Runners might not get the shade that cyclists do but many drivers would prefer that we not be on the road either. After all we have a choice right? Well… it’s not as simple as you might think. Here’s the thing though drivers, cyclists runners and walkers all have a right to be on the road and a reason. I’m a dedicated road runner and I do have the choice to run on the trail, both are equally convenient to me. So why do I and other runners either need or want to be on the road then?
I think I have pretty good road running hygiene and I’ve never heard any complaints either first hand or third hand but you never know. I typically run on the white line facing traffic but move over to the shoulder whenever cars are coming and before on blind turns and hills. I thought it might be a good idea to clear some of this up for everyone. The roads that I run on are country roads with a speed limit of 70 km an hour but many drive faster. There is a shoulder but not much of one in most places. Some of the sections are pretty grown in but for a variety of reasons I prefer it and in a lot of ways it is actually safer at least for me. When I lived in the city with sidewalks that’s where I ran but others still choose the street. My mom and stepdad live in the same hood and they are very much dedicated trail runners and that’s okay too. So let’s get into not all, but many of the reasons some runners choose the road.
- 5-The road surface is the most even option. The shoulder can have all sorts of dips, divots, washouts and the municipality has recently started using 3” clear and even surge for repairs on the shoulder. If you hit an uneven surface you’re way more likely to roll an ankle or fall. It’s more likely on long runs when you start to get tiered.
- The loose shoulder sucks up some of your energy. When you hit the hard surface of the asphalt more of your energy is returned to your next step. In contrast the loss of friction as your foot slides a little on the shoulder or trail sucks up some of your momentum and makes running a bit harder.
- There is safety in traffic. While the road I run on is not terribly busy most of the year every hour that I’m likely to be running there will be some cars along my route. On the trail I would usually not run into anyone most times. I feel that the possibility of a car driving by means it’s less likely that someone will set out to do me harm.
- If something happens I’m more likely to be found. If the unlikely worst happens on the road with way more traffic than the trail I’m more likely to be found or be able to flag down help if I need it.
- Safe places are more accessible. I know lots of people in the houses along my running route and there are actually some public spaces. Again if something bad happens there are more options but even for things like water and bathrooms.
- The trail can be disorienting. When I run on the road I know where I am and how far from home I know where I am all of the time. On the trail, especially where I am less familiar sometimes I don’t know exactly where I am in relation to my reference points if that makes sense.
- Concrete is too hard. I’m not sure it’s wise or even legal to choose to run in the street when there are concrete sidewalks available. But I occasionally do it… We only have a short run of sidewalks interrupted by many, many uneven driveway entries. The hardness of concrete puts more force on our joints and literally can hurt more than asphalt. In the winter sometimes the roads are clear where the sidewalks are not. When a car comes I do jump up on the curb though. It’s probably not a wise idea to pick the street over the sidewalk on a very busy road though.
- To catch a breeze. The trails in the woods have so much less wind than the oceanside (or just open) road. In the hot summer weather that little bit of wind can make all the difference in keeping you cool and avoiding heat stroke.
- The road is clear and the trail (or sidewalk) is not. Here the first round of plows clear the road and at the end of the storm the plow with the side plow comes to clear the shoulder. The trail just isn’t clear and the machines (that are totally allowed to be there) pack it all down into ice that doesn’t melt. So in the winter when I might want to avoid the wind I’m still on the road.
- There is more light to see and be seen. Even if you don’t run in the pitch black (I do my best to avoid it) dusk and dawn-ish can still be pretty dark. Having streetlights often makes for a safer run.
- You have more options for injuries. When I run on the road I always have the option to pull off onto the softer shoulder to avoid aggravating an injury. Even if not cars are coming I’ll often ‘pull over’ onto the shoulder to be nicer to my knee mostly on the downhills.
- In some places there is no shoulder or it’s not run-able. It could be unevenness, large rocks, a guard rail or gown in plants. For some short stretches I literally don’t have a choice. I’ll walk, cross the road before or even stop in those sections to let a car pass by.
- You’re accessible to first responders or a drive. Last year my mom had a bad fall on the trail. There was no way to get an ambulance to exactly where it happened. They probably didn’t even know what civic address of where they were. Getting her to a spot she could be picked up was a major complication. Thankfully she wasn’t that injured and now that she’s healed she’s totally fine by the way! If you do need to call home for a ride it’s a lot easier on the road.
- The race might be on the road. If you’re racing on the road it makes sense to practice running on it before the big day.
- It’s the only option where you are right now. Lots of times you can’t just choose road or trail there just ins’t another place to run. You might be of the opinion we should then drive somewhere else to run. Here’s the thing though not everyone has that option and there are other good reasons that driving somewhere to run sounds a bit of a crazy idea.
- Foliage in the way. On the shoulder or even the sidewalk there are often tree branches that are low hanging or sticking out everywhere. In the street the cars have taken them off so you’re less likely to be be ducking and weaving on the road. Around here every few years or so they cut out the ditches and clear the brush but where there is a guardrail they can’t run the machines so those areas are always really gown in usually with prickly roses.
- Drivers are more aware of what’s happening in the street. In some circumstances drivers just don’t generally check for pedestrians as well as they should. This can include backing out of driveways and darting around side streets. Or even when approaching an intersection. Some runners feel that they have a better chance of being seen in the street and that they have more time to react to/ notice inattentive drivers on the street.
- Sidewalks can be really uneven. Often the municipality doesn’t do a great job keeping the sidewalks leveled. Things like tree roots, cracks and chips just get a thin layer of asphalt if anything at all. Plus all those dips for driveways really add up on a 10 mile run!
- Running on the shoulder leads to rocks in your shoes. As you run on a loose surface little bits of that surface spring up and hit you in the back of the calf which can be annoying in and of itself. But those little pebbles often end up lodged in your shoes at your heel. Running on the road avoids this too. It turns out the smallest little rock can turn you into the princess and the pea and actually cause serious discomfort. Seriously sometimes I have to stop and empty my shoes. Or the little bits of gravel can even implant in the treads of your shoes.
- In certain places the sidewalks are really busy. Around bus stops, smoking areas, campuses and shops people tend to gather and just stand there. In other places there are just a lot of slow walkers on the sidewalks. In those cases a runner might choose the street not to be rude to drivers but to be polite to other pedestrians.
- The infrastructure is insufficient for anything but cars. At the end of the day whether its a shoulder or a sidewalk the conditions often just aren’t good enough to run on. My city wants 30% of drivers out of their cars in 10 years. Either on the bus or using active transportation. That probably won’t work if conditions on the not road don’t improve.
- We’re allowed to be there. So for whatever reason or reasons a runner chooses this really shouldn’t be an issue for anyone else. Sometimes we all have to share the road with others and sometimes those others just aren’t cars!
Remember most runners are drivers too. We’re also taxpayers and if you think about it it’s not very fair that our space isn’t as well maintained as yours. We also get that we are going to loose the fight is we get hit by a car. Perhaps if we are running in the road you could keep in mind that we get it and there is probably a good reason. Are you also a road runner or do you avoid it at all costs? If you’re firmly on the side if irritated driver does this help you see the other side? Leave it in the comments below!