Trail Running Shoes vs. Road Running Shoes

Runners run through the woods wearing trail running shoes.

A runner’s shoe closet is like a golf bag. Different shoes are better suited for different types of runs, just like different golf clubs are used for different shots.

The typical lineup looks something like this:

  • A versatile everyday trainer for most of your runs
  • A pair of lightweight race shoes for race day
  • A set of trail running shoes for when you go off road

But, like you wouldn't use your putter to chip out of a sand trap, you wouldn't lace up you race shoes to tackle a trail run, either.

In this guide, we'll teach you the key differences between trail running shoes and road running shoes, when you should use each type and why they're well-suited for their specific jobs.

Why Should You Use Trail Running Shoes?

A woman runs through the woods wearing trail running shoes.

While your road running shoes might be able to handle some easy, hard-packed trails, trail running shoes should be used when the going gets wilder—they are especially helpful on steep inclines, technical terrain, or when trails are wet, muddy or covered in snow.

Trail shoes protect your feet in ways that road running shoes don't, and they allow you to run smoothly over varied surfaces. Plus, they stand up to the abuses you’ll put them through during hard trail runs.

The more challenging and uneven the trail, the more aggressive of a trail running shoe you need. A simple, easy-to-follow guide: If you’re on singletrack (only wide enough for one person to run) or you have to look down at the trail to find solid footing, you should probably be running in trail running shoes.

When NOT to Use Trail Running Shoes

Try to avoid trail running shoes when running on manmade surfaces, like concrete or asphalt. The abrasive pavement can wear down the rubber lugs on the shoe's outsole, which can compromise your grip when you switch back to off-roading.

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

Two women run on a tree lined trail.

Trail running shoes are built to withstand the toughness of off-road running where sharp rocks, jagged roots and gritty dirt are prevalent. The general differences between road running shoes and trail running shoes are:

Trail Running Shoes

Road Running Shoes

• Stickier rubber and/or outsole lugs for improved traction on dirt and soft surfaces

• Smooth, blown rubber outsole for good grip on pavement

• Added rock plate for protection against jagged rocks and roots

• No rock plate

• Increased durability features to handle rough terrain

• Durable, but generally fewer additions in order to keep weight down

• Stiffer

• More flexible

Here's what you need to know about each one and why you should keep your trail shoes on the trail and road shoes on the road.

A man wearing the Brooks Caldera 6 stands on a packed trail.

Trail Running Shoes Improve Traction

Trail shoes are designed for better traction when you're off road than your road running shoes. Companies improve grip in a few different ways.

Some shoes use stickier rubber to improve your grip on rocks, wet logs and other surface, while other shoes use different tread patterns to keep you on your feet. Many trail running shoes, though, have deeper rubber lugs on the outsole to dig into soft dirt and mud.

No matter what type of traction the shoe has, trail shoes make tight turns easier to navigate and help you feel more sure-footed than you would in a pair of road running shoes.

Trail Running Shoes Offer Increased Protection

Rocks and roots can wreak havoc on your feet and ruin your shoes, so trail shoes include protective overlays in the upper to prevent pokes and reduce the likelihood of rips and tears.

Certain trail shoes also incorporate a rock plate, which is a thin piece of plastic or carbon fiber sandwiched into the midsole to block sharp rocks from penetrating the bottom of the shoe. If your local trails are rocky, consider wearing shoes with this feature.

Look For a Comfortable Fit

Your trail running shoes should fit similarly to your road running shoes, meaning they should be comfortable without being sloppy.

A snug fit around the midfoot is essential for keeping your shoes in place over uneven terrain, while a wider forefoot allows your toes to splay out and grip the trail, especially when going up and down hills.

If a running shoe is uncomfortable when you try it on in a store, it will be uncomfortable when you run. Modern running shoes, whether road or trail, don't need a break-in period to fit well—they should work for you right out of the box.

Durability for the Unexpected

Your road running shoes were built to last a long time, but excess wear and tear from hitting the trails in your road shoes will drastically decrease their lifespan.

Trail running shoes are made to stand up to the obstacles expected while off roading. Added skins on the heel and toe protect the mesh upper from abrasion, and improved drainage let your shoes dry out quicker after you cross streams or splash through puddles.

In short: You’ll get more wear and need fewer replacement shoes if you choose the right running shoe for the job.

Article by Hunter Hall. Hall is the Marketing Manager at Fleet Feet Nashville and also a competitive runner.

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