Trail Running Shoes vs Road Shoes

Trail Running Shoes vs Road Shoes

In no secret that I’ve gotten more into trail running lately. Even before moving, one of the common questions is trail running shoes vs. road shoes.

What is the difference?

Do you need both?

Trail Running Shoes vs Road Shoes

I’ve written about the need for different shoes in my ebook, but different shoes are made for different things. For example, a racing shoe has less support and is made for racing. If you train in a racing shoe, you could end up injured.

Road running shoes are generally best for pavement. A road running shoe won’t have the same traction a trail shoe has. Trail shoes are generally stiffer with more traction and even protection from rocks and debris.

One quick thing to keep in mind between trail running shoes vs. road running: You can use road shoes on the trails, but you shouldn’t use trail shoes on the roads. (more on that later).

Do You Really Need a Trail Shoe?

While it won’t hurt to have a trail shoe, you can get away using a road shoe on the trails if you aren’t running consistently on the trails. If the trails are easy, grassy, and well-groomed, a trail shoe should be fine.

What Kind of Trails Can Road Running Shoes Handle?

  • Easy, hard-packed trails
  • Wider, less technical trails
  • Grassy fields
  • (Usually) Rails to trails

When Should You Invest in a Trail Shoe?

When you find yourself running on trails consistently it might be time to invest. Trail shoes will protect your feet on a variety of surfaces, and in ways that a road running shoe won’t, like against jagged rocks or wet trails.

The more technical or uneven the trail, the better of an idea it is to get a trail running shoe. If you find yourself constantly sliding on trails, rocks shooting through your shoes, or mud seeping in on through the mesh upper, it might be time to invest in a trail shoe.

First, Why Can’t You Use Trail Shoes on the Roads?

If trail shoes are “so good,” why can’t you use trail shoes on the road? Using trail shoes on the road, concrete or pavement wears down the rubber on the shoe’s outsole. Because they are made for softer surfaces, trail shoes will wear out much faster on roads.

Just as important, most road shoes have more cushion than a trail shoe.  If you run on the pavement in trail shoes, you might find your body hurting more. Using a trail shoe on manmade surfaces, including the treadmill, can lead to injuries like shin splints or knee pain.

Differences Between Trail Running Shoes Vs. Road Shoes:

Trail Shoes:

  • Stiffer & more Rigid
  • Increased durability for rocky and harsh terrain
  • Built to withstand sharp rocks or jagged roots.
  • Better traction due to stickier rubber on the outsole
  • Additional features such as a rock plate or even waterproofing.

Road Shoes:

  • Generally lighter and more flexible
  • Increased durability for manmade surfaces like pavement
  • Typically softer with more cushion
  • More breathable mesh upper
  • More options with support level and cushion

Trail Running Shoes vs Road Shoes

What Makes Trail Shoes Better for Trails?

  • Trail Shoes Have Better Traction.  How?  Most trail shoes have a stickier rubber, which improves the grip on wet surfaces.
  • Deeper Lugs: Lugs help you keep in contact with the ground. When running shoe lugs are worn out like a tire, you’ll slide all over the place. It makes sense for trail shoes to have deeper lugs to keep traction on the trails.
  • Increased Protection: When running on trails, you might find yourself running on jagged rockets. Trail shoes typically have protected overlays to prevent rocks from coming through and a thicker outsole so that rocks won’t come through the bottom.
  • Rock Plate: Most trail shoes (but not all) have a rock plate. Rock plates are typically a thin piece of plastic that blocks rocks from coming through the entire shoe.
Hoka Torrent 2 Shoe Review
You can see the deeper lugs on the Hoka Torrent 2

How Should a Trail Shoe Fit and Feel?


That is the number one rule of any shoe. Don’t ask your friend what “their favorite trail shoe is” because we all have different feet. It’s best to try shoes on to see what feels the best for you. You always want extra room in the toebox but a secure heel. Trail shoes should fit similarly to your road shoes. In fact, many brands make a trail version of their road shoe.

Finally, my biggest piece of advice for any running shoe: You don’t need to break them in. If they don’t feel comfortable in the store, they won’t ever feel comfortable.

By using your shoes for the correct purpose, they’ll last longer. Your riad shoes will last longer, and your trail shoes will last longer. It might seem counterintuitive to buy more shoes, but you’ll get more mileage out of both.

Interested to learn more about running shoes? You can learn more from Running Shoe Guide.

Questions for you:

Do you use a separate trail shoe?

What is your current favorite running shoe?