Trail Running Shoes vs. Road Running Shoes

Hunter Hall of Fleet Feet Nashville gives the skinny on when and why you need trail running shoes


A runner’s shoe closet is like a golf bag. Different shoes are better suited for certain types of runs like golf clubs are used for different shots. One of the most essential tools in every runner’s shoe closet should be a pair of reliable trail running shoes.

Why you should use trail shoes

While your road running shoes might be able to handle some wide, soft surface paths made out of crushed gravel, dirt or mulch, trail running shoes should be utilized where road shoes won’t be able to function properly or might hinder your ability to navigate difficult terrain. They protect your feet, allow you to run smoothly over varied surfaces and stand up to the abuses that you’ll put them through over a season of hard trail running.

When to use trail running shoes

Trail running shoes should be used year round on the trails, and are especially helpful on steep inclines, technical terrain, or when trails are wet, muddy or snow-covered.

Where to use trail shoes

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.

Where NOT to use trail shoes

Try to avoid trail running shoes when running on hard surfaces (like concrete or asphalt). The stiffness of the midsole and tread on the outsole tends to be uncomfortable on hard surfaces and can even cause pain on the bottom of the foot.


Trail shoes have some key differences from road shoes that make them more suitable for handling difficult off-road miles. What are they?


Traction

Trail shoes are made with sturdier rubber and cleat-like lugs to grip the ground beneath your feet when traversing muddy or rocky surfaces. Trail running shoes make tight turns easier to navigate and help you feel more sure-footed than you would in a pair of road running shoes.

Protection

Sharp rocks, roots and foliage can wreak havoc on your feet and lower legs. Trail-specific shoes include protective overlays in the upper to prevent pokes, rips and tears. Many trail running models come with ankle gaiter attachments. Ankle gaiters that attach to the shoe’s upper prevent trail debris from ending up inside your shoes and are particularly useful when running on overgrown or muddy trails. Certain trail shoes incorporate a rock plate (a thin piece of plastic or carbon fiber under the foot that blocks sharp rocks from penetrating the bottom of the shoe). If your local trails are rocky, consider wearing shoes with this feature.

Fit

Expect trail running shoes to feel a tad bit different than road running shoes when you try them on for the first time. 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.

Durability

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 specially made to stand up to the obstacles expected while off roading. In short: You’ll get more wear and need fewer replacement shoes if you choose the right running shoe for the job.

Upper

Trail shoes often have a more durable and protective upper built when compared to road shoes.

Midsole

Cushioning in road running shoes tends to be softer to decrease the impact from miles upon miles on concrete and asphalt. Trail running shoes are often slightly more stiff to protect and hold their shape when landing on uneven surfaces. Trail running shoes will usually include a rigid rock plate in the midsole made of plastic or carbon fiber to protect the bottom of the foot from objects on the trail like rocks and sticks.

Outsole

The outsole is where you’ll find the most significant differences between road running and trail running shoes. Solid rubber with protruding lugs is common in trail running shoes to increase durability and traction. Road running shoes, on the other hand, are made with a lighter weight blown rubber and many models have exposed EVA foam to cut down on weight.


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


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