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Road vs Trail: Where To Run and Why?

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The modern world is divided by strong opinions. Are you politically Right or Left? Brexit or Remainer? On-board with a female Doctor Who or frothing at the mouth? We all seem to come down firmly on one side of an argument or the other, with no room for manoeuvre. You wouldn’t think this could extend to something as uncontroversial as what kind of ground people prefer to run across, but it can and does.

“Oh I hate running on the road; it’s so boring!”

“I hate the mud.”

“I love the how quiet and peaceful it is on the trails.”

“I like knowing where I’m going; the road just feels safer.”

These are all sentiments I’ve heard expressed by members of my local running community. Or maybe I should say communities, as it’s fairly rare that these two universes – road and trail – ever really overlap. Trail runners eulogise the calm and quiet wonder to be found in their solitary meanderings; road advocates huddle over Strava, devouring split times and weekly totals with competitive fervour. They can seem like worlds apart, as different as rugby and tennis.

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In my experience, however, there is no need for this schism. Both road and trail can have a place in any runner’s life. Whether you are training for a first 5k, a 10k or a marathon, preparing for a trail ultra, or simply running for pleasure, a varied landscape will benefit your body and mind. It will probably improve your overall technique as well

This was certainly the case for me. After years as a road devotee I finally discovered the joys of getting away from tarmac and streetlights. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my overall strength, speed and endurance has improved as a result. Most of all though, shaking things up has renewed my pleasure in the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.

So, I have put together some thoughts on the rewards of both trail and road running. None of this is intended as a claim that one is better than the other. Rather, I’m suggesting that a mixture of both will leave you stronger in body, mind and motivation.

Performance

You can run faster on the road than the trail. That’s a fact. Compare your split times and you’ll see that going off-road can add several minutes per km. If you are looking to increase fundamental speed before a shorter race then it may be best to stick to the road (or even find a track). The regularity of terrain and relatively level gradients make it much easier to compare training sessions and track your progress. Working on your heart rate and V02max levels is also more straightforward on the road so you may feel like you are making more immediate impact by pounding the pavement.

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However, whilst you may be slower over rough ground you’ll also find that you’re building strength, particularly in the smaller muscle groups surrounding your major joints. These ancillary muscles are important for stability and balance but they can be severely underused during the regularity of running on the street. Uneven terrain calls these muscles into action whilst also giving your major muscle groups a much-needed rest. This is why trail running makes for such an excellent recovery session after a race or a hard training session on the road.

Mindset

The difference between the two disciplines seems to rest heavily on the mind-set of the runner. Road runners tend to be goal-oriented, demanding visible progress and recognisable achievement. By contrast, trail enthusiasts focus on the experience itself, often in terms of emotion, feeling and wellbeing. It’s a case of the journey being more important than the destination, or vice versa.

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Both of these perspectives are valid, but a combination of both is ideal. Goals are key to progress. There is a lot to be said for carving seconds off a Strava segment and feeling delighted with yourself when you do. I spend most Saturday lunchtimes eagerly awaiting a text from Parkrun, desperate to see whether I’ve improved on the previous week. This is a healthy obsession; without it I wouldn’t feel the drive to get better and to compete as hard as I can in races.

That said, it doesn’t pay to be so focused on the result that you forget to enjoy the experience. Living in a semi-rural part of East Lancashire, I’m very lucky to have moorland and forest within a kilometre of my doorstep. Living in a city needn’t be a barrier though. Britain is a green country and it is never very hard to find a piece of personal heaven within a short drive from wherever you live. Getting out into the outdoors will bring you into contact with nature.

Running in East Lancashire Morning views of the East Lancs Moors

Holcombe Moor Autumn on Holcombe Moor

On my morning and evening runs I’ve seen all sorts of wildlife and every type of weather you can imagine. I’ve witnessed phenomenal sunsets and tried (unsuccessfully) to count the numberless shades of green found in just one vista. These are experiences that reify the purpose of running in the first place: to get out and to find some time for yourself. My tip is to run trail at least once a week even if you are a confirmed roadster. Leave your mp3 player at home, maybe even turn off the Strava (shock, horror!) It will de-clutter your brain and remind you that there is more to running than PBs. It may also make you more motivated when you get back to the road for the rest of the week.

Likewise, if you are a firm believer in the trail, make sure to get some lighter shoes, a decent playlist or podcast and test yourself on the pavement. You’ll enjoy the feeling of effortless pace and being able to relax into a steady gait. Road-running lets you switch off in a different way; without needing to scrutinise the ground for tripping hazards you can sink into your thoughts or whatever is pumping through your earphones.

Achievement

All of this comes down, fundamentally, to what runners consider to be an achievement. For years the marathon has been the gold standard. It is the longest distance that the average runner could conceive of covering on their own feet, and it is the furthest race length that still balances pace and distance in anything like a meaningful way to most of us. For this reason most runners think of time, speed and distance as the basic ingredients of success or failure.

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The recent emergence of ultra-running as a sport has changed things. Now trail runners have their own aims and standards of success. 50 mile races, 100 mile races, races across deserts, through jungles and up mountains, these are all up for grabs now. And though there are some incredible athletes who are able to look at these ultra-trails and think about completing them within a certain time, for most of us just going the distance is the achievement in itself. In this sense, ultra-marathons are an extension of the trail-runner’s general mindset – an urge to explore, to endure and to triumph in personal battles that have little to do with times or the abilities of fellow competitors.

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In my years of running I have come to the conclusion that both of these perspectives offer their own rewards. More importantly, I think that a mixture of the two offers much greater satisfaction than either one in isolation. Running is both a passion and pastime, it can and should be both gentle and all-consuming depending on the situation.

It is far too easy to think of running and racing as the same thing. They are not. So by all means run where you want to run and as fast or slow as you like. But try and bear in mind, when you are fed up or bored or demotivated: there is an alternative that you might enjoy and that will still teach you a thing or two about the sport you love.

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Neil used to be a bookworm, an "indoor" type if ever there was one. After finishing a PhD he writes short stories about spooky places and odd people. Living in Switzerland, the Canadian Rockies and the north east region of the USA convinced him that there was something to be said for this whole outdoor thing. Now he runs everywhere he can, competing in races most weekends and endlessly planning the next great adventure to some far flung part of the world. Recent trips include Costa Rica, where he tried and failed to surf; Vietnam, where he almost got stuck in an underground tunnel; and back to Canada, where he came face-to-face with a bear. Watch this space for further updates on Neil's global bumblings and the occasional athletic success.

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