Trail Running vs. Street Running

This article compares running surfaces (such as trail running, street/road running, astroturf, grass, etc.) and examines the types of proper footwear to improve running performance.  This street running vs trail running article also discusses some of important musculature of the foot, and examines the kinds of injuries you can get from trail running and street running

Trail Running vs. Sand Running vs. Street Running

Sand Running on Sand:

Sand running challenges the core and stabilizer muscles much more than other surfaces.  Numerous companies make sand socks to help protect the feet from heat and sharp objects.  One of the benefits of running on sand is that you can vary your intensity levels by running in the wet sand versus dry sand (dry sand is harder.)  Sand is also is also very low impact.

Turf Running on Astroturf:

Astroturf causes more injuries than probably any other surface.  The variance in the resistance of the surface leads to over and under stabilization.  Injuries such as turf toe are very common and very hard to rehabilitate.   We recommend avoiding this surface wherever possible.  Many athletic facilities prefer to use astroturf because it looks nice, and has the illusion of being safer.  In most applications, astroturf is laid over sand and the uneven amount of resistance provided into the feet and toes causes injuries to knees, ankles, and toes.

Street Running on Concrete:

Sidewalks are the default surface most people think about when they go out for a run.  They translate a lot of force back into the runner’s hips, back, and knees.  Many injuries such as shin splints, IT-Band pain, and runner’s knee occur because of the shock from running.  Also, some people run at the exclusion of weight training.  Running is great, but it shouldn’t be your only form of exercise.  Unlike running on the grass & dirt, the style of shoe you have plays a large role in how long you can run before suffering tendon or ligament pain.  There are a number of stores that specialize in running shoes, and you’ll better off visiting your local running store versus going to a big chain.  They know every brand of shoe they carry, and your joints are worth the extra $20

Trail Running on Grass and Dirt:

Running on dirt and trails is very exciting since the surface is always changing.   Various shoes companies make specialty trail shoes (Saucony, Hoka, etc).  Whereas your concrete shoes will have flat treads, on the dirt or grass you are looking for large, deep treads (almost like a cleat.)  Assuming the ground isn’t frozen running on the dirt and grass is safer for your joints because of the natural play in the ground (it reduces shock.)  Very low profile shoes like (Vibrams) should only be used on surfaces like grass and shock.  Human joints are not designed to take the pounding caused by running on concrete.  Street running shoes have a lot of cushion for a reason, it’s to protect those joints.

Trail, Street, and Sand Surfaces Compared

Sand Running vs Trail Running:

Your runs on the sand will be much shorter and more intense than trail running.  The shorter more intense running is more useful for building muscle as compared to burning calories.  Trail running also increases the runner’s coordination as one much adjust their weight to run on the trail without slipping on rock or root.  In addition, trail running provides the benefit of large changes in elevation (e.g. mountains for hiking).  Beaches are almost always flat.

Trail Running vs Street Running:

Trail running will be your superior surface for running provided you have the joint mechanics to run safely.  Trail running (which generally involves hills) also requires a good deal of ankle range of motion and knee stability.  Aside from the potential hazards of tripping (which does happen fairly frequently) running on trails is easier on the joints of the body because it is going to lower impact.  Additionally, it’s often easier on the lunges since you don’t have to contend with flumes of car smoke.

Trail Running vs Running on the Grass:

When you are going running think about how humans evolved from a biomechanical point of view.  We were never born to run on man-made pavement, and we certainly weren’t born with rubber sole cushions on our feet.  We needed to develop the large bulky running shoes we have today in order to protect human joints from the injuries that occur on running on pavement.  When you reduce the surface back down to the form nature originally intended for us, you can reduce your shoe padding along with it.

Much research on barefoot running has supported superior ankle strength and toe mobility from tribes of primitive people who don’t wear shoes (e.g. Amazon villages, etc.)  Since you likely haven’t built up these muscles in your feet, a light-weight (minimalist) shoe will be your better option.

Muscle Anatomy of the Foot

So if you took a cross-section of the foot musculature, you’d find that there are essentially four layers of muscles in the foot.  The outermost layer contains three named muscles, the Abductor Hallucis, Flexor Digitorum Brevis, and Abductor Digiti Minimi.

Foot Muscles Layer 1Foot Muscles Layer 2Foot Muscle Layer 3Foot Muscle Layer 4

Abductor Hallucis

The abductor hallucis muscle resides on the medial side of the bottom of the foot.  It is responsible for abducting and flexing the big toe.

