Trail Running Shoes vs. Road Running Shoes: Your Questions Answered

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One of the best things about running is that you can go just about anywhere. You can run on the roads around your neighborhood. You can run on nearby trails. You can run on a track or a treadmill at home.

While this does make it easy to run any time and anywhere, you’ll want a different type of shoe for road and trail to run comfortably. Which leads us to what the difference is between trail running shoes vs. road running shoes—how do you know which ones you should use?

Here’s everything we know about the two types of shoes. Learning the key difference will help you choose the one that’s right for you based on your runs and goals.

What’s the Difference Between Road and Trail Running Shoes?

While road shoes are what you’ll find most of at your nearest running shoe store, you’ll also find plenty of trail shoes. Here are the biggest differences between the two types of shoes.

Upper

Road running shoes often feature a light, breathable upper that’s soft and allows for great airflow around your feet to keep them cool and help regulate sweat.

Trail running shoes usually have a stiffer, more closely-knitted course upper that may sacrifice breathability for protection and durability.

While some road running shoes have overlays for added support, they’re more prominent on trail shoes and might be stiffer. There’s also usually a more robust toe guard on a trail running shoe.

Trail shoes usually have a much more densely woven upper, often allowing for a gaiter attachment to stop trail debris from getting into the shoe and causing discomfort.

Some also have a waterproof membrane, which stiffens the upper but protects your feet from water. Road shoes may have bigger perforations, as there’s not much debris on the road!

Midsole

The midsole sits between the insole and the outsole, where the shoe’s cushioning comes from. As you can imagine, it’s an important part of the shoe, but it differs slightly between trail running shoes and road running shoes.

Trail shoes usually have a stiffer midsole. This is partly to add more support on uneven, hard ground but is often a result of a built-in rock plate. This hard, flexible layer of plastic or carbon fiber protects against sharp rocks and roots.

Road running shoes are slightly more flexible but range from stiff to quite flexible. You won’t find a rock plate in a road running shoe.

Road and trail running shoes are available in a zero-drop to a 12 mm drop. Whether running over rugged terrain or on a softer surface, you should stick to the same heel-toe drop you’re comfortable with.

The same goes for cushioning. You can also find max-cushioned and minimal shoes in road and trail shoes. In some cases, road running shoes have exposed midsole foam on the outsole, making them less durable.

Outsole

The outsole is one of the most noticeable differences between the two shoes. You can immediately tell a trail running shoes by its chunky lugs, designed to bite into the ground and keep you more stable on slippery or loose terrain.

They usually use a more sticky, tactile rubber than road running shoes to grip smooth surfaces like rocks.

Road running shoes have a much smoother outsole without serious lugs. The soles are flatter and less sticky, because they don’t deal with such rocky terrain.

When to Wear Trail Running Shoes

If the surface you run on is rocky, muddy, loose, or uneven, a trail running shoe is probably a good idea. They’re designed to keep your feet stable on those kinds of surfaces.

As for when not to wear them, avoid using trail running shoes on tracks, as they can cause damage to the surface. Hard surfaces like asphalt can cause the lugs to wear away faster, especially in hot weather.

Benefits of Trail Running Shoes

Wearing a trail-specific running shoe offers much more stability on rough, uneven terrain. You’ll run more freely on the ground without instability or slipping.

The stiffness of the midsole provides extra sturdiness and stability. A rock plate will provide excellent protection against potential hazards underfoot. Nothing ruins a good run like a bruised arch!

If you’re running in wet weather, trail shoes also provide better protection and keep your feet drier. Even those without a waterproof lining will let in less than road shoes.

When to Wear Road Running Shoes

On the road! You can also wear a pair of road running shoes on a track, on grass, or on very light sandy terrain. Any terrain that doesn’t require lugs to grip to the ground to keep you safe.

It’s best not to wear a road running shoe on rough ground, as they don’t provide enough grip to keep you safe and stable on your feet.

Benefits of Road Running Shoes

One of the biggest benefits of road running shoes is their breathability. On warm days, your feet have much less chance of overheating, thanks to the great airflow through the upper.

They’re less chunky underneath, so you can easily wear them casually without looking like you got lost during a run. However, we highly recommend having separate shoes for running and casual wear, otherwise, your running shoes will wear out a lot faster!

How to Choose the Right Shoe for You

The first step to choosing the right shoe is to nail down where you want to run. A road running shoe will likely be best if you want to run on the road or other smooth, even surfaces.

On the other hand, if you want to run on uneven ground, hiking trails, or in very muddy places, then trail shoes are a better bet.

Some runners may want to do both road and trail running. In this case, we highly recommend getting one pair of dedicated road running shoes and one pair of dedicated trail running shoes.

As tempting as it is, we advise against choosing one or the other for the wrong activity even if they look and feel good. Running shoes are carefully crafted to provide the best of both comfort and protection on the surface on which they’re designed for.

Whichever shoe you go for, the process of choosing the right one for you is the same.

  • Get the right shoe for your gait.
  • Make sure they fit correctly—from heel to toe box.
  • Choose a heel-to-toe drop you’re comfortable with.
  • Select the amount of cushioning that feels right to you.
  • Choose something well-made and durable.

Can I Use a Trail Running Shoe for Road Running?

You can, but it’s not advisable. Roads will likely wear the lugs away faster, so when you get back on a trail with the same shoes, they may not grip as effectively.

We only really recommend wearing trail running shoes on the road in rainy or snowy conditions. When there’s a lot of snow on the ground, the trail shoe lugs can provide a much easier grip as they bite into it to help you move more easily.

In the rain, the stickier rubber should provide better traction in slippery surfaces. They’re also often water-resistant than road shoes, which can be a big bonus.

Can I Use Road Running Shoes for Trail?

Again, you can if you want to. But they won’t provide the protection and stability that a trail running shoe would, which could put you at a big disadvantage on the trail.

Road running shoes won’t provide much grip on the rough ground of a trail. You may be able to get away with them on very flat, easy trails, but it still poses a slight risk.

They’re also much more breathable than trail running shoes, which might seem like a pro on the trail… But those sizable perforations can let debris into the shoe and water if you’re on a wet trail.

Can I Wear Trail Running Shoes on a Treadmill?

Yes! A treadmill is a smooth surface, but the rubber of the belt won’t do a lot of damage to the lugs under your trail running shoes.

The surface is smooth and predictable, and trail running shoes may provide additional stability for your feet while on the treadmill.

Is It OK to Walk in Trail Running Shoes?

You can walk in trail running shoes. If you’re hiking on a non-technical trail, trail running shoes can be a great choice rather than hiking boots.

You can also walk on the road, although it will cause your trail outsole to wear out faster. Not as fast as if you run, though, and you’ll be able to control your own feet better than you would go at a bit of speed on the road with big lugs.

Are Trail Running Shoes Good for Cross Country?

Trail running shoes are a great choice for running cross-country. By their very nature, they’re more suited to the terrain than road running shoes, and will provide extra grip on potentially rough ground.

Choosing running shoes may work, but it can get dicey if the ground is wet, muddy, or rocky. Trail running shoes are a better bet than road shoes in this case—you may find that your performance improves noticeably when you switch.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.