Does Trail Running Burn More Calories? | Hikers University

Although there are metrics other than calorie burn that show the effectiveness of a workout, many beginners still ask whether trail running burns more calories.

It is important to know which activity burns more fat and allows you to have optimal body weight. For trail runners, knowing how many calories are burned in one session can help them tailor a health and fitness regimen based on their exact needs.

In short, trail running usually burns more calories than hiking and road running. This is due to the high speed of the workout as well as crossing rugged terrain littered with high speed. Although these differences may not appear too big, they can add up and result in more calorie burn.

In this guide, I will provide you with a comparison of how many calories you can burn in trail running, hiking, and road running, and the reasons why trail running burns more calories than both of these.

As a veteran hiker and trail runner, I exercise a mix of these workouts for optimal fitness and can help you understand how to burn more fat with these simple exercises.

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Which Workout Burns the Most Calories?

If you keep all other factors like body weight, terrain, change in elevation, distance traveled, duration of the exercise, etc. constant, then trail running will help you burn more calories than simple hiking. So if you are looking for a workout that will allow you to burn more calories than road running or even hiking, then trail running is an excellent option.

  • On average, a 175-pound person who has been running at 5 mph will burn 720 to 850 calories.
  • A 175-pound person who has been hiking at 2.5 mph will burn around 210 to 250 calories.
  • When walking on a paved road, a 175-pound man will burn approximately 100 calories.

That is because when you are running, you have a completely different gait as compared to when you are hiking or walking. When running, only your toes stay on the ground as you leap forward, but when you are walking you place your full foot on the ground.

Hence, as you can see, running burns two to three times more calories than hiking. However, in many cases, hiking can be more effective when it comes to losing weight since it requires less endurance and we can hike longer than we can run.

Why Trail Running Burns More Calories

Trail running is a highly enjoyable exercise since you are surrounded by the stunning beauty of wild nature. I find it to be much more refreshing and fun than just running around the neighborhood block. The best part is that it allows me to put more effort when running on the road.

You Run at a Higher Speed

When hiking, you are traversing the trails at a walk, taking your time to navigate the many obstacles in your path. However, when trail running, you do not want to stop to go around many small obstacles in your path like tree roots or a small part of rocks in your path; you can simply make a small leap to clear them.

In addition, running also increases your heartbeat much more quickly than simple hiking. This results in a higher amount of calorie burn as well as allows you to build muscle.

The Terrain is More Rugged

Unlike paved sidewalks, mountain trails are wild and unkempt. Since trails and nature parks are crafted by nature, they are quite rugged and have many variations and obstacles in their path. Just a few stretches on rugged mountain terrain can do wonders for your quads and glutes.

Running on rugged hills burns far more calories than hiking at a slower pace or running on a paved path. This is one of the reasons why trail runners burn more calories.

There Are Many Obstructions

The best part about running on trails is that you will never be short of surprises. A lot of time, you will encounter loose rocks in your path, a network of root systems, fallen trees, and sometimes even dead animals.

Dodging these obstacles or leaping over them may not sound as if they require a lot of exertion, but they continue to add up. If you navigate one obstacle, it might not amount to much but trail runs are unique in the fact that your path will be littered with obstacles, sometimes every step of the way. If you plan to run for five miles, they will result in a significant amount of calorie burns.

There is Mud

The best form of trail running occurs on unpaved and unkempt terrains. These types of trail are exposed to all sorts of weather. If the place where you run experiences rain, then it will change the geographical composition of the terrain and result in mud.

How much effort you make while trail running will depend on the type of surfaces you encounter along the way. Keep in mind that there is a high chance that there will be mud on the trails which can go some distances. Navigating through this mud will also help contribute to how many calories you will burn during trail running.

It Takes Longer to Run

Since trails are riddles with obstacles and are often at an incline and elevation, trail running takes longer to cover the same distance as road running, even for the most experienced trail runners. However, they take more effort to run than running on smooth paved roads.

For example, if you run five miles on a paved road and five miles on a mountain trail, you will have covered the same amount of distance; however, you will have made more effort due to the gain in elevation.

Since you are making more effort on the same distance, you will burn more calories on the same distance as well.

A Good Practice to Run on Trails

The major benefit of running on trails is that you have to encounter elevations as well. These are excellent workouts for lower body strength and allow you to make a lot of effort without creating a lot of wear and tear on your muscles.

If you want to take trail running as a habit, I recommend hitting steeper hills for shorter sprints and smaller inclines for longer runs.

Short Sprints: These sprints typically last for 10 to 15 seconds and are great if you want to work on an activity that does not quickly exhaust you. Use these 15 seconds to sprint as hard as you can and then walk down the incline to recover. Do this about 10 times.

Medium Runs: These sprints last for up to 60 seconds and can burn your calories very quickly. During these sprints, you should maintain a quick jog but not run all out, unlike in shorter sprints. Then walk back down the incline for recovery. Repeat this for 6 to 12 times.

Longer Runs: Depending on your physical fitness, you can keep up these runs from 3 to 10 minutes. Do these at a slower pace than medium runs, but it should still be challenging. Make sure to swing your arm front to back bringing them almost to your eye level. Keep your posture tall and your knees extended. Come down the hill for recovery. You can complete up to 6 sets with this.

Why Road Running Results in a Smaller Calorie Burn

Roads are designed to travel efficiently. They are paved and are made in a straight line. You won’t find piles of rock or roots breaking out in the middle of a well-kempt road.

Road Hills are Not Hills

Even if you are going up an incline on the road, they are no match for true hills. Even road hills are built keeping in mind the safety of the drivers and pedestrians. Because of this, paved road hills are tame, which means you won’t be able to burn as many calories if you run on them.

In addition, there will be a limit to how steep a road is. However, on true mountainous terrain, there are no such restrictions.

Road Hills Have Tamer Twists

No matter how sharp you think the turns and twists on a hilly road are, they are still very tame, as compared to twists on hills. In addition, these twists and turns have been made to ensure vehicles maintain a reasonable and safe speed on the road.

This means running on road hills is much riskier and more challenging than your average trail runs – and hence will burn more calories.

Road Hills Have Few Obstacles

Since road hills are paved, you will not find rocks, a pit of mud, or tree roots stopping you from reaching your goal. In fact, other than a few toys or some trash in some cases, you will find road hills pretty much obstacle-free.

On the other hand, as we mentioned before, rugged terrains are littered with all sorts of natural elements and are uneven everywhere else. As such trail hills result in more exertion.

However, if you prefer road running, it is also a great workout as well. It makes for a more efficient run which means you can keep up the higher pace of running for longer. It might not be as great in burning calories as trail running, but it will still allow you to burn a significant amount.

Road running simply lacks the challenges which make trail running so exciting and thrilling.

There is a place for trail running and if it is not for you, then that’s fine too. You can always go hiking or road running. Ultimately, the point is that you perform some form of endurance exercise rather than no exercise at all.


Peter Brooks

Peter Brooks

I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.

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