Curious about trail running, but not sure exactly what it entails? Some people think you have to sprint 15 miles straight up a mountain to qualify as a trail runner. “There’s a misconception that trail running is the same thing as ultra running. But running on an unpaved surface of any sort is trail running,” explains Lisa Jhung, a runner in Boulder, Colorado, and the author of Trailhead: The Dirt On All Things Trail Running. Here, everything you need to know to hit the road (or trail) with confidence.
The key distinction between trail and road running is the terrain. It’s pretty simple, really. Running on a street or sidewalk? That’s road running. Running on a natural surface, like dirt, is trail running—even an unpaved path at a nearby park. The forgiving surfaces can be ideal for people who are coming back from injuries. “Natural surfaces are easier on the body and the joints,” explains Jhung. Many runners don’t have easy access to trails, so during the week they stick to the road, then drive to a trailhead on the weekend.
There’s a big difference between running down a busy street and a quiet path through the woods. And for many trail runners, being out in nature is a huge part of the draw. “When I’m running on the road, I’m watching for cars and I have to be alert. But in the forest, I can disconnect,” says Yassine Diboun, a 36-year-old competitive runner in Portland, Oregon, and the founder of Animal Athletics, a group that organizes training and hiking/trail running trips in the Pacific Northwest.
Trail runners love a challenge; they’re undeterred by inclement weather or arduous terrain. “My ideal run would be a hard, hilly trail—I get bored when it’s just flat,” says Jhung. “And probably not in perfect weather. My last run, we were out for 80 minutes in pouring rain, and it was a blast.”
At a road race, you’ll probably hear lots of talk about PRs (runner speak for “Personal Records”). At a trail race, the focus is often less on the time and more on the experience. Since the uneven terrain challenges different muscles, you often have to run a bit slower than you would on a flat road course.
Trail races are often smaller, with fewer participants—and fewer spectators. This creates an atmosphere of camaraderie. “At lots of trail races, many of the runners wait until the very last person crosses the finish line, and then we all hang out drinking beers together,” says Diboun.
Trail shoes typically have more cushioning to protect you from sharp objects, and extra traction to help you grip slippery surfaces. While it’s fine to hit the trail in road shoes, you may want to invest in kicks designed specifically for that terrain if you decide to go regularly. Here, two new sneakers we love for both types of runners.
Salomon Women’s XR Mission Trail Running Shoe Sensiflex construction moves with your foot while providing support, plus an easy-lace system. The super-durable sole and protective toecap keep your tootsies safe.
Brooks Women’s PureGrit 4 This shoe boasts aggressive hex lugs on the sole and a rock shield in the forefoot to protect you from sharp stones. It’s lighter than its predecessor, with a close-to-foot fit.
Saucony Women’s Triumph Running Shoes This shoe is the best of both worlds: lightweight and cushy. The midfoot shank has been removed to decrease weight, but it has 20% more cushioning than the previous model.
Nike Women’s Flyknit Lunar 3 Running Shoes Flyknit technology in the upper delivers maximum flexibility and breathability. The padded heel collar is comfy, and the midsole is plush and responsive.