Running shoes come in a variety of not just styles and makes, but also types. While the most commonly used type is road running shoes, trail running shoes are also in-demand – and very useful!
Running outside, especially on rocky and/or uneven terrain, is a very different experience than running on the even pavement of a sidewalk or a treadmill at the gym. Trail running shoes are designed for use in rugged, off-road situations. Their construction is specially designed to add support, traction, and even durability in order to withstand the most punishing use.
Running shoes are specially designed to make running easier and more comfortable, but of course, different environments require different features. Trail running shoes are not necessarily better than road running shoes. In fact, using trail running shoes inappropriately can lead to various problems for the runner.
So, what separates trail vs road running shoes? Let’s find out!
- Why Wear Trail Running Shoes?
- Why Wear Road Running Shoes?
- The Key Difference Between Trail Running Shoes vs Road Running Shoes
- The Pros and Cons of Trail Running Shoes
- The Pros and Cons of Road Running Shoes
- Do You Really Need Trail Running Shoes?
- The Bottom Line on Trail vs Road Running Shoes
Why Wear Trail Running Shoes?
As the name suggests, trail running shoes are footwear designed specifically for outdoor use, and specifically on an uneven surface like a rugged trail. Trail running shoes stand up to the demands of running on hard-packed trails, gravel, steep inclines, and even mud and ice.
Trail shoes use more durable materials and are specially constructed to be more resistant to environmental stressors. For example, running 5k a day on dirt roads in lightweight running shoes is going to lead to significantly faster deterioration than running the same distance on a treadmill would. Trail running shoes are designed to last longer in such demanding environments.
Additionally, trail running shoes are designed to offer a better experience running on rough terrain. The shoes offer better traction and support, which can lessen the risk of sustaining injury. The more rugged construction also offers better protection for the runner. Those lightweight running shoes that feel great on the treadmill will offer little to no traction on uneven dirt paths and are less effective in resisting sharp rock and other debris.
Why Wear Road Running Shoes?
Road running shoes are the most common type of shoe and are what most people think of when they hear the term “runners” or “sneakers.” This kind of footwear is specially designed to support the foot while running, offering cushioning for shock absorption and structure to optimize your stride. This includes technology that can correct foot posture problems like overpronation or supination (underpronation).
Road running shoes come in a variety of styles to match one’s preferences. For example, people with problematic joints may desire additional cushioning for added “bounce,” or a runner concerned with speed may choose more lightweight options to improve their time.
When fit properly and used in appropriate environments, road running shoes should afford the user a comfortable experience. Typically, running shoes should last approximately 300 miles before needing to be replaced.
The Key Difference Between Trail Running Shoes vs Road Running Shoes
Because trail running shoes and road running shoes are designed for such different environments, they have some fundamental structural differences. Trail running shoes are tougher and are meant for more demanding terrain, so they have features that reflect that.
The most obvious differences between trail running shoes and road running shoes are found in the upper, midsole, and outsole.
The Upper Portion
The upper portion of a running shoe comprises things like 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 offer often thicker and heavier material for the upper. This allows them to withstand environmental stressors like mud or sand.
Additionally, trail shoes are more protective. Not only does the upper’s heavier material last longer in demanding environments, but also affords better protection from weather, dirt, and debris for the user.
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 natural flex points, reducing the stress of running on your knees and joints.
Trail running shoes offer much less cushioning in their midsole. This is because a firmer midsole is better for stability. This is especially true in an environment like dirt or mud, which results in much less of an impact when you land.
Furthermore, some trail running shoes feature a rock plate in the midsole, which offers protection when running on sharp or jagged terrain. The rock plate is essentially just a thin sheet of a hard material like plastic or even carbon fiber.
The outsole is the very bottom of the shoe. On a typical sneaker, the outsole features some sort of tread or grip which aids in traction. These come in a variety of patterns and styles that are suited for different uses.
For example, those who play a lot of spots in a court setting want an outsole that offers a lot of flexibility and traction, while someone who is long-distance running on mainly flat surfaces (like roads) wants an outsole that is stiffer and affords more shock absorption. Your specific needs, like arch characteristics, age, and level of fitness, also factor in when picking out the perfect road running shoe.
Trail running shoes offer a thicker and “stickier” outsole that is more protective and better for gripping uneven surfaces. While virtually all running shoes feature some sort of tread, the rubber on trail shoes is significantly thicker and more rugged. Trail running shoes also feature “lugs” – the name for the bumps on the bottom of the shoe. The bigger/deeper the lugs are, the better traction you’ll get on natural terrains.
The Pros and Cons of Trail Running Shoes
Trail running shoes are undeniably tougher than road running shoes. However, this doesn’t mean that they are appropriate across all purposes and definitely does not mean that they will last longer.
Comfortable, lightweight footwear designed for rugged terrain
Trail running shoes offer an excellent alternative to hiking boots for walking, jogging, and running in rugged terrains. These shoes offer many of the same features as other running shoes that hiking boots lack.
