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What is trail running?

Today’s trail run was brought to you by that big, glowing orange ball.

Here in Eugene, Oregon, we joke about not being able to identify that big, glowing orange ball in the sky when it shows up periodically throughout May. This year, just when we had almost forgot that the sun existed at all, THERE it is. Bam! Gorgeous!

But was it really a trail run?

My nearby bark chip path is a sweet, well-maintained flat mile loop wedged between a school and a roadway. It’s got beautiful Camas flowers, a mini-forest, frog pond, waterway and lots of bird life.

But is it trail running?

As I ran, I was thinking about the first unit in my online course that’s all about what a trail is, where to find trails and how to hook up with trail buddies. After running hundreds of miles of trails in the last several years, and learning about others’ experiences, I created a definition of “trail running” for my course. You know, so we can all be on the same page.

But, sometimes, a trail run seems like it’s more about how it makes me feel than where it is and the specific type of terrain I encounter.

Here’s what I know for sure

My feet were relieved to feel the soft unevenness of the bark chips yesterday. My soul was happy to see the sway of tall purple flowers, the hummingbird zipping from bush to bush and the hidden crickets playing Marco-Polo in the thick, tall grasses. (It even makes me wax poetic!)

The thing is, it felt like trail running.

But there were also cars zooming passed me about 15 feet away as I ran near the road. That didn’t feel like trail running.

Also, did I mention flat? We’re talking “maple syrup and melty butter” flat. That doesn’t feel like most trails I know either.

Hmmm… maybe we better get visual.

Is this trail running?


It’s not pavement, it’s got wild things growing around it and a major river nearby. It also has a giant college stadium within view, it’s flat and intersects paved paths.

Is this trail running?


It’s wide, full of rocks, in the woods with a BIG hill. Does it have to be dirt? Does it have to have big hills? Does it have to be “single track?” Does it have to be far from urban areas to be a trail running trail?

Is this trail running?


A sure sign of trail running is a major water crossing, right? Does trail running always have to be extreme? Is this extreme? (Thanks for the photo, Kate & Sharon. Love the RMR shirt, btw)

This is not trail running


This is birthday party bowling. (In an election year, I always think it’s good to include something we can all agree on.)

All kidding aside, sometimes the definition of trail running can get a little heated. Not “bad” heated, just lots of opinions bounce around the room about what is and what isn’t a trail running trail.

  • Some folks say trail running is anything that isn’t paved.
  • Some say it has to have rugged terrain and hills.
  • Some say it has to be waaaay outside of the city.
  • Some say all of the above.

So, what is YOUR definition of trail running?  Tell me in the comments down below. Let’s get this convo going. (Pssst…There’s no wrong answer.)


4 thoughts on “What is trail running?

  1. Tough question to answer for so many reasons you’ve noted. The only problem with stating that rail trail type flat courses are trail would be if a runner was planning to sign up for a trail race and was horribly unaware of the type of trails they include in those races…because they are always far from flat. I like that you mentioned how it makes you “feel” Rail trail or horrific steep, switchback trail aside, I always feel more at ease when I’ve been on either but feel more of a badass when I step of the latter.

  2. I’m cracking up, Amy! You are so right on all accounts, especially about knowing what your race course terrain looks like before you sign up. Thanks for your comments – super important! ~Laura

  3. Ha! I love birthday party bowling!!! As for trail running, in my opinion, if it isn’t paved and “city life” is mostly blocked from view its closer to trail running than it is road running. That being said trail running might have more to do with ones state of mind and goals than it does the actual terrain. Are you running to truly enjoy the feel of the earth beneath your feet, the wind/rain on your face, the nature brushing against your legs or are you running to log your miles?

  4. Hey Laurie! You bring up a really great question; what is your goal for running? Is it to experience the naturific that trail running can give you more of, or get those miles in. Of course, I prefer both – logging training miles in the woods. Can’t have too much of a good thing, right? Thanks for chiming in! ~L

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