Road Versus Trail

I have a handful of friends who, once dedicated road runners, now give 100% of themselves to trail running (these are my crazy ultra friends like Kate and Anya). When I spend time with trail runners they often say, “Laura, I really don’t know why you are still running the road! I hate road running!”  That’s fine and all but I honestly love road running. I also love trail running. Both are incredibly different experiences and suit my needs in a variety of ways.

I’ve been spending a lot more time running trails lately mainly because of the post-run effect on my injury- I was diagnosed with a bone spur on top of my right foot back in June after the SF half and since then, when I complete any road mileage, my foot is left black and blue, swollen, and SO PAINFUL for the next couple days.  After I complete a trail run, the spur is still black and blue but the pain just isn’t there- such a relief!

So, after 4 years of road running, I have to admit that the pavement has finally become- for me- more risk than reward… 

This runner’s dilemma: trail or road???

Whenever I am challenged by ultra friends regarding road running, the first defense I cite is that of time- you just can’t deny the convenience of an out-the-door-and-down-the-street run! I often reply, “I don’t have 8 free hours on a Saturday to go get lost in the woods!” It takes more time to drive to get to a trail and depending on the hills you encounter along the way (and if you get lost like I tend to), trails just plainly take longer.

Not that there is anything wrong with spending more time running, I wish I could! I am very busy so am always hyper-aware of my time and try to get as much done in as little time as possible. Road running is very efficient in this way- I know exactly where my favorite road routes are, I know where to park, I know where the water fountains and porta potties are along the way and I am able to tell my family exactly what time I will be home following a road run. I like that. I can easily plan my day around that. On the other hand, if I head out for a trail run, it’s more like, “Yeah so… give me anywhere from 1-4 hours, I guess… I’ll just see you when I see you!”

Road Running Wins! Out the door and down the street can't be beat!

Road Running Wins! Out the door and down the street can’t be beat! (This picture was taken 5 miles from my front door along the new SF Bay Bridge!)

The natural beauty and solitude of the trails are unparalleled, I agree with all you ultra runners there. I also like the challenge of running/hiking hills but that isn’t to say that I can’t get beauty or hills on the road too, it’s just different. And if you have ever run in San Francisco, you know this to be fact! I’ve found plenty of amazing inclines, vistas, and views along the road…

Pretty, right??? And it's all road.

Pretty, right??? All uphill to get here, and alllllll road.

As well as on the trails…

6 miles of hilly trails to get here- totally worth it!

6 miles of hilly trails to get here- totally worth it!

I find satisfaction within each type of terrain.  I like running on the road near the water for the breeze, and I like running on the trails under a canopy of trees. If you think that road running only provides miles of flat grey street to look at, you would be very wrong! I agree that trail terrain provides more of a challenge because if the hills get too steep to run, you are still strength training while hiking your body on up that mountain. On the other hand, downhills can be pretty dangerous on the trails if you don’t know how to run them the right way.  I have fallen flat on my face/butt/elbows/hands/knees on trail downhills more often than I care to admit but have never once fallen on the road.

For me, this one is a tie- neither road nor trails can claim a “better” terrain than the other as both present their own set of challenges depending on the path you chose!

It really bugs me that I shouldn’t wear my music on the trails. Safety first and all, yeah yeah yeah, but my passion for running the road includes being able to pop in my ear buds, pump up the tunes, and get lost in my running soundtrack. I LOVE that!  And at every road race, I make sure to have a rocking play list with songs that really motivate me to get moving- it’s even been proven that listening to music can boost athletic performance. At some of my worst road running moments, if I find just the right song with just the right lyrics and beat, I can shake anything off, push through and get moving again.

Can’t do that on the trails. Especially if they are single track. Okay, so I get away with it by putting the volume really low so I can hear anything coming up behind me but I certainly do not race trails with headphones- they are rarely allowed anyway!

Trail racing without tunes and still smiling!

Trail racing without tunes and still smiling!

As the above photo shows, I don’t really miss my tunes on the trail though! Music is a type of a crutch for the road, but there is way too much to think about while trail running that that becomes a distraction in itself.  The times that I’ve fallen while trail running are the times when I’ve stop thinking about my foot placement, my breathing, my fueling and lose focus, not seeing that huge tree root, landing a foot into a ditch, slipping on a rock that, if I was paying attention, I would have seen. I admit that music can get in the way of trail running, in other words, you gotta focus on the run externally to avoid getting hurt- it’s just that simple!

So trail running wins in this case- it’s nice to take a break from relaying on music to get you through a tough run. With trail running, you rely on yourself, NOT on your tunes.

My right foot is telling me I need to take a break from the road in order to keep succeeding and at the same time, I am feeling the need to change things up, find a new goal, push my running further, go longer, see more, learn more, do things differently… when I finish a trail run, I’m left thinking, “Whoa, it’s over? Already??? That went by quickly!” So I guess I should start spending more time running the trails, happily, pain-free, and music-free, just to see where that can take me next… can I truly let time go, let tunes go, embrace new terrain, and push beyond my imagined limits and emerge triumphant?

Think I can? Honestly, I know I can.

To that end, I am considering starting small just as I did with the road and am targeting a trail half marathon on November 3rd at Mt. Diablo.  Two days after my 39th birthday, my first trail half, will certainly be The Best present ever!

How about you- do you exclusively run the road or the trail or do you dabble in both? What are some of the differences and challenges you’ve faced on the road/trails? Do you like one over the other? If so, why?

3 thoughts on “Road Versus Trail

  1. Rudy Van Pelt

    I enjoy both roads and trails too. We simply have to understand and respect the differences. The one thing I would add to your post, Laura, is the feeling of running at a sustained “fast” pace. I use the word fast in quotes because fast to one person may not be the same as it is to another. But usually on trails, “fast” only applies to the downhills. Often in a trail race I find myself either hiking uphill, or flying downhill, and always worried about what might trip me up on my next step. In road races, however, I can usually set a challenging pace and simply try to hold it – sometimes for many miles – without ever thinking that I might trip on a tree root.

  2. Kate

    So glad you are drinking the kool-aid 🙂
    I definitely think there is more then enough room for both pavement and trail running, especially here with our waterfront running paths. I suppose if I had to run on an actual road, with cars, I’d be less inclined to run on pavement though.

  3. Pingback: Race Recap: Diablo Trail Adventure 10K | running4thereason

What do you think?