Trail running shoes are more lightweight, more flexible, more breathable, and generally more comfortable than hiking boots, but can still hold up to the elements. This is invaluable to people who want to spend a lot of time running through woods, trails, or any natural environment that doesn’t feature pavement or cement.
Enhanced protection against the elements when running outside
Trail running shoes offer more protection from a muddy trail with rocks, roots, and debris, which is a concern when running on trails and dirt paths. The shoes will not only last longer than road running shoes in these environments but will be more comfortable to wear because they shield the feet from sharp rocks and poking sticks. Trail shoes are less likely to rip and tear too, which lessens the likelihood of undesirable environmental material getting into your trail shoe mid-run.
Not all trail shoes feature a rock plate, but it’s great to have for particularly rocky environments. A sharp stone can pierce the rubber sole and penetrate the bottom of the shoe. This can significantly compromise the sole’s structural integrity and can cause pain and or discomfort during the run.
Better traction on mud, dirt, and other outdoor terrains
One of the key traits of trail running shoes is that they afford enhanced traction in outdoor environments. Road running shoes have treads that are great for clinging to smooth, hard surfaces, but they aren’t nearly as effective on softer grounds.
Trail running shoes feature lugs that grip into soft earth, sand, dirt, or mud, and that traction is invaluable when running. Turning, climbing slopes, and generally maintaining balance are easier when wearing trail running shoes in natural outdoor terrains.
The firmer midsoles and thicker outsoles offer stability
Trail running shoes have sturdier midsoles and outsoles that offer additional stability. You’ll feel more sure-footed when running on uneven ground in trail running shoes.
Because you’re mainly running on softer surfaces, you don’t actually want as much cushioning as you’d want running on roads. Too much cushioning when running can lead to problems like supination or even pain.
One study from 2018 found that high cushioning in running shoes increases leg stiffness and amplifies impact loading. The research specifically looked at highly cushioned shoes being used on roads, but the same basic principles can be applied to running on softer ground with road running shoes.
Tougher construction protects against hazards
The more rugged construction of trail shoes means that they hold up better to the elements, making them safer for the unexpected hazards one might encounter when off-road running. There is added material on the heels and toe boxes that protects the shoes against abrasion from things like rocks and sticks.
The benefits of trail running shoes come at a cost. The additional durability and flexibility mean that the shoes are less appropriate for other purposes.
The thicker, more rigid construction is less flexible
Trail running shoes are tougher. This rigid construction is less flexible – which is great for running on uneven terrain, but not ideal for any other running.
Trail shoes are less comfortable for everyday use
Trail shoes are generally less comfortable than road running shoes for everyday use. This is especially true if the trail shoes have deep lugs. They don’t breathe as well, they’re a bit heavier, and they offer less shock absorption.
Thicker upper materials reduce airflow
While trail shoes are often designed to dry quickly, generally, the upper mesh has to be thicker in order to be more durable, which often reduces how breathable the material is. This means they tend to be warmer to wear, so sweating can be an issue.
The outsole can wear down quickly on man-made surfaces
Trail running shoes are designed for off-road surfaces, which are softer. Wearing trail running shoes to run on roads, pavement, etc. will wear down the outsole quicker than running on dirt paths will. The trail running shoes also won’t last as long as road running shoes will for running on pavement.
Not as durable or protective as hiking boots
Are trail running shoes better for running on trails? Yes – but they are still running shoes. If you are looking for footwear to use for camping or going for long hikes in the snow, trail running shoes are just not up for that kind of activity.
Hiking boots are still the best option for long-term, rugged outdoor exploration. The boots offer enhanced ankle support, waterproof options (unlike most trail options), greater insulation, and even better support for treacherous conditions.
The Pros and Cons of Road Running Shoes
Road running shoes are the most comfortable running shoe option. These are the best shoes for wearing for everyday use, and they come in a wide variety of styles for different needs.
The most comfortable and flexible option
Both trail running shoes and road running shoes should feel comfortable to wear. However, road running shoes have additional flexibility and are generally more lightweight. Roadrunners also don’t feature the rock plate, which means they bend easier in the midsole.
Generally speaking, you can get a softer, more cushioned run with road runners than with trail runners. Combined with the better pliability of the shoe, for many, roadrunners are less likely to cause some muscles aches and pains.
For example, if you are a heavier runner, who likes a really “plush” feel to your shoes, and you plan to do a lot of long-distance running, a high level of cushioning would be ideal.
Similarly, if you’re prone to supination (underpronation), it could be because your shoe is too stable. A common sign to look for is if you tend to wear down the treads on the outer sides of your shoes first. Supination is a common cause of problems like shin splints.
If this is the case, you need a more neutral shoe that will encourage natural movement, allowing the full foot to absorb the shock of landing. Because trail running shoes are designed to have additional stability, you may find it easier to find a reliable, comfortable pair of road running shoes than trail running shoes.
The lightweight construction is good for speed
The lighter your running shoes are, the faster you can run – at least, theoretically. There are other factors at work too, but the bottom line is that additional weight in your shoe causes drag, which means your body has to work harder to move, and that can slow you down.