Flexor Digitorum Brevis

The flexor digitorum brevis muscle resides laterally to the abductor hallucis. It sits in the middle of the bottom of the foot, between the plantar aponeurosis and the tendons of flexor digitorum longus.  It is responsible for flexing the lateral four digits at the proximal interphalangeal joints.

Abductor Digiti Minimi

The Abductor Digiti Minimi moves the little toe.

Quadratus Plantae

The quadratus plantae muscle resides superior to the flexor digitorum longus tendons. This muscle assists the flexor digitorum longus in flexing the lateral four digits.


Four lumbrical muscles in the foot one of each toe (except the big toe).  These muscle flex metatarsophalangeal joints (toe joints) and extend the interphalangeal joints.

Flexor Hallucis Brevis

The flexor hallucis brevis muscle in the third layer (near the medial side of the foot) flexes the proximal phalanx of the great toe at the metatarsophalangeal  (big toe) joint.

Adductor Hallucis

The adductor hallucis muscle is next to the flexor hallucis brevis.   It Adducts the great toe and helps in forming the transverse arch of the foot.

Flexor Digiti Minimi Brevis

Flexor Digiti Minimi Brevis flexes the pinky toe.

Plantar Interossei

The three plantar interossei are located between the metatarsals (toes).  They adduct digits three to five and flex their respective metatarsophalangeal joints.

Dorsal Interossei

Four dorsal interossei are located between the metatarsals. These muscles abduct digits two to four and flex the metatarsophalangeal joints.

Wow!  That’s like 30 muscles!  Why did you even attempt to teach me all of them?  Totally skimmed that.

Maintaining toe strength and movement is important for proper function of the foot.  If your foot’s muscles start to atrophy (from wearing shoes), the joints also can become inflexible.  Inflexible joints cause deviations in the running pattern leading to injury up the chain (like shin splints and runner’s knee.)  So do your toe yoga and find a gym that will let you train barefoot (like Sand & Steel), because if your feet muscles are weak, you are going to be more prone to injury.

Common Injuries caused by Running

Weak muscles in the feet contribute to the chances of developing many of the following injuries.  Additionally weak musculature in the glutes, hamstrings, and TFL increase the chances of developing these injuries (trail running or road running included)

1. Runner’s knee

If you feel joint pain, stop running and see a professional.  9 times out 10, that professional may tell you to stop running.  Do yourself a favor and let your body heal.
Symptoms include pain around or behind the knee cap.  Your doctor will call it patellofemoral pain syndrome to validate charging your insurance $250 bucks to determine your patella hurts.  To prevent this pain from occurring you need mobilize the quads and calves and improve ankle range of motion.   When those muscles are firing and relaxing properly, Runner’s knee generally heals on its own unless you caused permanent damage by not listening to to your body.

2. Achilles tendinitis

Inflammation of the Achille’s tendon (this is the big cord in the back of your foot.)  Usually this is caused by very tight calves.  Tight calves can be treated with guided stretching and mobility training.  If this happens, switch your shoe type, stop running, and get help to loosen up your calves.  The Achille’s is super important, don’t continue to run if it hurts.

3. Plantar fasciitis

High impact running (e.g. running on the street or road) and spinning are the most common causes.  Technically is the tearing or irritation of the tendons in the bottom of the foot.  Anti-inflammatories and restoring proper gait mechanics often prevents this symptom from getting worse.

4. Shin splints

There are muscles and tendons in your lower leg (your tibia and fibula).  Running too hard (too much impact) causes these tendons to become inflamed.  See a personal trainer to get help with exercises to strengthen the shin bone muscles (such as the tibialis anterior and peroneus longus.)

5. Iliotibial Band Pain

We wrote a big article on this syndrome already, check out our IT Band article here.

6. ACL, MCL, and Patellar Knee Pain

So the knee has various ligaments running through it which allow the knee to bend and stabilize the joint.  If your running stride is asymmetric because of weak glutes or a weak core, the rotation force on your knees generated by a normal stride is asymmetric.  Your knees are only designed to take so much force (if you are very overweight, you shouldn’t run for this same reason.)  If one of the knees starts taking the majority of this rotational force, it can be damaged by the weak corresponding muscle.  Remember, Paul’s Golden Rule to prevent injuries:

A weak muscle allows a joint to move into a deformed position causing injury.

A tight muscle moves a joint into a deformed position causing injury.

Your muscles should be supple, free of trigger points (nodules of tightness), easily elongated, and free of pain when they are compressed.  If they aren’t come see us for a mobility session.

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