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Trail Running Shoes vs Running Shoes: Answers to Common Questions

You get ready to lace up your shoes and head out the door for today’s run. Where to go? There’s that beautiful paved path around the river. It’s nice and flat, and the smooth asphalt means you can get lost in your playlist or other thoughts and cruise through the miles as a gentle breeze comes in off the water.

Then again, there’s that patch of woods on the other side of the park, with that wonderful trail that winds through the big boulders, along the creek and past the waterfall. Sure, the singletrack trail has roots and rocks you need to watch out for, but the scenery is wonderful and you like the solitude of the trail. Which running route should you choose? Well, which pair of shoes did you reach for?

Ensuring a great run can start with buying the right pair of shoes. However, a quick think about the differences between that smooth, even stretch of blacktop and that bumpy, lumpy up-and-down trail will key you into an obvious truth: road shoes versus trail shoes makes all the difference in how your run will feel.

Unfamiliar with the big differences between running shoes for the on-road set and the off-road set? Let’s discuss.

Misconception Explained

Running shoes are running shoes, right? Why would you need something different for a trail than you would for a running path, sidewalk, or road? To some degree, there is some truth that trail shoes are the same as road running shoes, as they are designed for runners who are serious about the sport, account for stride patterns, cushioning preferences, drop heights, and more. However, there are also significant differences.

Any misconceptions are probably due to how loosely we use the term “running shoes.” Many people use “running shoes” to refer to road running shoes, which then makes other shoes not necessarily footwear for running. Such a belief is incorrect.

Trail Shoes vs. Road Shoes

Let’s get one bit of vocabulary out of the way: “trails” are not paved. They may be single track or double track, flat or hilly, smooth or rocky, muddy, dry, or grassy. Whatever the type of trail, they all share one trait: a natural running surface. And that calls for trail-specific shoes. Paved paths, packed gravel routes, roads and sidewalks all can be handled with standard road shoes. Let’s take a look at why this is so.

Support

Trail running footwear, as its name suggests, is designed for tough, rugged, rocky and natural surfaces. This kind of shoe is made from sturdier, heavier, more durable materials than everyday running shoes to accommodate the rigorous terrain.

Running over uneven surfaces is no easy task. It requires more support and protection for the runner than what plain running shoes can provide. This is why trail running shoes are designed to provide beefed-up torsional support on the sides, since ankles and feet are actively adjusting, step-by-individual-step, as the surface undulates underfoot. Maintaining balance is substantially more difficult in trail running, and the shoes take that into account. Trail shoes also offer additional support and protection for the underfoot, since the terrain can be either rugged or rocky.

Outsole

The outsoles of the two styles is another significant difference. The outsole of trail shoes is typically heavier than road running shoes, and usually sports a deeper tread pattern. A typical trail run can take a runner over grass, through mud, up and down bare rock surfaces, in and out of stream beds, and more, so a trail shoe needs to be able to handle a variety of wet and dry conditions, not mention grippy, sloppy, rocky, and slippery surfaces one right after another. Add to this the occasional extreme gradient, uphill or downhill, and you can understand why trail runners are willing to kick around a bit more weight in exchange for heavy-duty outsoles.

Road shoes, on the other hand, generally focus on being fast, and that means minimizing friction with the ground. While road shoes are still designed with safety and grip in mind, the surface does not demand the extreme designs that off-road runners need. Therefore, road shoes can focus on being significantly lighter and faster.

Made More for Speed

Road shoes are designed for smooth surface and are lighter than their trail counterparts. The lightness of this footwear makes it easy for runners to run across flat surfaces, which also explains why their outsoles do not have the deep traction that trail shoes have. Road shoes do not have as many reinforcements, either. The upper mesh of road running shoes is mainly made from mesh, which makes it more breathable. That comes at a cost, though: this material can also be fragile. Many a road runner can tell you tales about taking a new pair of road shoes for just a quick off-road jaunt, misstepping on a rock, and scraping a gash into the side of their mesh-knit road upper.

Trail shoes take this into account, and again build durability in at the expense of weight.

We don’t mean to portray road shoes as flimsy or overly delicate; keep in mind that road shoes still provide adequate support for runners, despite being light and breathable.

Frequently Asked Questions

Those new to the world of running have many questions about the right footwear to buy particularly in the battle between trail running shoes vs running shoes. Let’s get some FAQs straight:

Can I Use Road Running Shoes for Trail?

There is no straight answer whether one can use road running shoes when running on trails. It depends on a variety of factors. For example, asking how much distance a runner runs off-road on a regular basis is a good way of answering the question. If you find yourself on trails weekly, then it is better to invest in trail running shoes.

It is also advisable to determine the kind of surface the runner intends to work on frequently. If one plans to run mostly on smooth and even ground, whether that is a paved path or a smooth trail in the woods, then plain running footwear will work. Purchasing road running shoes is advisable for those who intend to do some regular fast running. Trail shoes are called for when the terrain turns technical.

Can I Use Trail Shoes for Road Running?

Sure. You could. But you don’t want to.

Unfortunately, trail shoes can be quite pricey–more expensive than road shoes–because of the intricate design and durable materials used. They end up being heavier, which will slow you down on the road. And if you are used to the light-and-fast feel of road shoes, you will very quickly notice how “grippy” trail shoes feel on pavement. The difference in traction and friction can be shocking the first time you feel it.

And then there is the issue of wearing out your tread. For all their durability, the aggressive tread patterns on trail shoes will wear much more quickly on pavement and concrete sidewalks than they would on the natural surfaces they are made for. All the benefits trail shoes bring to off-road running turn into detriments for on-road running.

Speedsters and pavement-based mileage monsters are better off using their road shoes. Keep in mind that road shoes are lighter and more breathable than trail shoes, which makes them the better pair for on-road running.

What Should I Look for in Trail Shoes?

There are some considerations to look for when choosing a pair of trail running shoes.

First, look at the tread. Keep in mind that one has to match the cleats or lugs of the outsole with their running pattern. If the runner intends to run on a trail with packed dirt, then it is better to look for trail shoes with around 2 – 4mm lugs that are also spaced closely.

On the other hand, if one intends to use the shoes for rocky terrain, then choose a pair with deep lugs.  6 – 7 mm is not out of the question for the most effective traction.

A rock plate is another consideration. This is a firm piece of material, between the midsole and outsole, that protects the bottom of the foot from sharp trail hazards such as rocks and roots. Some trail shoes have this feature, which comes in handy when one intends to traverse gravel, technical or rocky trails. Others leave it out with the idea that the combination of aggressive tread patterns and robust cushioning will protect your feet well enough.

Speaking of which, trail running shoes offer varied cushioning. Those who intend to run on hard, packed trails for long distances, as well as those suffering from joint or knee pain, might opt for trail shoes with more cushioning.

Choosing the Right Pair

Arguably, one cannot run well or hit peak performance without the right pair of running shoes. Using the appropriate footwear can make or break a runner, after all.

Those who intend to run big miles mostly on the road or smooth surfaces are better off buying a pair of standard running shoes. This kind of footwear is light and breathable, fast and efficient, which allows the athlete to run comfortably without the unnecessary weight on the foot.

On the other hand, those who intend to dive into the woods and mountains for runs on rough, rocky and unsteady trails are better off with trail shoes, which provide additional support for the feet and traction for easy navigation of difficult surfaces.

The Wired Runner