Why trails always win over the treadmill

Credit: E Campbell photography

Credit: E Campbell photography

Saucony UK running coach Tom Craggs on how the running motion differs when it comes to the trails, roads and treadmill

"Running is running," I hear you say. "It’s just putting one foot in front of the other, surely!?". The truth is the surface you are running on can make a big difference to the way your body develops and how you approach each run.

Repeated stress

Running on a treadmill is the entry point to running for many in a gym environment. As your foot hits the flat and even surface of the treadmill, or even a flat road route, you tend to work the same muscles over and over, and repeat the same type of pronation over and over. On the trails, no two strides are the same - your foot moves differently each time it is in contact with an uneven surface and you might chop and change your stride to account for undulations or obstacles. This helps to reduce your injury risk and make running more stimulating.


Running on harder surfaces such as a road or treadmill makes your body rely more on "elastic return". That is to say your tendons act a bit like elastic bands snapping you into each stride. On soft trail surfaces your body relies more on the force applied by your muscles to propel you. This, combined with more lateral movement as you avoid obstacles and running more undulating routes, tends to see you develop more strength endurance as a result of running on the trails.


Spatial and sensory awareness are not really a key skill of treadmill running, or even road running depending on the route. On the treadmill, the ground comes towards you in consistent and predictable ways. Trail running is very different as it relies more on your ability to sense surfaces, where your foot will and should land and how you use your arms to create drive and balance.

From the inside

With muddy, hilly or more technical surfaces trail running relies to a much greater degree on sense of perceived effort and heart rate than it does pace. Step on to a treadmill and you have your distance and pace glowing front of you in bright green judgement of that day’s performance. Off road this pressure is removed as your pace will vary greatly according to surface and weather conditions. This can be really useful in managing performance pressure and encouraging you to relax and run.

Trail Running were in the Lake District recently testing Saucony's new Koa range, specifically designed to enable you to run anywhere. Check out our update here.