I subscribe to Trail Runner. I buy each issue of Running Times. I follow iRunfar closely, and I really enjoy reading blogs of some of the best ultrarunners out there (Anton Krupicka, Geoff Roes, Karl Meltzer, Dakota Jones, Nick Clark...etc) but also take interest in road racing results.
It seems that quite often these days people are defining themselves as "trail runners", or "ultra runners", or even "mountain runners", while a separate road running culture exists, to some extent, disconnected and disinterested in what is happening in the trail running scene. What should one make of all this?
I guess there are a few questions I'd like to explore in this post.
1) Which is better: trail running or road running?
The obvious answer to this is trail running. There's nothing better than enjoying the solitude of nature, enjoying scenery and mountains, and reconnecting with nature. It reminds me of when I was a teenager skiing in Colorado. On some days, when skiing in fresh powder down steep unmarked tracks, one felt a awe inspiring respect for nature, and felt one's own complete insignificance in the face of nature's enormity. Trail running at its best invites us to reflect on deep thoughts and clear our heads. If one believes the main thesis of Born to Run, ie. human beings evolved to run and walk over large distances, then certainly trail running helps us accomplish the primal goal that is locked in our DNA. Sometimes I think that, just as fulfillment of sexual desire and the need to socialize are part of what makes people happy, and that not fulfilling these needs leads to psychological issues, perhaps too, running over natural surfaces is something similarly necessary for human happiness.
On the other hand, I find that there's another, different joy associated with road running. There's obviously the "runner's high" that comes with it, but road running is much more simple (since each foot strike is pretty much the same), and with road running, especially treadmill running, there's a strange joy to be had by being with the pain of a hard workout. Frank Shorter has said that he took to running because he "enjoys the movement" and I couldn't agree more. Especially in treadmill running, there can be something almost meditative about embracing all of the body's feedback signals, almost like vipassana (insight) meditation.
In short, and personally, I love each form of running, but for different reasons. That leads to the second question:
2) Is it possible to train well for both?
The obvious answer to this is yes, since at the end of the day, they're both running. However, I've started to think that there really are some major differences. First, at least in Hong Kong, almost all trails have lots of steps. Many races have several thousand vertical feet in steps. I'm increasingly convinced that going up steps/stairs is fundamentally a different sport from pure running, when one looks at the muscles involved. Granted, stair-climbing and running are two very related sports, not unlike biking and running (or perhaps in swimming, butterfly and freestyle might be a better analogy). Nonetheless, my point is that to be a good trail racer, at least in HK, a decent amount of stair work is needed, and a specific training strategy should be devised, perhaps not unlike someone planning to enter a dualthalon or swim meet involving different strokes. To this end, I try to do a lot of routes that have steps, and in daily life, I take the steps whenever possible (ie. at the MTR). Second, trail running requires better core muscles and stability. This becomes evident, especially in longer races. Third, and on the flip side, I think too much trail running can lead to a decline in leg speed and turnover. Too much trail running can lead to a bit of dullness. Fourth, and conversely, it's also necessary to do some trail running at high speeds, since I would posit that good technical trail running is not only physical in nature, but also has a mental component (ie. perhaps it is training your "central governor" to accept a higher degree of risk).
I've written too much, but I'll just close by saying that in this question of what to run, I love the attitude of people like Mike Wardian, who is willing to do technical trail ultras, local 5K's, road ultras, or basically any running race put out there.
Training to do that has to be well thought out, and doing that will hopefully be one of the main themes of this blog.