Trail Running: The Ultimate Guide

Trail Running: The Ultimate Guide

In this post, you’ll learn about everything there is to know about trail running.

You know running is good for your health, don’t you? The tricky question is, ‘what type of running is best?’

The answer to that question is not in any way straightforward, but we are inclined towards trail running. Why? You’ll find out! 

This article will tell you all you need to know about trail running and also bust (or confirm) myths about it in the process.

Here are the questions will help answer:

  • What is trail running?
  • How is trail running different from other types of running?
  • What are the benefits of trail running?
  • How does trail running impact heart rate?
  • How does trail running for heart health
  • What are some beginner tips for trail running?
  • What are some precautions to take when trail running
  • Is trail running harder than road running?
  • How much slower is trail running?
  • Do you burn more calories trail running?

Let’s dive in!

What is trail running?

Trail running is simply running on trails, and by trails, we mean paths through forests, mountains, countryside, basically unpaved surfaces. 

Trail running is peculiar in that it does not only involve running, as there may also be some jumping, hiking, bending, and even climbing. 

Some people define it as running in the heart of nature, and they have a point. You don’t have to reach very elevated heights as with mountain running; you just have to be in nature.

Trail running is an all-round type of running, as it works the muscles of the legs, thighs, and the upper body. But we’ll get to that. 

Types of running

There are different types of running, usually categorized based on location and surface. Trail running is just one of them. Other types are:

trail running types

Road running

This is probably the commonest and most relatable type of running. It is simply running on a measured course through an established road. The road surface is typically made of concrete or asphalt.

Mountain running

Mountain running is the closest to trail running. As the name implies, mountain running is running through mountainous terrains.

Hill running

Also known as fell running. As with mountain running, hill running is also a very close relative of trail running. 

Track running

This is running on rubberized artificial surfaces, known as tracks. This type of running is the poster-boy for athletics in general.


This is running on open-air courses over natural terrains. It is like a general umbrella for all types of natural running.

How is trail running different from other types of running?

There are different types of running, but you know that now, don’t you? The primary difference between the types of running is surface and location. 

But it becomes much more difficult to differentiate when the surface and location are similar.

If you are going to start trail running, you need to know that what you are doing is trail running. Let’s get right into it.

Trail running vs. Road running

Okay, this is easy. The main difference between trail and road running is the surfaces on which both are run. 

Road running involves running on artificial and hard surfaces. The surfaces are usually concrete or asphalt.

Trail running, on the other hand, involves running on natural and softer surfaces. The surfaces could be grass, soil, mud, etc., as long as it is natural.

The hardness of the surface implies that the impact on the body, specifically the joints and muscles in the legs, is higher with road running than with trail running.

The harder the surface, the higher the impact on the body.

That is not the only difference, though. Trail running also involves more obstacles and obstructions than road running.

More obstacles and obstructions in trail running mean there may be jumping, bending, diving, and even climbing, all of which are absent in road running.

The same principles apply to trail running and track running.

Trail running vs. Mountain and Hill running

This is where things start to get complicated. All three types of running are mostly on the same type of surface. 

Note the use of the word mostly. The difference between mountain and trail running is the presence of paved sections. 

Mountains usually have a few paved sections, and this is because mountains are far more dangerous than trails. If there is a significant elevation on the route, the runner may have to run on surfaced roads.

The difference between hill running and trail running is more marked than between trail and mountain.

Although the surfaces are almost entirely similar, trail running has easy to follow routes with no significant elevation and requires little navigation skills.

Hill running typically has unmarked routes, more pronounced ascents and descents, and it requires navigation skills and survival equipment.

Trail running vs. Cross country

As with mountain and hill running, there isn’t too much difference as regards the surface. Many don’t consider the two to be different at all.

The difference between the two is that cross-country is usually shorter and has more recognition with the IAAF, which is the international regulatory body for athletic events. 

Trail running is relatively recent, with the IAAF only recognizing the ITRA (International Trail Running Association) first in 2015.

Benefits of trail running

trail running benefits

Running generally, irrespective of the type, has several benefits to the body, but trail running offers many of those benefits to a greater extent and more parts of the body.

What we are trying to say is, while many of these benefits are not exclusive to just trail running, they are amplified in trail running. 

Some of those benefits are:

1. Improves cardiovascular function

The well-being of the body is hugely dependent on its cardiovascular function. This makes sense when you think about it, as without the heart, all other organs in the body will die.

Studies have shown that trail running helps to increase cardiovascular function by reducing resting heart rate, lowering blood pressure and bad cholesterol levels in the body, and lowering the general risk of premature death from cardiovascular conditions.

It’s very simple. Trail running helps to improve heart function, and increased heart function improves the quality of life.

