Running and training in Kenya couldn’t be any more different to what it’s like training here back in Auckland. Kenyans train on dirt roads, I very rarely do.  

In Auckland, the norm is to run on the roads and pavement.  The opportunity to get off-road and onto trails must be intentional, especially in the inner city. In comparison to this, over in Iten, dirt roads are the majority. There are only two tarmacked roads through town. One heading towards the city of Eldoret and the other down towards the Rift Valley. 

Of the dirt roads that make up the village of Iten, some are of good quality and many are not. The roads are often rocky to help keep the roads in shape, when it gets too dry or too hot this would make the roads unpleasant to run on as the surface was often similar to running on volcanic trails. Hard underfoot and constantly jarring on your ankles. On the other end of the spectrum, if it rained too much the roads would quickly become a mudslide and the challenge was to stay on two feet. The sweet spot is when there has been light rain. Light rain keeps the roads compacted and stops the wind blowing dust everywhere. This is where the true magic happens. 

Personally, I found the change to dirt roads a positive one. The roads were definitely a softer surface and my body noticed it. I was able to do more training with less impact on my muscles and joints. This meant that I was able to increase the quantity of training while still recovering well between runs. The switch back to tarmac was one of the biggest challenges that I faced when I returned to Auckland after running for 2 months on these softer surfaces. I noticed a big difference in how my legs felt (for the worse) when running on roads all the time. I had to make a conscious effect to listen to my body and to limit the quantity of my road running. I found that the best way to do this was to reduce my overall load and to switch some of my usual road runs for the trails. Even simply running around the grass in Auckland Domain.  

This brings up the question: should running surface be something to consider in your training? Sports Lab Podiatrist Hannah Cerecke weighs in on the issue. 

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The debate of running surface is not a new one. Trail, road, treadmill, track? Trails runner will preach dirt, urban runner will defend their tarmac, but what is really going on? There are multiple factors to consider with running terrain, we’ll touch on just a few today. 

Varying Motion  

This is the most commonly discussed difference between trail and road running. Trail running undeniably has more obstacles. You’re constantly faced with a root or rock right where you would naturally step, a tree branch to duck under or a muddy patch to navigate. Trail running changes up your gait in response to this varying terrain. This gets runners on their forefoot more (running on their toes), it shortens their stride and gets them hopping from side-to-side. This means that running on trail puts stress on a greater range of muscles. While this sounds like a whole lot more work, it actually speeds up recovery as it reduces the strain on the main muscles used for forward running movement. A neat little study looked at the comparison of recovery times between road marathon runners and trail ultramarathon runners. Despite the longer distance and more time spent racing, the trail runners recovered faster!   

Traction  

If we take out all technical terrain of the typical trail run, no roots, rocks or muddy and slippery surfaces we get a similar context to what Luke experienced in Kenya, dirt roads. The lack of technical terrain gets rid of the shortened stride and the side-to-side motion of a typical trail run but still has significant difference to a road run. What we get is a softer running surface. The relative firmness of running surface has direct impact on the speed of a runner. The softer the ground the more traction you have, and the harder your body has to work to overcome that traction. Foot-contact time of softer surfaces has been recorded at over three times as long as on firmer surfaces. The down-side to firmer surfaces is the pounding impact that the muscles and joints have to take. It’s a toss-up between traction and impact. 

Rhythm  

Trail is a little slower paced. Due to the more technical and often hillier terrain, pace slows to meet the demands of the trail. The mind has to process a constantly changing ground and it can be mentally taxing. There is something to be said for the rhythm you find in running on the road. Due to the consistent surfaces of the road, foot turnover increases and therefore so does speed. Km’s can fly by as you find that steady rhythmic flow and your mind switches off. This rhythmic flow is less taxing on the body’s neurologic system- something that plays into recovery and performance (but more on this in a future post).   

The Conclusion To All Of This  

The type of running surface you choose greatly depends on what you are trying to achieve. Wanting to improve speed and form? Focus on road. Wanting to give an overused muscle a break or develop balance? Focus on trail.  

But I always recommend variation. As a runner, you will want to improve a wide range of skills. Balance, strength, speed, form. If you train the same loop every run, choosing the same shoes, same pace, same everything, you are limiting your running skills and leaving yourself prone to injury. Training should be varied. It should challenge you and get you out of your comfort zone. So trail runners, try a run on the road. Road runners, get yourself out on the trail from time-to-time. Your body will thank you for it.