Trail Runners vs. Road Runners

Sure, running is all one sport, but there are some key differences between trail running and its road counterpart.

Photo: Miguel A. Amutio/Unsplash

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.


It’s not unusual to see crossover between trail runners and road runners, as more and more road runners are looking for new adventures on the trails. And while road running and trail running are not mutually exclusive, they are different sports with different cultures. It reminds me of the stand-up comedy piece by comedian George Carlin on the differences between baseball and football.

In that piece, Carlin says, “In football, you wear a helmet; in baseball, you wear a cap. In football, you march into enemy territory; in baseball, you come home. In football, you play in any kind of weather, rain, snow, sleet, hail and fog. In baseball you get rained out. In football, they tackle you in the mud; in baseball, if you slide into second base, you call time out to dust off your uniform. …” And the list goes on.

So, what are the differences between trail runners and road runners?

RELATED: Positivity Is A Performance Enhancer

  • Road runners show up in snazzy matching outfits and Nike track suits. Trail runners have been mistaken for homeless people.
  • Road runners try to step around the puddles on the street; trail runners are warned not to rock hop when going through rivers and streams so they don’t break an ankle.
  • Road races have aid stations every two miles where the volunteers throw Gatorade into your mouth as you run by. Trail runners have a delectable feast at their aid stations with cookies, chips, PB&Js, trail mix, and gummy bears.
  • Road runners are constantly checking their watches for split times; trail runners check where the sun is in the sky, to see if they need to take out their headlamps.
  • Road runners have pristine white tennies; trail runners have so much dirt and mud all over their shoes, you can’t tell what color they are.
  • Serious road runners don’t carry water. Trail runners have backpacks with water bladders, rain jackets, blister care, food, and electrolyte tablets.
  • If you go down in a road race, the road runners will jump over you and let volunteers know at the next aid station; trail runners will stop, pull out their meds, first aid-kit, emergency beacon, give you CPR, and carry you to the next aid station.
  • Road runners hope they are not overtaken by faster runners; trail runners hope they aren’t overtaken by mountain lions, rattle snakes, or bears.
  • Road runners check for flat fast courses; trail runners look at elevation charts and the scenery.
  • Road runners are lean and skinny; trail runners can crush a road runner with their calves and power up mountains with their glutes.
  • Road marathons might have up to 40,000 runners, start with fireworks and end with bands and balloons; trail races start with, “Ready, Set . . . GO!” or maybe a shotgun firing.
  • Road races are meticulously measured and certified; trail runs might be a few meters (or miles) long or short.
  • Both road and trail runners are healthier than the average American couch potato, and enjoy the camaraderie of their fellow runners.
  • And finally, both trail runners and road runners like wearing their race T-shirts and gaining bragging rights.

Trending on Trail Runner Magazine

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada