Transitioning from Trail to Road

I love the trail, and I’d much rather run a trail race than a road race just for aesthetic reasons. Over the past several years I’ve focused on trail racing because of the variety of courses and all the new challenges they present, which is why I train primarily on trails. But, then there are times when I just want to run fast, and see what I can do. And, well, that’s what the road is for.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of other reasons to run on the roads as well. But, this article is going to focus on the transition from trail running to road running, or for some of us, the transition back to road running. There is a time and place for trail runners to hit the pavement and adjust their training to a more rhythmic beat.

Road running has some uniqueness about it that trail running just can’t match. While most trail runners are rolling their eyes at my words, hear me out. The road (or track) has a simplicity to it that beckons us to want to run faster. It has a smoothness about it that creates that easy, effortless glide across the pavement when we’re at our very best. It takes our focus away from exactly where we’re putting our feet and puts it elsewhere – on the traffic, the neighborhoods we pass through, or on others around us. In order to really dig into that well of effort that it takes to make us into faster athletes, we have to be able to focus on all of our biomechanical efficiency to get us there. The distractions of having to wind around a corner, straddle a rock, or adjust our body position when a tree branch hangs too low on a trail, all take away from our ability to focus that power into making us go faster. That is why sometimes we need that wide-open road.

The smooth road helps us as runners in several ways, including our efficiency. The repetitive motion and harder surface help our biomechanics become more efficient, because we begin to use less oxygen overtime for a given pace and attempt to push ourselves faster than we thought possible. Through this process our body figures out both biomechanically and by recruiting more muscle how to propel us faster, and thus more efficiently.

The regularity of the road is also going to help with pace, or more accurately, your ability to pace yourself. With a trail, your pace is all over the place for the reasons previously mentioned. You’re certainly going to want to have that skill if you have a road race coming up, but it’s also nice to know how to correlate your effort with a given pace as well.

So, you’ve just been running trails the past few years and now you want to run a road race. Whether it’s a 5K, 10K, half or full marathon doesn’t really matter. All you need to know is how to transition from the trail to the road safely and efficiently. It doesn’t take rocket science to know that the road is hard and it’ll beat you up a bit more than a dirt trail. So take it in small doses and build up to it. Yes, you can go buy a cushy shoe, but this defeats the efficiency benefit. You’ll probably want a dedicated road shoe but stick with something that is comfortable and works for you, so get properly fit at your local running store. And instead of just going with more cushion, work on better biomechanics by increasing your cadence and landing with a softer foot strike. As you build up to more road surface, plan out part of your run to include both road and trail, or alternate days on road with days on trail.

Always start with easy runs on the road to increase that fatigue resistance to the harder surface, but eventually you’ll want to improve your fitness with specific workouts. Take that increased core and leg strength from running all those hills out on the trails and convert that into speed using interval workouts. Interval workouts may feel awkward at first until your body figures out how to be more efficient at the speed you’re running.

Start with some shorter intervals at faster paces (ex. 4 X 400m at your current VO2max pace) and longer intervals at threshold paces (ex. 2-4 X mile 10 sec. slower than your current lactate threshold pace), with the goal being to eventually bring the pace down while extending the intervals. The benefits of doing your hard efforts on a road or track can’t be understated if your goal is performance in a trail or road race.

If it’s the aesthetics of the road that you feel take away from your run consider doing things a little different. Think about your run as you might a road bike ride and find a nice country loop to run or forested bike path, pick a new neighborhood to explore that you’ve never seen, or literally, run errands. If you’re doing a workout you’ll be too focused on yourself to worry about the aesthetics anyway so choose a route with minimal interruptions from people, traffic and intersections. You’ll want to be able to run without worrying about anything getting in your way.

If you’re someone like me that has neglected the road for the trail, consider getting back out on the road. You might find it a refreshing change, and it could help with an upcoming race, but sometimes it’s just fun to run FAST!

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Max King
Max lives in Bend, OR and is a Salomon Running athlete. He’s still working on his weaknesses but gave up on being a professional basket weaver a long time ago. Check out his adventures around the running world at @MaxKingOR.