Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Trail running vs. road running

Trail running shares surprisingly little with its road running brethren, aside from the minimalist appeal. After meeting a few other trail runners, I’ve also noticed it attracts a very different breed of people, more of your outdoorsy types than your competitive types. I look forward to the trail running races – I’m not sure how a little competition will change the participating group. Maybe these environmentalists get all spotted-owl crazy as soon as they get their number on.

Here are a few other things I’ve found about trail running:

You have to pay attention. This isn’t a “zone out” kind of sport. The terrain is constantly changing, requiring you to stay in the moment. I’ve found this is actually more meditative than the clocking miles on the pavement – if you have to focus on one thing, it drowns out everything else. But there’s also a very important pain-related motivation too – you can get into a lot of trouble tripping on the way down a hill.

It’s best to slow down. Roots, rocks, hills, streams, switchbacks, steep hills…there’s a lot going on in a trail run. Best to slow down your pace 10-20%. This isn’t going to mean less of a workout, believe me.

It’s hard to keep your race pace. Unlike the road runners who know exactly what their mile pace targets are, it’s best to not think about it with the trail runs. Every mile is different than the last, and you rarely get in five strides at the same pace let alone a full mile. I found I got much faster (and enjoyed it much more) once I ditched the watch.

No cars! The scenery is gorgeous, but best of all, there are no cars! Now there is the occasional mountain biker and a few of them are super-agro (and at 20-30 mph, can feel like you’ve been hit by a car), but in general I find it to be a much safer environment for running.

Always, always, always carry a map. Now maybe I’m just the kind of person that can get lost in my own backyard, but I’ve gotten lost about 10% of the time. If you aren't the type to get lost, you may run into me, and I will worship the ground you walk on if you can help.

It’s cheap. Unlike my wallet-sucking triathlon hobby, you don’t need much more than a pair of shoes and a trail map. But if you like gear, there’s no shortage of great stuff.

More insights to come. I already have my first race coming up – a test 14k in the Purisma Redwoods put on by Redwood Trails ( – so I’ve got to clock some miles!


  1. Great blog. I totally agree with your points about trail running. I find myself hard pressed to get motivated to do any type of road running now. In my mind, the most important thing in trail running is the shoes. Don't think for a second that your road shoes will do the job. I'm almost through my second and going on my third pair of Montrail Hardrocks. They are heavy, but the protection and stability are worth it.
    - DP

  2. I love trail running myself, but I would disagree that the most important thing in trail running is the shoes. To me it is the experience/escape. I've clocked tons of trail miles in my good old road running shoes. The best part is if I want to I can go for a road run just the same. No extra gear needed... just run

  3. If you're running moderate technical trail you NEED a good pair of trail shoes. I did a 50K in my La Sportiva Wildcats and didn't have any hotspots or blisters. I ran a much easier 12.5K course in a pair of Brooks ASR and my feet were killing me. What type of trails are you running?

  4. I ran my first half marathon road race in January. Made it through comfortably. I ran a 21k trail race yesterday and it kicked my butt. The hills, the roots and rocks, and a bout of runners trots about 2 miles from the finish line almost did me in. Above all, I learned that training on the road will not adequately prepare you for the trail. I do find the trail more fun, in sync with my MTB habit (lots of duathlons out there) and brutal in a good way. Lesson learned: get thee to the trail to train.


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