What is the difference between trail running shoes and road running shoes? We take a look at the key differences in our latest article. 

In this article, we examine the following: 

  • The benefits of trail running, road running, and hybrid running shoes 
  • The key differences in appearance of road and trail running shoes
  • The materials used in both trail and running shoes

Running shoes are designed with specific features to cater to the different demands of each running environment. Here are some key differences between trail running shoes and road running shoes:

Trail Running Shoes Benefits

  • Traction: Trail running shoes have aggressive outsoles with deep lugs to provide better traction on uneven and slippery surfaces like dirt, mud, rocks, and roots.
  • Protection: Trail shoes often have added features such as toe guards, rock plates, and reinforced uppers to protect the feet from obstacles encountered on trails.
  • Stability: Trail shoes are designed to provide stability on uneven terrain, with features like a more rugged and supportive outsole.
  • Water Resistance: Some trail running shoes come with water-resistant or waterproof materials to keep your feet dry in wet conditions.
  • Durability: The materials used in trail shoes are typically more durable to withstand the harsh conditions encountered on trails.

An example of a typical trail running shoe

HOKA TRAIL RUNNING SHOES

The popular Hoka Speedgoat 5 – available from Hoka

Road Running Shoes Benefits

  • Traction: Road running shoes have a smoother outsole designed for traction on paved surfaces like roads and sidewalks.
  • Cushioning: Road shoes often prioritize cushioning for shock absorption on hard surfaces, as road running tends to have more repetitive and impact-focused movements.
  • Weight: Road running shoes are generally lighter than trail shoes, as they don’t need as much protection or aggressive features for challenging terrains.
  • Flexibility: These shoes are designed to provide a smooth and flexible ride on even surfaces, allowing for efficient forward motion.
  • Breathability: Road shoes often have more breathable uppers since the road environment doesn’t pose as many challenges in terms of debris or water.

An example of a typical road running shoe

typical every day road running shoeNike Pegasus Zoom 41 – coming soon on pre-order 

Hybrid Shoes Benefits

There are those running shoes that can handle both trail and road conditions. They may incorporate a balance of features from both road and trail shoes to provide a more adaptable option for those who enjoy a variety of terrain.

When choosing between trail and road running shoes, consider the type of terrain you’ll be running on most frequently. If you run primarily on trails, opt for trail running shoes, while road running shoes are suitable for urban or well-paved surfaces. If you run on a mix of terrains, a hybrid or all-terrain shoe might be a good choice.

A shoe such as the Hoka Speedgoat 5 transfers well from road to trail and can handle a 50/50 split as we ourselves have discovered in recent runs. You can discover more in our full and frank Hoka Speedgoat 5 Review. 

How Are Road and Trail Shoes Different in Appearance?

Cleanliness

We aren’t joking. Hold up a trail running pair of shoes against a road running pair of shoes and you can tell which is which. Even after a good scrub, the trail shoes will tell a tale of muddy trails that road can’t quite live up to – even if you do accidentally stomp through a puddle in a pair of your favourite roads.

The Outsoles

The outsoles of trail running shoes look a lot beefier than a pair of road running shoes and nowhere near as slick – they have bigger lugs for clearing the mud away, a thicker outsole, a toe bumper, and just generally look like they mean business. It is a bit like putting a tractor tyre next to a van tyre. Road shoes tend to be a lot flatter – less grippy.

The Midsoles & Upper 

The midsoles of a trail shoe are also a lot firmer and more robust. You will probably find a pair of road running shoes to be made of quite a thin mesh – this wouldn’t hold up to much when on the trails. The lacing system will also look a lot more robust too with trail shoes often having elasticated lace systems to save them from coming undone and having to be re-tied once covered in mud.

Materials Used 

Trail shoes are made of a softer rubber than road running shoes which is why the answer to “Are my trail shoes suitable for the road” is usually no or why you shouldn’t always wear road shoes for running on trails. The rubber on trail shoes is made to deal with the softer ground in most instances – the wear a pair of road shoes gets from the tarmac of the roads means they wouldn’t last half as long if constructed from the same rubber as trail shoes.

In the case of waterproof trail running shoes, much of the time Gore-Tex is used in the uppers of trail shoes. Gore-Tex is a brand known for its waterproof and breathable fabric technology. Developed by W. L. Gore & Associates, Gore-Tex is widely used in various outdoor and performance-oriented products, including jackets, footwear, gloves, and other gear. The key feature of Gore-Tex fabric is its ability to provide durable waterproofing while allowing moisture vapour to escape, keeping the wearer dry and comfortable.

Summary

The key, and most relevant, difference is their intended purpose. Trail running shoes are designed to handle trails including mud, rocky paths, gravel, dirt tracks, grass, and general off-road conditions while road running shoes are designed to run on pavements. Now, we could get more granular and discuss the different types of trail running shoes and the different types of road running shoes but that’s a whole other subject.

The most important thing is that you get the right shoe that fits well, is comfortable, and is designed to offer the support you need for the type of running you do.