When road meets trail – the intersections of two running tribes

Snowboarders vs. skiers… Twenty20 vs. 5 day test matches… road cyclists vs. mountain bikers… ping-pong vs. table tennis: there are many, many examples of different tribes within a sport that have viewed – or still view – each other with suspicion and sometimes with unadulterated disdain.

When the road meets the trail...
When the road meets the trail…

Trail runners and road runners might just be another unhappy pairing where runners from one tribe tend to look down on the other tribe and hold their version of the sport in higher esteem. There is a great article in the current issue of Running Times magazine which describes the divide between trail and road runners as well as some of the fall-out that the influx of roadies into trail running has caused.

In my case, I try to straddle both camps, but I fear I don’t do it very successfully. I try to race a road marathon in the spring and another late in the autumn and then, since meeting my wife – who is an out-and-out trail aficionado – I run trail races during the summer. But if I have to say where my heart lies, if I had to choose one surface to run on to the exclusion of all others, I would have to pick the road… I still have unfinished business with 26.2 miles.

In many cases people manage to combine road running and trail running quite happily. In fact for many runners a year can contain road races, trail races, ultra marathons, triathlons, bicycle sportifs and any other manner of endurance sports. I classify these people as ‘fit for life’ by which I mean they use their fitness to compete at a whole range of different events.

But at the elite or sharp end of races, things start to change. In my experience athletes who challenge themselves to be the absolute best they can be and/or aim to compete at the best top of their field, specialise by necessity. For me, as someone who wants to see what I can achieve at the marathon, there is very little time, energy or emotional capacity for anything other than marathon training, which is pretty much entirely running with most of that on roads or flat grass. A 90 mile week, fitted in around work, etc, doesn’t leave time for much else.

The same is true for top runners from all tribes – track runners train on the track, trail runners train on the trails and so on. Sure, track runners do road sessions, road runners do track sessions, etc. But primarily you train on the terrain and for the distance you want to compete at.

But now the trail running community is being infiltrated by road runners and it is making for some interesting changes to the sport.

Not like the good old days

Trail running has traditionally had a different vibe to road running: times are not important. Trail race directors urge runners to stop and help fellow competitors if they find someone in difficulty. Competitors are expected to be more self-reliant, carry the things they need, including water and navigating courses that are not always obviously way-marked. Distances are often approximate. For many, many people on the start line of a trail race, the event is simply an excuse for being in beautiful countryside with inspiring sights – the same cannot be said for many (or even most) road races.

So the influx of road runners into trail races is an interesting phenomenon that not everyone welcomes.

Road runners on the trail

Stuart Mills, Lakeland 100 winner commonly known as Ultra Stu (check out his blog here) has found that there are more young athletes challenging him at the front of ultra trail races, and many of them are coming to trail races from the road.

There are a few runners that I know personally who have made the transition from the flat stuff, to the rough stuff:

Holly Rush, an accomplished road marathoner with a PB of 2:37:35 and international experience from the Commonwealth marathon in Delhi in 2010, has started racing the most ultra of ultra trail races in the last 18 months, including a multi-day stage race in the Himalayas finishing second behind the extraordinary Lizzy Hawker.

And in the Ring O’Fire race, a 131 mile three-day stage race around the island of Anglesey, Tom Payn, a former elite marathon runner with a best time of 2.17.29 from 2009, flew into the lead and smoked the field, even managing a sprint finish on the last day despite being three hours ahead of the runner in second place.

And away from my limited social circle, there are more examples:

Sage Canaday was a Brooks Hansen athlete who completed in the US Olympic Trials Marathon who made the switch to trail running. Trent Briney is another US runner, this time with a 2:12 marathon PB, who is going to race the Western States 100 race this year. Earlier this year, American Nathan Allen took part in his first ever trail race and won the Cheyenne Mountain Trail Race 25K.

VHS vs. Betamax: is a choice required?

So what does all this mean? Well first of all, I doubt the influx of road runners into trail races will mean a massive change in the nature of those off-road events. Because of their locations, trail races usually have very limited field sizes – I certainly can’t imagine a London marathon-sized field of 37,000 people in a trail race – the bottle-necks would be a disaster for one thing!

The other thing is that in trail races there are less financial incentives than in road races, although with the growth in popularity of off-road running, there are some races with prize pots in excess of $10,000 in the US, so it is only a matter of time before the same happens in the UK and other European countries. But again, due to the restricted field sizes, I can’t see any trail race offering the winner a prize of $130,000 to match the first place prize in the New York marathon. This will mean that for those really hoping to make a living from their running, road races are still more lucrative and therefore desirable.

