Trail Races vs. Road Races: A Beginner’s Guide to How They Differ

Trail Race Berry Creek

It seems like trail races are getting more popular by the month. When I started running them a few years ago, few trail races sold out. There were plenty of parking spots at the starting area. Not anymore. While I haven’t yet seen race entry lottery madness hit the trails like it has the most popular road races, sell-outs are more common.

With the increased popularity, comes many first-time trail runners. So I thought I’d focus a little bit on the differences between running a road race and running a trail race.

It’s much more than the just the surface you are running on.

Pace

Many road racers are focused on their pace. They want at PR (personal record), or to go out at a certain pace. Throw that out the window for a trail race. You will be slower on the trail. If it’s a hilly course you will be a lot slower.

I’ve overheard so many road racers lining up for their first trail run talking to their friends: “My last [road] half was 1:45, so I think I’ll do maybe a 1:50 here.” I chuckle under my breath when I hear this. Depending on how hilly the course is, you can easily add a half hour or more to your finish time. My normal road half marathon time is around 2:10. On the trail? I rarely expect under 2:45 if the course climbs anything over 1000 feet.

You can generally go into a road race with a goal pace that you can expect to hit pretty consistently each mile. Your pace on the trail will vary greatly based on the terrain. Many trail runners, myself included, walk up the significant uphills. How fast you run downhills is anyone’s guess, based on how steep the grade and how sure you are in your footing.

I’ve never run a trail race with a goal pace in mind, the uphill/downhill difference makes for too much math for me, even with a Garmin. I find it much easier to run by feel on the trail, go for a consistent effort, whatever pace that may come out to.

Level of Attention

One of the things I love about running on the road is the ability to zone out. Put in headphones and get lost in my favorite podcasts. Have engaging conversations with my running partners. Maybe let my subconscious work on all my issues while I run.

The same does not hold true on the trail. You need to pay much more attention to the logistics, not getting lost, not tripping. Zoning out, even during an organized trail race, is an easy way to get hopelessly lost.

Vibe

Bear Creek Half Marathon
‘Spectators’ at a trail race

Road races can be a little intense. There is much more focus on speed, pace, finish time, age group winners and awards. There are exceptions to this of course, but it can feel a little judgey for people like me in the middle/back of the pack.

I have never found this to be the case for trail races. Even doing races where there are fairly elite runners in the pack, I found trail races to have a much more welcoming vibe- everyone is doing their thing and supportive of everyone doing their thing.

Aid Stations

Generally, the aid stations at road races are in and out affairs. There is water, electrolyte drink, and maybe an energy gel. You take what you need (hopefully thank the volunteers) and move on quickly.

Bad Bass Aid Station 2
Trail race aid station- fully stocked and ready to go

While this varies by race organizer, trail race aid stations are often feasts. They have not only water and energy gel, but also combinations of potato chips, Oreos, pretzels, and hard candies. Some have boiled potatoes and watermelon. You grab some food, chat with the volunteers, fill up your water bottle and be on your way. It’s is a much more relaxed and slowed down affair.

However, trail aid stations are less frequent and less consistent than on the roads. Since most trail races are in remote areas, access can be limited and aid stations are put where they can be accessed and stocked, not just where runners may want them. I’ve done one trail race that didn’t have any aid stations. It was just too remote.

As a result, trail runners need to have a greater level of self-sufficiency. Carry your own water and fuel, you never know what the trail may bring.

Trail running requires a different skill set than road running and provides views and experiences that you just can get anywhere else.

But be ready to look after yourself a bit more and be sure to not zone out.

Is there anything I have forgotten?

Trail Races v. Road Races

You may also enjoy:

The Trail is Calling: Types of Trails

New To Trail Running? Common Fears Addressed

Sara is a runner, running coach, writer, blogger, and a lover of all things written.

2 thoughts on “Trail Races vs. Road Races: A Beginner’s Guide to How They Differ

  1. I’m running a half marathon this weekend and it’s a trail run, I decided to do it last weekend because it lined up with the end of my half marathon training. The only problem is my training was on roads. Do you think i’ll Be okay running it? It’s not in a super hilly area but I’m gettin more nervous about it after reading about trail running. I would love to hear your thoughts!

    1. A ‘trail’ race can mean so many different things, it’s hard to say, but I’m all for anyone hitting the trails. Ignore your pace and run by feel. Your time will likely be slower than the road equivalent, but it is still good training.

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