Depending on where in the country you live, summer is either just around the corner…or it’s already in your driveway, parked, and standing on your doorstep. Wherever you are, when the sun comes out, you can rest assured that you’ll be in good company as you lace up your shoes, bid adieu to the treadmill for a while, and take your workout onto city streets or woodsy trails. But aside from some new scenery, does making the seasonal switch from treadmills to trail running or road running really change anything?
I recently became curious about the difference between running a muddy path in a rustic park and, say, hitting the treadmill in a climate-controlled gym, when I found myself ankle-deep in marshy sawdust on a particularly damp Seattle afternoon. Surely, I thought, as I continuously struggled to yank my minimally-shod feet from gloppy muck and dodged to avoid puddles, this is more challenging than a straight-forward run on solid ground? Even if I’m going much, much slower than my usual pace?
So I did a little digging through a litany of scholarly articles (apparently, everyone who’s ever gone for a run is similarly interested to know the differences), and apparently, there isn’t really a straight answer. But I made a list of the pros and cons of running on various surfaces to make sense of it all:
- Pros: From a purely mental standpoint, taking to the trails is better for your brain– outdoor running has been shown to improve your mood more than an indoor workout. Heading outside also burns more calories, according to an old-ish New York Times article, which irritatingly only sites ”studies” (no specific link is given) for that little factoid. But ostensibly, outdoor terrain is slightly more physically challenging than a flat surface, and requires more core strength to remain balanced. Outdoor running is also an awesome way to explore when you’re traveling–so always bring a pair of trainers with you wherever you go.
- Cons: The obvious con of trail or road running is that it’s a lot less safe than a treadmill, particularly if you are a female and you alone. However, running in the daylight and carrying pepper-spray or another kind of small defensive item can help keep you safe. Another difficulty presented with trails is that many of them twist and turn, which can make measuring distance difficult. But luckily, if you’ve got a smartphone, GPS-based apps (like RunTracker and others) can help you figure out how far you’ve gone, and what pace you’re keeping. And finally, road running is pretty rough on the joints. Unlike a soft-packed trail or treadmill, asphalt does little to cushion the blow when your foot strikes the ground, which can lead to stress fractures and shin splints.