Trail Running vs. Road running
differences and similarities

Whilst running is largely running, there are some nuances that will help you on your trail runs a lot


This is one of the biggest challenges on the trail, rhythm can be very hard to come by which can be difficult to get used to for some road runners. This is, however, a very positive thing for your running and ultimately, I don’t think that a bit of discomfort is misplaced in running. 


The key to uphill running, particularly as things are steeper or the hills get longer, is to conceptualize your running stride as though it is pedaling a bike. Much like cycling, as gradients change, you change gears. On a bike, as gears lower, there are more revolutions of the pedals for a revolution of the wheels but the force required to run the pedals reduces. This is the way to conceptualize uphill running; increased cadence or turnover, less stride length, and as a result less force into each stride. This should feel a little easier unless you have gone too far and are not being productive with your stride.


This is probably the biggest difference in comparison to road running and the area that runners making the transition to trails struggle with the most. The first issue is a strength issue, if a runner is not strong enough they will really struggle running downhill well.

The next major factor in downhill is picking a line and foot placement as needed. This is basically an accentuated version of trail running in general as there is a higher consequence to mistake and it occurs at a higher speed. See the next two sections “Eyes” and “Foot placement” for more on this.

The final component of this is turnover. Generally, unless you are running in scree, you will increase your stride rate and decrease stride length, this is to maintain control and prevent the risk of an ankle sprain.


“Keep your eyes on the prize” or rather don’t look up. Make sure you keep your eyes on the trail, particularly as things are more technical. This will help with your foot placement and prevent you from tripping on stray roots etc, clipping a toe or stepping on something with the potential to sprain an ankle or worse. You will probably find keeping your eyes fixed a short distance in front of you is optimal, somewhere in the vicinity of around 5m in front of you. This may change if you are running at night on the trail but that is for a different article.


Foot placement

This goes hand in hand, or even foot in foot (yes, I went there) with your eyes on the trail. The very nature of trail running, particularly as things become more technical is such that you need to be wary of where you are placing your feet. In some parts of the world, this has more to do with not stepping on wildlife but in many parts, it is about not stepping on something that risks an ankle sprain.

Keeping your eyes down and scanning the trail will allow you to place your feet where needed. This is not a very conscious process and often people find that as it becomes one they actually slow down and make worse decisions. That said, this is a very mindful process, with the requirement to zone right in on the trail, something that is almost opposite to road running where people often zone right out and even daydream.

Don’t forget, anything worth doing takes time. Some of these changes will happen naturally, some will require some work and some will take a long time to master. Ultimately they will improve your trail running significantly and I personally think this will transfer well to your road running.

This will not necessarily be through similar changes in road running technique, though a similar uphill technique is useful at times, but through being a better runner in general and even improved strength from your downhill work.

Written by: Dr. David Lipman, Podiatrist and Exercise Physiologist

Sign in to leave a comment
How to Tune your Freeride Skis
Tips and pointers for easy ski tuning