2. Strengthens the leg muscles

Trail running is more beneficial to the leg muscles than regular road running. Beneficial in this context is in terms of strength. We’ll explain how it does this. 

Have you ever heard of eccentric contraction before? It sounds so cool! Trail running strengthens the muscle this way. 

Eccentric contraction, or eccentric loading, is muscle lengthening that occurs when the external force applied to the muscle supersedes the force the muscle produces.

So, while the muscle is trying to contract by the generation of tension, it is lengthening. 

You are probably thinking of how lengthening and contraction of muscles make any sense at all concerning muscle strength. 

Trust us, it does.

Study shows that whenever a muscle lengthens this way, the muscles get damaged, more than it does in regular contraction. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing because the muscles heal and become stronger after a short period.

With consistency, muscle strength significantly increases. And stronger muscles mean better balance, coordination, and athleticism.

3. Improves cognitive and mental function

Trail running can help to improve one’s mental state. Weird, but very true. A survey helped confirm this.

It raises overall mental well-being by reducing mental stress, increasing vitality, reducing tension, anxiety, depression, etc. 

Not to mention that it provides more satisfaction and fulfillment than road running. You don’t believe us? Go try it out.

Trail running, as with all other types of exercise, also helps you sleep better

The relationship between sleep and exercise is not a complex one. The more intense the exercise, the more stressed the body is, and the more stressed the body is, the easier it is to fall asleep.

Take care not to overdo it, though, as it may prove counterproductive. 

4. Reduces the risk of injury

You already know by now the difference between trail running and other types of running.

The risk of injury in trail running is markedly lower than other types of running, especially road running. This is primarily because of the softness of the surface.

Softer surfaces mean a lesser impact on joints and muscles, and this corresponds to a lesser risk of harming those muscles and joints. 

There’s more. Stronger muscles also give better balance and coordination, which also reduces the risk of falling, especially in the aged.

5. More refreshing and safer running environment

Trail running is called running in the heart of nature for a reason. It typically occurs outside of the city and populated regions and is a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Fresh air and a serene and cool environment is criminally underrated. You have to experience it to understand.

Running in this sort of environment is not just refreshing and aesthetically pleasing; it is also healthy. This is because roads and cities are usually very polluted with carbon monoxide from passing vehicles.

Studies have shown that there is an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases in people that run in polluted environments, and that’s just a nice way of saying city running.

6. Burns more calories

Trail running is more effort-intensive than road running, mainly because it involves running over uneven terrains, thereby increasing the effort input. Altitude, elevation, and obstacles also contribute to this. 

This increase in intensity means more calories are burnt. And the importance of losing calories in bodybuilding and weight loss goes without saying.

Impact of trail running on heart rate

trail running health impact

Brace yourself; there’s about to be some advanced biology! 

While running, oxygen consumption in the body increases because the working muscles need to be replenished at a faster rate. The increase in oxygen consumption means that blood flow needs to increase. 

The implication is that the rate at which the heart beats needs to increase; this is the first parameter – heart rate. 

The volume of blood pumped per beat also needs to increase. This is the second parameter – stroke volume. 

What this means ultimately is that cardiac output, which is a function of stroke volume and heart rate, will increase. I hope you are still with us?

In simple terms, trail running is quite effort-intensive, meaning that the muscles work more. And this implies that the heart rate, and ultimately cardiac output, increase during trail running.

According to a 2013 study consisting of three thousand men over sixteen years, an increased resting heart rate (heart rate under normal conditions) was found in men who weren’t physically active.

It was lower in people in that exercised frequently. A high RHR is synonymous with higher blood pressure, body weight, and circulating fat, which are all bad.

You see, biology isn’t that hard!

Impact on trail running heart health

Trail running is mostly excellent for the heart. Mostly.

study conducted in 1985 showed that regular runners have a slow resting heart rate and high maximum oxygen consumption, which are both desirable. 

There is also what is known as athlete’s heart. It is characterized by a thicker left ventricle, which means the heart pumps blood more efficiently.

Athlete’s heart is very common in trail runners because the effort while running is high, which strengthens the left ventricle. 

The strengthening is not just limited to the left ventricle, though. The heart is a muscle, and like all muscles, it gets stronger with exercise. A stronger heart is simply a more efficient heart.

While all these are desirable, there is a ‘but.’ And it is cardiomyopathy.

This occurs when the right atrium and ventricle get temporarily damaged during a marathon or very intense running – like trail running. 

The right atrium and ventricle are thinner than their left counterparts. Overload of blood volume, as seen in trail running, overtime causes tissues to scar, and it may cause death.

The important thing here is moderation and rest for your heart to heal properly. Fifteen to twenty miles per week can be considered as moderate.

Beginner tips for trail running

1. Be consistent, but don’t over train

We mentioned earlier how going overboard with trail running can be damaging to the heart. You should not over-train yourself. Always rest sufficiently after a session.

