Trail running shoes are an increasingly popular option for athletic footwear – but you may be left wondering: can I use trail running shoes on the road, too?
The answer is yes – but we wouldn’t recommend it if you care about performance.
Different shoes are made for different purposes and runners come in all shapes and sizes. As a runner, it’s a good idea to purchase a pair of reliable running shoes that best serve how you intend to use them – whether you’re a trail runner running on uneven terrain or you find yourself exclusively stomping the pavement.
Trail running shoes are a style of running shoe that has been optimized for off-road usage, but still has many of the same features and characteristics of a typical sneaker. This means that you can also wear them for running on man-made surfaces like pavement and some are designed to dry quicker after running through wet environments, making them a waterproof shoe.
However, there are some factors you should consider when deciding if you should use your trail running shoes on the road.
Why Would I Choose Trail Running Shoes?
Trail running shoes are a style of athletic footwear that has been designed to be durable, sturdy, and tough when going on a trail run. These are running shoes that can withstand running on rocks, twigs, and the muddy trail. The material is a bit tougher than in a typical everyday road shoe, with the midsole being a lot sturdier and the outsole being optimized for running specifically on softer terrain.
The upper material in trail running shoes is thicker and more reinforced. This means that the trail shoe can better withstand the elements. Usually, the toe box and the heel are reinforced. The material itself is more resistant to abrasion from things like sand or twigs, which means the trail shoe is more durable and better protects the foot.
The midsole is also tougher and offers more protection. It will sometimes include something called a rock plate, which is a thin sheet of a hard material like plastic or even carbon fiber that will protect the foot against sharp rock.
Trail running shoes have a different outsole than other shoes. They feature “lugs”, which are large pronounced bumps in the rubber that are good for traction on soft surfaces. This means that it’s easier to run up muddy slopes or to keep one’s balance on uneven, rocky terrain.
When To Use Trail Running Shoes
As the name suggests, trail running shoes are great for doing a lot of off-road activity. They are lightweight compared to hiking boots, so they’re better for running. Trail running shoes are sturdy but not as restrictive as boots, so they’re a lot more comfortable. You can also wear them as a hiking shoe for hiking on moderate trails, especially in warm weather.
Many trail running shoes are also designed to dry quickly, sometimes even including drainage holes. In warm weather, trail shoes can be ideal for wet, muddy conditions. These trail running shoes (sometimes fully waterproof) support your feet on soft ground while offering excellent traction.
Trail shoes come in a variety of styles, with some being best for really hardcore marathon running terrains while others are more like durable road running shoes. Depending on your preferences, you want a trail running shoe to suit the environment. A more lightweight version is great for long jogs on maintained dirt paths, while a more aggressive model would be better if you like more challenging, cross-country off-road running.
How Trail Running Shoes Compare to Road Running Shoes
Trail running shoes are largely the same as road running shoes, with some key differences:
The upper part of the shoe includes the tongue, the laces, and the toe box. Road running shoes typically feature a lightweight or mesh material for the upper, which allows the foot to “breathe” (i.e. air circulates to keep sweating minimal).
Trail running shoes are much more durable and often include thicker and heavier material for the upper. This allows them to better protect against the environment, and they’ll hold up longer to abrasive conditions (i.e. they’re less likely to rip). It also means they are less breathable, so sweating can be an issue.
The midsole is the part of your shoe that is between the upper sole and the outer sole. A typical road running shoe offers flexibility and cushioning in the midsole that’s designed to make running as comfortable as possible. A properly fitted road running shoe should bend with your foot’s nature flex points.
The trail shoe offers much less cushioning in its midsole and more structure. This is because a firmer midsole is better for stability – especially in an environment like dirt or mud, which is much less of an impact when you land.
The outsole is the very bottom of the shoe, where the treads are. On a typical sneaker, the outsole is important for both levels of cushioning and grip. The style of the treads and the thickness of the outsole is catered to different uses.
Trail running shoes offer a thicker and “stickier” outsole that is more protective and better for gripping uneven surfaces. The rubber on trail running shoes may include lugs, depending on the style. The bigger/deeper the lugs are, the better traction you’ll get on natural terrains.
Can I Use Trail Running Shoes On The Road?
So can you use trail running shoes on the road? The short answer is, you can – but it’s not a good idea.
Trail running shoes have been optimized for running outside on soft and uneven ground. Roads that are hard and hot can damage the outsoles of trail running shoes. The lugs in particular will wear down from use on roads. This means that the trail running shoe will lose its traction over time as the outsole is physically worn down. This will occur much quicker than the outsole of a road running shoe.
Road running shoes are designed to offer support against the hard impact of running on pavement. Every time you land, there’s a force of approximately four times your body weight. That’s a lot of impact on your foot! To reduce this impact, road running shoes have shock absorption and cushioning that can help reduce fatigue and lessen the likelihood of injury. Trail running shoes, in contrast, feature lugs that are less effective in shock absorption and better suited for sinking into the ground.
Even the lightest trail running shoes will be a little less comfortable for road running, especially over long distances. The very features that make trail running shoes comfortable off-road render them uncomfortable on man-made surfaces. They get hot quicker because the upper is thicker, they are less flexible and there isn’t as much cushioning.
Having said that, there are styles of trail shoes that don’t have a rock plate or don’t have aggressive lugs which can be used on the roads. These are a good compromise for someone who does a lot of backroads running. A good example of this may be where there might be some pavement involved, but not really rocky, uneven trails.
Using Trail Running Shoes on Pavement
The bottom line is: trail running shoes are designed for running on trails. The more aggressive its trail-specific features are, the less effective those shoes will be when running on the pavement.
You will sacrifice time by wearing a shoe that is heavier than it needs to be.
The best running shoe for you will be built to complement your preferred jogging location, whether that be technical terrain or a long distance pavement run.
Looking for some trail running shoe recommendations?
New Balance offers several pairs of trail running shoes, including the 410 V7, while La Sportiva offers the La Sportiva Bushido II Running Shoe. Another great pick for the best trail running shoe is Runner’s World 2022 award winner, ALTRA Lone Peak 6 Trail Running Shoe.