Ask the Running Expert – Megan Levinson: Is trail or road running better for the body?
Interesting question! Of course, there are many theories about this one. And accompanying those theories, different examples of different athletes competing at different levels. For me, this leaves too many ‘differences’ and I would answer this question from my own experience.
I used to live in Johannesburg for about 2 and a half years, which resulted in me running on road for 90% of my training volume. Over weekends I sometimes managed to get out onto some trails nearby or I would make a trip to the Drakensberg to get some proper mountain running in. During this time on the road, my speed increased, my racing was actually better than its ever been, and I had periods of feeling unstoppable. However, I ended up with a stress fracture in my hip, ITB in my knee and tendonitis in my ankle. I would never blame those injuries on a single factor – such as running on the road – but it definitely did contribute. Other factors included over-training, not enough recovery, bad diet (under weight) and too much flat-out racing.
When I moved to Cape Town and began running more on the trails, my body initially took strain too. I wasn’t strong enough for the enormous climbs, relentless downs and technical terrain. I did spend many a despondent day wondering if I would ever improve. I was a trail runner after all, isn’t this what I was supposed to do?!
My body adapted fast, and soon I was injury free, strong, happy and able to train more frequently but with slightly less volume. Which brings me to a few observations…
- Firstly, running on the trail often results in fewer kilometres, but a longer time out. In my mind, this is better for your body as you’re avoiding the constant pounding on the road for miles on end.
- Secondly, the adaptation. I noticed my body was becoming stronger overall through running more on trail. Which resulted in fewer injuries. My glute and hamstring strength improved, my hips got stronger and I was able to run steep up and down with fewer issues.
- Thirdly, running on trail is good for the mind. Compare a road run with traffic, fumes, hooting and dodging people – its subconsciously stressful! Now picture running on a beautiful, more isolated trail with the sound of birds and perhaps a bubbling stream or the wind in the trees…. Much better!
Of course, these observations depend on the level and mindset of the athlete. A hugely competitive ultra-trail runner training for Hardrock 100 or UTMB may undergo more stress on a physical and mental level than a middle-of-the-pack runner training for a half marathon by the sea.
I’m pleased to say I’ve found my happy medium. I train hard on the road, maintaining my speed and clocking up enough mileage to improve running efficiency. I also train hard on the trails, giving my mind a break from splits and times. I immerse myself in nature, focusing on the strength of my body and moving well over technical terrain.
If you have any questions for Megan, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org