But I do think that runners with a very good road running pedigree are going to compete in trail races and start to shake things up a little. Those men with sub-2:15 PBs and women with sub-2:40 PBs have enormous cardiovascular capacity and leg strength. With a change in training to include more strength and technique for rough trails and some additional endurance runs, these ex-road athletes will have a very good chance of contesting the races at the very front.

There are sponsorship opportunities for trail- and ultra-runners so an athlete could make the switch and make a living. And runners who might have been finishing in the top-20 of big road races, whilst winning lower profile events on the road from time to time, could enter trail races with a much better chance of a podium place finish, which must be hugely satisfying.

Confession of a roadie

So where does that leave me? I am increasingly loving the trails and ultra-distance races. They are a chance for me to run with my wife, which we don’t do in road races. Trail races are most definitely less hard on the body. I also love the mountains and the countryside, so I love trail races for the opportunity to commune with nature. However, I have to say that for now at least, I think I have an appointment or two with the tarmac: if I can nail 2:35 for the marathon, I’ll consider quitting the road for the trails, I promise… well, probably!


  1. Be honest, you’ll never stop wanting to run marathons, even when your PB race is a distant and fond memory. Trails are different. You’re right about that. Times are unimportant. Running on trails makes me a stronger runner. I’m less likely to injure myself because I’m going more slowly but I get a better workout because I’m working more of my muscles, more of the time than if I were to train exclusively on the road. Even the most scenic and isolated roads are still roads which carry traffic but on one trail run recently I met six people, two of them on horses in four and a half hours.There is is the beauty bonus too. I know it’s subjective and personal, but I find trails easier on the eye as well as on the rest of the body than tarmac.

    Having said all that, I haven’t raced on the trails yet. My first one is in August in the Lakes. I might find the stress of racing on trails greater than training but that doesn’t diminish how much I’m enjoying my running just now and that’s all down to getting away from the tarmac and the track.

  2. I have to say I’m a total trail and fell fan. They’re on my doorstep here in Yorkshire and for me there’s simply no comparison. I find road running to be a functional thing, chasing purer speed and trying for PB’s over a measurable standard distance and flat courses but pounding the tarmac simply does nothing for me I must admit.

    Trails on the other hand, as Richard also mentioned, the trail is easier on the body, and engages more muscles with the constant adjustments while running but one of the downsides is that it’s hard to compare one race distance time with another.

    Racing trails is amazing fun too, there’s not much to match the feeling of pelting down a steep, technical or muddy hill that’s for sure!


  3. There’s a kind of running you have overlooked, and it’s also one which ‘roadies’ cross over to: Fell-running. Fell and trail only differ a little and I’d be interested to know what other contributers think makes the distinction. Both mean running in the Big Open Outdoors but from my perpective, fellrunning has the objective of getting up t’hill, then down it, as fast as possible. A classic fell race takes place on the village fete day, where historically all the men and lads would race up the nearest fell and down it. Nowadays there are many and varied races, all neatly summarised on the FRA website http://fellrunner.org.uk/
    I didn’t realise I was a ‘road runner’ until I joined a fell-running club. I’m a city dweller (Manchester) so my nearest fells are in the Peaks, and within 45 minutes I can be racing about the peaty expanses looking at the sun setting over my workday. I still run ‘road races’ as do many of my club mates but the stereotype bloke in short shorts, steely gaze, wiry legs and a disdain for cushioned shoes still exists. Under the surface they are an incredibly friendly and supportive community which I have joined with enthusiasm.
    Roadies do transition to fells, all you need is to be fit, have a love for the British outdoors and the nous to dress appropriately for it. Kit checks are enforced for obvious reasons – the rule of thumb being to carry with you clothing and equipment to keep you alive if you fall or have to stop – so map, whistle, compass, body cover and high energy snack in a bumbag are de riguer. In my club I am one of ‘the fast girls from the city’ – it’s a joy to compete in the small (100 or less) midweek fields, burn off a bit of stress in the mud and come home with your cake or wine prize for your placing. I will continue to race both. Road running is easy for me to fit around my urban life and fell running makes me hellish fast on the flat.
    As for trail versus fell question, I checked myself recently on finishing a race when I exclaimed ‘that was a bit trail-ey!’ (ie a bit easy) I think trail runs follow more obviously prepared trails and not necessarily up the mountainside and down on the best line the runners pick. That’s not to say they’re easier, because of course they can be longer or have more overall elevation. The beauty as James says is that all the fell/trail races differ and you don’t do them to chase PBs over a set course, just to race, and see how you do on the day in the weather of the day against the field who turn out.

