From Trail to Road: How to Transition to a Different Surface

There are countless articles on the Internet on how to transition from road to trail. However, there’s also a lot to be covered when you decide to transition from trail to road running. Some aspects might get overlooked or not considered at all. With that in mind, let’s focus on a crucial part of urban running: the terrain itself and what to expect. While it may seem like a simple switch of the surface, there’s more that goes into the change than meets the eye. From shock absorption to how it affects your stride, the devil is in the details.

Written by Lucas Collins
Edited by Pavlína Marek

Surface Hardness and Stability

Hawaii marathon race, climate and running

Compared to running on softer surfaces that have a little “give” to them when you plant your foot (such as dirt, grass, or gravel), asphalt and concrete are much harder and don’t provide much cushion. When your leg hits the ground, the impact force is instead absorbed almost entirely by that leg and the rest of your body. This will eventually start to wear on you. Joints will ache and muscles will feel more sore, especially when you’re a heel striker. Over time, it can lead to serious injuries.

The best way to mitigate the chance of injury is to wear appropriate running shoes with extra cushion, flexibility, and support. Shoes with good arch support and stability features can also help maintain proper foot alignment on flat and unyielding pavement, preventing any sudden twists that might cause an injury. A good rule of thumb is that a lower stack height is more stable while a thicker sole generally provides more cushioning.

While roads and sidewalks are typically a uniform surface, you should still find shoes that provide a certain degree of flexibility to accommodate the natural movement of the foot. Look for shoes with a flexible forefoot that allows for smooth and efficient movement. If you’re unsure about what shoe will work for you, head to a running shoe store and let the staff help you find the right match.

Impact and Shock Absorption

As mentioned above, your body absorbs the shock of each step more than the road when you run on pavement. Its rigid nature causes the impact to be more concentrated on your joints and muscles, particularly in the lower part of your body. The higher impact forces experienced on pavement can have a negative impact on your body, increasing the overall risk of injuries such as shin splints, stress fractures, or joint discomfort.

Your muscles also experience increased strain when you move from trail to road running. The change often impacts calves and shins in particular, contributing to muscle soreness and fatigue. To combat this, engage in regular strength training exercises to strengthen the muscles and connective tissues that support your joints. This can help improve overall stability and reduce the risk of injuries caused by the impact of pavement running. You can also continue to mitigate these risks by seeking out nearby parks with softer surfaces like gravel paths whenever possible.

Adapting your Stride

On pavement, it’s generally recommended to have a slightly shorter stride compared to trail running. This helps reduce the impact forces on your joints and muscles. Focus on taking shorter, quicker steps to maintain a consistent cadence. You should try to aim for a higher cadence, which refers to the number of steps per minute. A cadence of around 170-180 steps per minute is often recommended for pavement running. Increasing your cadence helps reduce ground contact time and minimize the braking forces that can occur on a hard surface.

Maintaining an upright posture with a slight forward lean from your ankles can also be beneficial. Avoid excessive leaning forward or backward, as this can disrupt your balance and increase the risk of injury. Try to keep your head aligned with your spine and look forward, not down at the ground.

Don’t forget to engage your core muscles to provide more stability and support throughout your run. A strong core helps maintain proper alignment and reduces unnecessary strain on your lower back and hips.

Final Thoughts

You can encounter various challenges when you make the move from trail to road running. The hard surface can be unforgiving as your body, not the ground, absorbs most of the impact. However, if you adjust your form and take some extra care to strengthen your muscles and joints, you can be confident and run safely on those harder surfaces.

While the recommendations above serve as good general recommendations, individual differences and running styles may vary. It’s always a good idea to listen to your body and make adjustments that feel comfortable and natural to you. If you have specific concerns or issues with your running form, consider seeking guidance from a running coach or physical therapist for more personalized advice.

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