Consistency is crucial, though, if you want to get anything from trail running in the long run. If you are going to run once a week, then make sure you are serious about it.

2. Start slowly and let your body adapt gradually

Trail running is usually a different experience for many new runners. It becomes tempting for regular runners to just dive right into it.

This is the wrong approach. Start slowly with shorter strides. Take three strides where you can take two.

Your body will need time to adapt to the changes, so give it time. 

3. Keep your expectations realistic

Many road runners end up disappointed on trails because they set unrealistic goals. 

That you run 5 miles in 45 minutes on the road does not mean you’ll run the same time for 5 miles on the trail. Don’t push your body foolishly.

4. Avoid injuries

We shouldn’t have to say this, but we still need to say this. Avoid injuries—even the very minor ones.

Your focus and total concentration should be on the trail. And remember to carry your feet off the ground.

5. Don’t focus too much on speed

You will run slower on trails. Understanding this is important. Therefore, shift your focus away from speed.

Use time or effort to judge yourself rather.

Precautions for trail running

Always be reachable

Never make the mistake of going trail running without your cell phone. Not to scare you, but you don’t know what may be out there. 

You may also get lost and need someone to come pick you up. Just take your phone along.

Take water and food along

Trail running does not always go according to plan. A 2-hour run may stretch into 5 hours due to unforeseen circumstances. 

Water is non-negotiable. Our stance on food is not as solid, though. 

Watch the weather

There are very few buildings or places to hide in many trails. It’s a bad place to get caught in a storm.

Ensure you watch the weather before running. Don’t start running unless you are sure it is safe to do so.

Remember it’s important to stay cool while running in hot weather.

Stay alert

Trails may cut through forests, woods, hills, etc. Some wild animals may be lurking somewhere. Remain alert.

And not only wild animals now, but the obstacles on the trail also make it imperative not to lose alertness for even a short period.

Tell someone before you leave

As with being reachable, make sure you tell someone where you are going to run before running. You can’t be too safe. 

And even better, don’t run alone.

Is trail running harder than road running?

Well, not exactly. It depends on which angle you are looking at it from.

If you are talking about the effort put in, then yes, trail running is harder. This is because of the uneven surfaces, as higher grounds require more effort to scale.

If you are talking about the impact on the body, then no, trail running is not harder than road running. 

Road surfaces are usually made of asphalt and concrete, which are both very hard surfaces. The impact on the joints and muscles is, therefore, higher.

Trails are usually softer, meaning lesser impact on the muscles and joints.

There is no straightforward answer to the question; it depends on the angle you are looking at it from.

How much slower is trail running?

You should know trail running is slower by now, but how much slower?

There isn’t a definitive answer to this, as many factors come into play like surface inconsistencies, altitude, elevation, depression, etc. 

Many estimate it to be between 10 to 20% slower. This implies that a 15 min/mile run on the road may be around 18 min/mile on trails.

Do you burn more calories trail running?

Yes, you do. And this is quite definitive.

You require more effort for trail running, and this just corresponds to burning more calories. The extra effort is primarily a result of the uneven terrain. 

Just how much more calories are burnt? If we have to put a figure on it, it’d be around 10%. But it could be more.

The logistics are quite complex, but what isn’t is that you burn more calories during trail running.

Non-runner tips for trail running

1. Start slow

Start your run slowly, and then gradually increase your pace. It helps to warm your body up a bit and get your heart in the mood. 

2. Get a running buddy

If you do not feel comfortable running alone, get a running buddy. Having someone to run with can make the whole run more enjoyable. 

Many people get discouraged when running alone, while others don’t feel safe. Whatever it is, though, you can always find a running buddy.

3. Lift your feet off the ground

You are thinking, ‘this is absurd!’ When we say lift your feet, we mean always lift your feet off the ground.

There are many obstacles in trail running; you cannot afford to drag your feet on the ground, as is common in road running.

4. Release tension in the body

Relax. Lose the tension in your feet, hands, and shoulders. Run freely.

Tension in your core may be important, though.

5. Breathe deeply and enjoy yourself

Remember to take deep breaths while running. And don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Appreciate the view and the serenity of the environment.

Running happier is running better.

Can trail running help lose weight?

Yes, it can. We already talked about how more calories are burnt when running on trails in comparison with road running.

But it also helps in losing weight by improving cardiovascular function and working more muscles, both of which we have also considered.

Trail running is also a form of HIIT, High-Intensity Interval Training, which is important when trying to lose weight.


Trail running is undoubtedly a very important type of running. Its numerous benefits on physical and mental well-being cannot be overlooked.

Notwithstanding, runners must not throw caution to the wind. Going overboard will do more harm than good.