absolutely necessary. NH has even forced non-essential businesses to close until further notice.
It's an incredibly difficult time for everyone.
One thing that we should all be doing at this point is listening to what the scientists and doctors have suggested, which is adhering to the principles of "Social Distancing". One of the main principles of social distancing is staying at least 6 feet away from anyone you don't live with.
When you are running in a congested city this is almost impossible. Sidewalks are not even 6 feet wide in most places, so unless you are constantly running in the street, you're risking your health and the health of others for a run. Not worth it.
A solution to this is to try to get on the trails as much as possible. They are much, much less crowded and there are ample places for you to step off the trail to let someone pass you without breaking the 6 foot barrier.
Another thing to think about in large urban areas is the air pollution. In many cities air pollution can be a real problem. Just getting a few miles outside of the city may provide a huge improvement to the air quality.
Trail running is risky - We talked about how adventurous trail running can be, and it's true. It's a real adventure when you sprain your ankle 5 miles away from any sign of life!
The reality is usually not that bad, but because of the roots, rocks, and uneven ground you are far more likely to roll an ankle, hyper-extend a knee, or just slip and fall while running on a trail. For some of us, we can get a cell signal pretty much anywhere we run, but for others there is a real risk of getting stranded. If you do want to try trail running just make sure you think about your safety first!
It's not as accessible for most people - One of the best things about running is that you can do it pretty much anywhere. If you live in a bustling city or in the farmlands of Iowa, you can still step out of your front door and go for a run. But, if you want to get to a trail that you can run on, you might have to drive 30 minutes. What if you don't have a car? You might need to take a train, bus and an Uber just to get to your trail! That's not really feasible.
Another hindrance to accessing trails might be the weather. If it snows a lot in your neck of the woods you can bet that the trails will not get plowed. Even heavy rains can make trails pretty much impossible (or dangerous) to run on.
Might not be the best training for a road race - If you're training for a particular road race, trail running may not be the best workout option for you. Not only is it high risk, it could also be a fairly low reward. Because of the nature of trails, you are generally going to be running much slower than you would on the road. And although you are probably going to get a solid aerobic workout, you can get the same aerobic work in, without the risk, on the road. I would be super bummed if I couldn't race because I tweaked an ankle on the trails...just sayin'.
Trail running can be super hard! - Most of us are looking for a good workout when we go running. You will definitely get that from trail running. But sometimes it's nice to run fast, feel light, and crush your split times! You probably won't do that on the trails... Trail running is just super tough. Unless you're a damn good runner, you are probably going to be running much, much slower, and it's going to feel like you are working much, much harder.
This is usually the case because trails tend to be hillier than roads and because you are less efficient when running on that nice soft dirt as opposed to the hard road. If you can try to forget your road running splits, stop thinking about your pace, and start easing back on the distances than you might love trail running! If you can't, you might get frustrated and burn out...
You'll need even more gear - This one is kinda dumb, but I'm still going to write it because someone will bring it up if I don't! In order to run on trails you generally need some trail running shoes, or at least some shoes with good grip. If your trails are particularly flat or well maintained then you might be fine with some road runners! But most of us will need to invest in a dedicated pair of trail running shoes which will cost you the same as any other pair of running shoes. The nice thing is that trail running shoes generally last a lot longer than road runners because of the soft surfaces. Currently I'm running in the Altra Superior 3 and I'm absolutely lovin' em (they have the Superior 4's out now!).
Ok, I'm all tapped out of both Pro's and Con's! I have to admit that for some people, trail running just isn't practical. You'd spend more time getting to the trails than you would running on them, or so much money on gas you could pay for a new pair of shoes every month.
For others it's just too risky. You might not get cell service on your local trails or you might have mountain lions that will eat you for dinner.
And even if all the stars lined up and you could easily get to nice, safe trails...you might not like trail running!! We all run for different reasons and trail running might just totally harsh your running vibe!
However, if you just haven't had the inclination to try trail running I hope that this article has helped nudge you in the right direction...give it a chance, what's the worst that could happen! You know, besides the whole mountain lion thing...
Thank you so, so, SO much for reading!
Do we have any road runners who have never tried trail running before?
How about anyone who has been hitting the trails recently?
What's your take on all of this, and what do you prefer? Road, or trail?
Leave a comment below, let's talk about it!