Road Running Vs Trail Running Shoes: An Expert Guide

If you are going to be doing any kind of running workout, you want to make sure that you have the right footwear to support your feet, provide adequate cushioning, and give you reliable traction.

But, how do you know if you should buy road running vs trail running shoes for your upcoming activities? 

Furthermore, what are trail running shoes? What are road running shoes? What are the main differences between trail vs road running shoes? Are there benefits of wearing road running shoes vs trail running shoes?

In this article, we will look at the characteristics of road running vs trail running shoes and then compare the features and main differences between the two to help you decide which ones will work best for you.

We will cover the following: 

  • Can I Use Trail Running Shoes On The Road?
  • What Are the Primary Differences Between Road Running vs Trail Running Shoes

Let’s jump in! 

A close up of trail running shoes.

Can I Use Trail Running Shoes On The Road?

Before we take a closer look at the differences between road shoes vs trail running shoes, it’s worth addressing one of the most common questions regarding trail running shoes vs regular running shoes, which is: “Can I wear trail running shoes on the road?”

Ultimately, the short answer is yes, you can wear trail running shoes on the road.

What about the converse: “Can I wear regular running shoes or road running shoes for trail running?”

Here again, the answer is yes; you can wear regular running shoes for trail running.

However, in both cases—wearing trail running shoes while running on the road or wearing regular running shoes for trail running— are not ideal footwear choices.

There are different features and characteristics of trail running vs road running shoes, so it is generally advisable to wear trail running shoes for trail running and regular running shoes for running on the road or treadmill.

A close up of trail running shoes.

Wearing trail running shoes for road running will cause the lugs or treads on the bottom of the outsole of the shoe to wear out prematurely.

The same can be said for wearing trail running shoes on the treadmill.

Hard surfaces like asphalt, concrete, and a treadmill belt will grind down the traction pattern on the bottom of the trail shoes, especially if you are running on hot asphalt that has been absorbing heat from the sun. 

Similarly, the treadmill belt will heat up as it runs, causing heat and friction to degrade the outsole of the trail running shoes further rapidly.

It’s also not advisable to wear trail running shoes on a track. Most high-quality running tracks have a textured surface.

This can cause incompatibilities and uncomfortable enmeshing between the lug pattern on a trail running shoe and the bumpiness of a track, and it can potentially damage either surface.

A close up of road running shoes.

What Are the Primary Differences Between Road Running vs Trail Running Shoes

So what are trail running shoes, and what are road running shoes and their differences? Let’s take a more detailed look at these features of trail vs road running shoes.

Road Running vs Trail Running Shoes: Uppers Materials and Function

There are some differences in the materials and feel of the uppers of road running vs trail running shoes.

Although there are exceptions with certain models of each type of running shoe, road running shoes generally have a more lightweight, breathable, synthetic mesh upper that is soft and promotes airflow to keep your feet cool.

Trail running shoes generally have a stiffer upper with more overlays to provide some amount of support and protection for the top of your foot in case gravel, trail debris, or loose rocks get kicked up and fall on the top of your foot. 

A close up of trail running shoes.

To this end, trail running shoes often have a more prominent toe guard, which is an extra layer of material, often leather or thicker synthetic material, that wraps around the end of the shoe by the toe box to help protect the tips of your toes from ramming into obstacles on the trail. 

This also improves the durability when comparing wearing a trail running shoe vs road running shoe on trails.

The mesh pattern on trail vs regular running shoes is much tighter, reducing airflow and breathability. 

Some trail running shoes even have a Gore-Tex coating, which provides waterproof protection for running on wet trails or in the rain. 

While this will help keep your feet dry, the Gore-Tex layer will add significant weight and will compromise breathability when comparing a trail running vs road running shoe. 

Some trail shoes also have a gaiter around the top of the shoe by your ankle and a different shape for the tongue of the shoe to help keep trail debris out while running off-road.

A close up of road running shoes.

Road Running vs Trail Running Shoes: Midsoles Materials and Function

There is a wide range in the thickness and materials used in the midsoles of regular road running shoes and trail running shoes, so it is a little difficult to make universal comparisons of all of the midsoles.

However, in many cases, trail shoes have a stiffer midsole to provide more support and protect the foot against unnecessary flexing, poking, and prodding from rocks and other uneven surfaces on the trail. 

Some premium trail running shoes even have a built-in rock plate, which is a hard, flexible layer of special plastic or carbon fiber that will protect the bottom of your foot from jutting roots or sharp rocks.

Road running shoes do not have a rock plate built into the midsole.

A close up of road running shoes.

Road Running vs Trail Running Shoes: Outsoles Materials and Function

The biggest structural and functional difference between road running shoes vs trail running shoes can be found in the outsole, which refers to the bottommost portion of the shoe that contacts the ground when you run.

When you flip over a regular running shoe designed for the roads and a trail running shoe, you will notice that the lugs, or traction pattern, on a trail running shoe, are much more aggressive with larger convex rubber grippy lugs and concave grooves versus a smoother surface on the bottom of a regular running shoe.

This is not to say that road running shoes do not have any traction or grooves on the outsole, but the aggressiveness or differential in the deepness of the grooves versus lugs is much less substantial.

The purpose of the chunky lugs on the bottom of a trail running shoe is to aid in traction on loose terrain or slick trail surfaces.

The durometer of the lugs on trail running shoes will be firmer to enhance durability and traction and to help grip smooth surfaces like rocks.

A close up of trail running shoes.

Road running shoes have a smoother and less tacky or sticky feel to the tread pattern on the bottom because a hard asphalt or concrete surface does not require as much anti-slip protection. Moreover, the hard surfaces would cause lugs to break down more rapidly.

Therefore, the durability of the outsole of a running shoe is enhanced by having a smoother outsole with greater surface area contacting the ground at all times rather than isolated lugs that jut out of the shoe.

Overall, it is best to wear trail shoes for trail running and regular road running shoes for running on the road, treadmill, or track.

Wearing a trail running shoe on the roads, treadmill, or track will cause premature breakdown of the shoe. 

Plus, the breathability of the shoe will be compromised, potentially causing your feet to get hot and sweaty, which may increase the risk of blisters. Trail running shoes are also generally heavier, which can reduce running economy and performance.

A close up of track running shoes.

Similarly, wearing regular road running shoes on trails or off-road surfaces can compromise your stability and increase the risk of slipping and falling. 

Road running shoes do not have a built-in rock plate or robust toe guard, which can cause foot injuries. Most road shoes are also not waterproof, and they lack a gaiter, both of which will compromise your comfort and can cause blisters or sores on your feet while running.

However, if you are only occasionally running on the trails or doing a run that is primarily on the roads with a small section of trail or grass, wearing a regular running shoe should suffice. 

To that end, if you are running from your home to a trailhead and have to run some on the roads in order to get to the trails, you can wear a trail running shoe for the entire journey rather than needing to switch your footwear and carry an extra pair of shoes.

To check out some of our recommendations for the best trail running shoes, check out our ultra running shoe buyer’s guide here.

Trail runners.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

1 thought on “Road Running Vs Trail Running Shoes: An Expert Guide”

  1. The big difference for me is the low to no drop from heel to toe in “proper” trail shoes reduction greatly reducing ankle or foot rolling incidents. Another useful feature is actually letting water out through the mesh after running through deeper water. “Waterproof” shoes full of water are not optimal.

    Reply

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