Trail and mountain running have been categorized using several elements to include terrain/surface, elevation (gain or loss), and distance.
Trail running the Grand Canyon - Photo by Jared Scott
In the United States, mountain running and trail running are often used interchangeably and in most cases, refer to the same type of running in terms of terrain, elevation changes, and running surface. Since mountain runs are often contested on trails – either single track or double track – the trail running term fits quite well.
2012 World Mountain Running Championships - Photo by Richard Bolt
Some mountain runs are staged on paved, or semi-paved surfaces, but must still have significant (uphill) elevation gains to be considered mountain runs – this is one element of mountain running that distinguishes the sport from trail running. The Mt. Washington Road Race is a perfect example.
From an historical perspective, trail running dates back to the 11th century when the first recorded hill races were contested in Scotland. Conducted on unpaved paths, trail running – like hill running – challenges participants with elevation changes, variable terrain, natural obstacles, and environmental conditions such as weather and erosion. Other types of off-road running include fell running which is the British equivalent of trail running; Skyrunning, which encompasses races held at or above 6,000 feet with significant climbs over rocks, grass, dirt, and sometimes snow and ice; and cross-country running. Each share common traits with the niche sport of mountain running.
2003 World Mountain Running Championships - Photo by Richard Bolt
For those interested in competing in trail or mountain races, the American Trail Running Association posts a comprehensive calendar of events on their website, both national and international in scope.
USA Track&Field will host six trail championships in 2013 and one mountain running championship.
Article originally published July 2010 by Nancy Hobbs - Executive Director - American Trail Running Association