Trail Running Vs. Mountain Running: What’s the Difference?

It was not so long ago that I thought mountain running is just trail running in the mountains. But after doing my research, I found that there are some distinct differences between the two.

In general, trail running is running on an established off-road trail regardless of the amount of elevation, whereas mountain running is running with a significant elevation regardless of the terrain.

Ahead, we’ll look more closely into each of these sports, their main differences, organizing bodies, distances, and gears.And in the end, we’ll compare both sports side by side.

Trail Running

A run is considered trail running if it takes place on a beaten path following an established trail. Trail running could be as simple as running on a trail around a national park or as hard as a technical trail in the forest or in the mountains.

Unlike mountain running, elevation is not a necessary element for trail running. Even running on a flat unpaved dirt road circling a city park is considered trail running.

There are hundreds if not, thousands of trail running competitions around the world.

Many of the trail running events are in the ultramarathon distances as it can range anywhere from a relatively short 50 km to as long as 200 miles onwards (although there are 10 km trail races too). It also can happen anywhere that isn’t paved roadmountains, hills, dirt roads, or forests.

Unlike road running, the difficulty of each race differs not by distance but by terrain.

It is common for trail runners to consider 20 miles on a technical, muddy mountainous terrain to be harder than a 50-mile race on a flat dirt road.

That is why the gauge for an athlete’s performance for trail running is the fastest known time (FKT) per trail course because it’s hard to compare an athlete’s performance just by distance alone.

Most trail running events also don’t have clear markings throughout the whole trail. That means in most trail running events, you may have to find and follow trail signs to navigate your way to the finish line.

To get a clearer idea of trail running, here’s a highlight of the Red Bull LionHeart race.

Also read: Is Trail Running Dangerous? (What trail runners think)

Mountain Running

Although mountain running could be a form of trail running when the run takes place on unpaved roads, it isn’t a requirement for a run to be considered mountain running.

A run can be considered mountain running if there is significant elevation gain in route whether on or off the road.

Mountain runs have an average incline of 5 to 20% and can be purely ascent or include descent. It combines running, walking, and hiking depending on the steepness of the trail.

Mountain running is recognized by world athletics and is governed by the World Mountain Running Association which organizes two world championshipsthe World Mountain Running Championship and the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships.

Unlike trail running, mountain running is relatively short and the route is often clearly marked to avoid dangerous sections.

A long distance mountain running is anything more than 20 km but not more than 45 km with at least 1 mile of ascent, whereas in trail running, the distance can be hundreds of miles and last for multiple weeks.

To get a better idea of what mountain running is, here’s a clip from the World Mountain Running Championship.

Also read: When Does a Run Become Ultrarunning?

The Differences at Glance

Now that you know what they are individually, let’s look at how they are different from one another more closely.
Here’s a table that summarizes the differences between trail running and mountain running.

DifferencesTrail RunningMountain Running
TerrainHas to be off-roadCould be on paved roads and off-road
DistanceVaries – could be as short as 5 miles to as long as 300 miles (or more)Short. Maximum of 45 km
ElevationNot a requirementElevation is required
GearPoles, hydration packs, headlamps, and other gearUsually just the basic gears (shorts, shirt, and shorts)
Organizing bodiesAmerican Trail Running Association (US) and the Trail Running Association (UK)World Mountain Running Association
Route MarkingsUsually just trail signs and a few marshallsHas clear markings with marshalls
Differences of trail running and mountain running table.

Trail running requires that the race is on off-roads while mountain running doesn’t. A significant elevation is also a key ingredient for mountain running while it is not a requirement for trail running.

Mountain running is also relatively short. 20-45 km is considered a long-distance race for mountain running, whereas most trail running races take place from 50 km onwards.

In terms of route markings, mountain running events are usually clearly marked and staffed with marshalls to avoid dangerous sections whereas, in trail running, it’s not uncommon to be running alone in a dangerous portion of the route without seeing anyone.

In terms of gear, trail runners wear trail running shoes that have aggressive soles for maximum grip and stability, whereas mountain runners wear whatever fits the terrain they’re running on (road running shoes for paved routes or trail running shoes for off-road routes).

Trail runners also typically wear headlamps, poles, and hydration packs. They also often have a copy of the route on their GPS watches. Mountain runners don’t need those because the race is relatively short and only lasts for a couple of hours.

Trail running is organized by the American Trail Running Association and Mountain Running is organized by the World Mountain Running Association.

Final Thoughts

Although trail running and mountain running could be similar at times, there are some distinct differences in how they’re organized, and the elements that make up both sports.

Trail runs require that the majority of the route is off-road in company with nature, whereas, mountain running could take place in an inclined paved street over a hill or a mountain.

In other words, if you’re trail running on a mountain, then that could be considered a mountain run too, but if you’re mountain running on a paved road, it cannot be considered a trail run.

If you want to start trail running, I made several guides that will teach you how to start. But I highly recommend that you get in shape before trail running.

Nicho Mauricio

Running wasn't always my favorite sport. I was a CrossFit athlete and I loved every bit of it. But since the pandemic began, I was forced to stay away from the gym and train at home instead. Things got boring. That's when I decided to trail run with my friends. I instantly got hooked. So I started training and researching all things running. As a beginner, I want to buy only the best running gear and do only the best practices. This blog is where I share what I've learned in my journey and my experiences as a runner.

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