    1. I view fell running as a bit of a hardcore step up from “just” running trails, and I totally agree about the gnarly old guys who turn up in some real old school gear and make mincemeat of the field as often as not. One of the things I love about fell running is that good technique is rewarded as well as fitness. The other thing is that fell running is categorised so you know what you’re letting yourself in for too (http://www.runnersworld.co.uk/general/60-second-guide-fell-running/3311.html)

    2. I haven’t done any fell running. Fells are in distinctly short supply round Cambridge. The idea of running up a mountain then immediately back down it surrounded by Reet ‘Ard men in vests and Walshes scares me rigid.

      Still, you only live once, right?

      1. I don’t know if you noticed Richard, but I’m not an ‘Ard Man. Some of us fellrunners are Laydees, and some of them scare me more than the guys 🙂 I do agree that fell-running is limited to certain regions of the UK, and I feel for those who yearn for a hill or mountain to run up. I built up my hill fitness in my local park, running reps of the only hill for miles before I ventured out with my fellrunning club. I would say that its a community who welcome beginners however ‘Hard’, as long as they are appropriately equipped. If you do get the chance to enter a short fell-race when you’re away from home then its a great way to give yourself a challenge, see a view, and eat some cake (because cake is almost as important to fell-running as bumbags full of emergency kit). Even if you come last ,which you probably won’t, it’s a brilliant tale to impress your mates with. Let me know if you’re ever near Glossop/Hayfield!

  4. I don’t think a choice is needed and trail can still be very competitive. Even though distances are not exact people can race each other as they are doing the same course.

    I wonder if they had this debate 500 years ago when their roads are what we now call trails and their trails are just wilderness?

    Perhaps in another 500 years it will be different again. Our roads may be new bouncy super highways in the sky that you could run a marathon in 1 hour on.

    Then there will be a bunch of “real” runners banging on about tarmac being the only true running surface.

  5. I must admit I prefer trail running, but I still have unfinished business with the marathon. Maybe when I break 3hrs I’ll devote more time to trails, but for now, I run on roads in the winter to avoid the mud and train for a spring marathon, then switch to the trails in May.
    Getting back on the trails is always tough on the ankles, but after a few weeks, they are fine, and in the long term, trails seem to be far more forgiving than pounding the pavement. Even if I’m wrong the views and wildlife is certainly better.

  6. I think you can do both perfectly fine. Not sure why you would need to pick. I have done both trail and road races, without needing to change my training and I enjoyed both just the same.

    Most road races contain hills , so only real difference is the ground you run on. And yes of course, trailers is tougher for that, as you need to push yourself off more. But there are road races that are harder than trail races and vise versa

  7. Hi Simon!
    You left a comment after my write-up of the Cross Bay Challenge for Northern Running Guide – it’s great to get comments as it shows people actually read what I’ve written!!! Anyhow I followed your link to this, and find what you write really interesting.

    I only started running regularly because I wanted to do triathlon – then we moved to Cumbria and the trails is what I really love, and I will get out to run just because (as you say) it’s beautiful countryside. However having done Cross Bay I’m now thinking of doing a road half in the autumn purely to see whether I can get back down to my previous time of sub-2 hours.

    Last year I did Kielder marathon – ‘trail’ though only just – and I’d really recommend it for someone who has ‘unfinished’ business with marathons but is also tempted by trails. It’s absolutely gorgeous (and was glorious weather the day I did it). I loved the first half – and blew up on the second and really struggled, though was determined to complete it as a friend and I had raised a load of money for Macmillan.

    My husband does ultras and has promised that my birthday present this year will be an entry to next year’s Lakeland 50, while he does the 100. If I do the 50 I might consider doing Kielder marathon again…

    Meanwhile I’m wondering about Buttermere triathlon this year as it falls on my (52nd) birthday and what I really, really want to do is get back into triathlon… but preferably ones with a trail run leg….

    Keep running!
    All the best

  8. P.S. and look out for my write-up of the Lakeland Trails half marathon – 7th July. If you don’t already know them, the Lakeland Trails series of races are FAB. (but hilly!).

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