road vs trail – a big difference

After my last mediocre attempt at a 50K, I wanted to go back and compare previous race results in order to tease out a pattern. The chart below shows how I placed in all races the past 3 years. A dot lower on the graph means a better result, red dots are trail runs, green dots are road runs.

race placement comparison of trail and road

It’s easy to see that I’m performing better in the shorter road races than the longer trail runs. All my road races are in the 20% or less range. Most all the longer trail runs are above the 50% mark. So what are some of the conclusions to draw from this?

Competition in road vs trail races

Are trail ultras more competitive? Not to knock the average 5k runner, but ultra folks tend to be lean and mean, and prepared for these races. It’s rare to see someone attempting an ultra without having run at least a marathon. So there’s a price of admission for these races. On average I think ultra trail races will  have a more competitive field than a road race.

There’s also the factor of drop outs. The 50 miler I ran this winter had a 40%+ drop out rate. (Not everyone is prepared for the shock of running 8-12 hours.) I’m comparing myself to those who finish, leaving out the whole field. Most road races have a much higher completion rate, there are rarely cut off times, and one can sometimes walk the race if one chooses. (I’m not making a value judgement, these are just observations)

Poor preparation for longer trail races

I have to admit I’ve never been prepared enough for these longer races.Not enough time on my legs, little to no tapering, poor nutrition intake, going out too hard, these are all common mistakes. Knowing how to pace myself on terrain that is unfamiliar is also tough. I have essentially not had a plan to go by that was realistic. I would look at my road times and extrapolate unrealistic goals, then go out like a mad man. I’ve worked to rectify this.

My MAF, max aerobic function, or base has been lacking for years. I’ve had enough steam to get through a shorter road race, but not enough fat burning ability to get through anything longer. Put another way, my speed is not in balance with my endurance. I’ve addressed this by doing this whole year with base building and am seeing good results so far.

Mental ability. I have a lot of doubts about being mentally tough enough for the long haul. Sure, I can complete the race,(no DNFs so far) but the ability to push myself can be lacking somewhat. I’ll start walking, daydreaming, being demotivated, not caring. As most all ultra runners know, the mental aspect is the most important part of racing. This is something I need to work on.


The overall trend line shows there’s improvement. Not all is lost. Looking at the chart also emphasizes I need to race more. 5 meager races a year is not enough to gain experience.

– Better preparation, mental and physical
– Better planning, navigation, nutrition…
– More racing, can’t race better without it