The difference between road and trail runners

Credit: Nathan Bilow/Allsport
There are clear distinctions between the psyches of those who identify as road runners vs. trail runners.

Just as the separation in the cycling world between "roadies" and mountain bikers is a distinction of attitude like the dichotomy between alpine skiers and telemark "pin heads," sport and traditional climbers, flat-water and white-water kayakers, track skiers and ski touring types the difference between road and trail runners boils down to personality.

With no intent to besmirch road runners, it can be said that trail runners like adventure, variety, challenge and excitement. Many trail runners hail from adventurous athletic backgrounds such as rock and mountain climbing, triathlons, mountain biking, and backcountry and cross-country skiing. Others are road-running converts who turned to trails to revitalize their athletic lives.

The essence of trail running is the ability to deal with constant change. No two steps are the same on the natural obstacle course of off-road terrain. Even running the same trail day after day leads to the discovery that the trail has a life of its own.

One day the trail may be dry and hard, the next it may be wet and sloppy. There are also the seasonal changes and effects of temperature, erosion, foot traffic and plant life. Not to mention flowers, trees, birds, insects, squirrels, rabbits, deer, and if you are lucky (or unlucky, depending on your aversion to risk) the chance encounter with coyotes, bears, mountain lions, moose and other big game.

The attitudinal distinction between road and trail runners is one between a quest for speed and distance vs. pursuing something for an intrinsic, yet immeasurable experience. Road runners tend to be into measurement. They are often aware of their pace; heart rate; time above, in and below their heart rate zone; the distance run; and perhaps the elevation gained and lost or calories burned. In contrast, while trail runners might know the day of the week, they rarely know how far they have run, much less their pace, because they often measure their runs by time rather than distance.

By definition, road running requires a paved surface, which translates to a connection with what some call civilization. Road runners often are forced to maneuver their runs to contend with auto traffic in what are often hostile encounters. Those stressful interactions are not the best way to unwind or relax.

Trail runners tap into the off-road running experience as a liberating escape that recharges their emotional and spiritual batteries while they commune with nature through physical exertion. Like chess masters, talented trail runners exhibit an uncanny ability to always be three or four steps ahead of where their feet are at any given moment. This ability allows them to "set up" for turns, rocks, roots, or other variations that lie ahead, which is crucial to staying upright while maintaining speed.

Roads are wide and trails narrow, which explains why trail runners are found in smaller numbers. Yet there is more to it. Trails are a way to retreat from the masses, to escape to a place of tranquility where the mind may wander without any concern for traffic. The distraction of scouting each footstep can lull the runner into a meditative peacefulness that is difficult to achieve in a paved and populated environment.

In contrast to the hundreds of road running clubs throughout the United States, only a handful of trail running clubs exist. That disparity does not mean that there are few trail runners in this country. Rather, it is more a testament to the type of person attracted to trails. As a gross generalization, road runners tend to roam in packs, while trail runners gravitate toward running solo.

According to an outdoor industry study, trail running enthusiasts have grown by 38 percent from 1998 to 1999. A separate report found that 6.2 million individuals in the United States identified themselves as trail runners. The sport has an organizational body, the All American Trail Running Association, based in Colorado, and a magazine, Trail Runner, is published bimonthly out of Boulder.

Thinking of taking to the trails? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Trails can become relatively extreme when distance, exposure, altitude, and rocky, icy or other variable trail conditions are thrown into the mix. Be aware of the potential dangers of a new trail and dont head out without telling people where you are going and when you expect to return. Take necessary safety precautions, including carrying a topographical map, compass, extra clothes and plenty of food. If unfamiliar with the area, ask a local outdoor retailer or someone who knows the trail for precise directions and watch for changing weather conditions.

And remember to enjoy the experience.

Boulderite Adam Chase is president of the All American Trail Running Association. He co-wrote the forthcoming book The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running with Nancy Hobbs, executive director of the AATRA.

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