The lighter material used for road running shoes is better for speed. You can get road running shoes that are especially lightweight, although these shoes will need to be replaced more frequently. This is especially true if you do a lot of racing or even if you plan to run marathons.
Can be worn for everyday use
Road running shoes are much better suited for everyday use. These sneakers can be worn to the grocery store, on your walk to work, or at the gym. You could even occasionally get away with exploring a wooded area in your road running shoes without any real issues.
While it’s not ideal to be using your running shoes for everything because they won’t last as long, you can do it without hurting your feet. And if you’re an active person who’s always on the go, there’s a real benefit to having footwear that is versatile and comfortable.
As an added bonus, from a purely stylistic perspective, you might prefer the aesthetic of a road running shoe for everyday use. Trail running shoes are more rugged and their overall look reflects that.
Road running shoes are versatile
Road running shoes are undeniably more versatile. These are shoes that are meant for running on pavement or other hard man-made surfaces, which is a component of many sports; however, they can very easily be worn in other situations as well.
There are lots of recreational activities that require athletic footwear, and road running shoes are sufficient for most of them. Yes, if you belong to a serious basketball team, you’ll want basketball shoes. But if you just play casually a few times a year, road running shoes will be fine.
Going to the gym to lift weights, or cycling through the city: these are activities that require flexible shoes.
What’s more, wearing your road running shoes to play tennis or to walk your dog in the park isn’t going to hurt them any more than pure running would. Trail running shoes are less comfortable for these kinds of activities, and using them in these ways can actually damage the lugs, making them less useful as trail runners.
More comfortable for running on flat surfaces
Both road running shoes and trail running shoes are designed to be comfortable while running. What may surprise you, however, is how uncomfortable some trail running shoes can be when running on flat surfaces.
Trail running shoes that were designed for really rugged terrains tend to have deep lugs. These rubber bumps not only will wear down prematurely on pavement, but also you’ll feel them when running. Trail running shoes don’t absorb shock the same way either, and the soles are more rigid, which can make for an unpleasant running experience
Additional cushioning options
Road running shoes have more options for cushioning, which is good for shock absorption. Cushioning not only makes for a more comfortable run but also can reduce the stress of impacts on one’s feet, muscles, and joints.
How much cushioning you need really depends on personal preference and needs, but generally speaking, there are more options for levels of cushioning with road running shoes. You can even get the heavily cushioned shoes for a spongey, plush run.
Despite the versatility of road running shoes, there are some downsides.
Less stability for uneven terrain
Road running shoes don’t offer the same stability because they’re so flexible. Stability is really useful for off-road running in particular because of the likelihood of encountering obstacles and slopes.
The looser structure on road running shoes increases the strain on your joints and muscles when compensating for uneven landings. The stiffness of trail running shoes encourages good foot posture in off-road scenarios.
More likely to get injured running off-road
Road running shoes offer very little protection for running off-road. Wearing them on trails means an increased chance of injury on rocky or otherwise rugged paths. Sticks, rocks, or other debris can potentially pierce the shoes and even injure the foot. Similarly, the lack of stability can result in landing injuries like a rolled ankle or muscle strain.
Will deteriorate quicker when running on trails
Road shoes are more susceptible to damage when running off-road. The material is more likely to rip, while sharp materials can pierce and damage the outsole. Mud, sand, and dirt are abrasive, and lightweight road running shoes in particular are not suited for demanding conditions.
Reduced traction in outdoor environments
The outsoles on road shoes have been optimized for hard, flat surfaces. As a result, the treads are designed to grip even man-made ground, and not soft, natural environments. Road running shoe treads are not as effective as trail shoe lugs at gripping soft surfaces. This can make steep muddy paths difficult or even near-impossible to climb. The lack of grip also reduces maneuverability and increases the chance of falls.
Do You Really Need Trail Running Shoes?
If you regularly run on trails, then your regular running shoes just aren’t going to cut it.
Depending on your expectations and purposes, you may benefit more from buying a good pair of road running shoes and a pair of hiking boots. Hiking boots are not appropriate for running in, as they’re too heavy and stiff, but they are better for walking in the most demanding outdoor environments.
If you expect to do a lot of running on pavement, you’ll need road running shoes since the lugs on trail running shoes will wear quickly on hard, man-made surfaces. Hiking boots will last significantly longer for those occasional hikes through the woods and offer benefits like improved ankle support and more protection from the cold.
On the other hand, if you regularly go running on dirt roads or maintained trails, it makes more sense to invest in a pair of trail running shoes for that specific purpose.
While it might seem expensive or excessive to buy multiple pairs of running shoes for concurrent use, it will actually save you money because each pair will last longer.
The Bottom Line on Trail vs Road Running Shoes
To get the best value out of your shoes, make sure you’re running in the environments they were designed for: road runners will deteriorate faster on rugged terrain, while the outsoles of trail runners will be worn-down quickly on pavement and cement.